Opponents of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic rallied in Belgrade to demand his ouster. The protests, triggered by a brutal assault on an opposition leader, have been escalating for months.
Thousands of protesters from across Serbia gathered in Belgrade for Saturday's large anti-government rally. A loose coalition of political parties, opposition movements, NGOs and public figures organized the event as the culmination of the months-long protests staged in Belgrade and other Serbian cities to pressure President Aleksandar Vucic to leave office.
The Serbian Interior Ministry estimated the crowd's size at up to 7,500 people, but organizers said the number was far higher.
The odds that Vucic will resign after being confronted by the protesters remain low. Although he has signaled that he is open to holding a fresh vote, his opponents say the gesture would prove meaningless should the government violate election norms and use intimidation and propaganda to win.
Authorities deployed riot police inside the parliament, saying they wanted to prevent the opposition storming the building
The demonstrations began in December, after a group of masked attackers brutally beat up leftist opposition leader Borko Stefanovic. Vucic then prompted outrage with his response to the event, telling the protesters to "march all you like, I would never fulfill a single demand of yours even if 5 million of you came out."
Since then, opponents of the government have held weekly protests under the slogan "One out of 5 million." The marches have grown to articulate widespread displeasure in one of the most impoverished countries in Europe. Among their grievances, protesters cite corruption, nepotism and incompetence, as well as the government's iron grip on the media.
The government's response
Though officials speak with harsh rhetoric, authorities have shown relative restraint when using force against the marchers. Protesters who had been detained were released relatively quickly. However, an array of pro-government newspapers and TV channels have lambasted protesters as "savages" who were planning to stage a coup and trigger a civil war.
The protesters have directed their anger at the public broadcasters RTS and RTV. They say the broadcasters provided only limited coverage of the protest marches while giving virtually unlimited airtime to President Vucic and government officials.
During a rally in March, a group of protesters broke into the RTS headquarters in Belgrade and demanded to read out their requests on air. They were led by former Belgrade Mayor Dragan Djilas and far-right opposition leader Bosko Obradovic. The RTS staff rejected their demand, and police eventually cleared out the building.
At a press conference the following day, Vucic slammed Djilas as a "tycoon" and Obradovic as a "fascist." While he was addressing the reporters, protesters surrounded the venue and tried to block off the exits. They eventually moved away, toward a police station where one of the demonstrators was being held. Subsequently, protest leaders announced a large meeting in Belgrade and demanded resignations of senior RTV and RTS editors.
Parallel to the protests, Vucic and his ally, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, launched a campaign dubbed "Future of Serbia" in which they tour Serbian cities and hold public rallies in front of their supporters. After the Saturday rally was announced, Vucic pledged to gather his supporters in Belgrade on April 19th, promising that his rally would be the biggest in decades.
Who is Vucic?
Vucic entered politics as the protege of the ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj and held the office of information minister under Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1990s. During his time in the Cabinet, Serbia passed a draconian law to clamp down on independent media outlets, which stayed in force during the Kosovo war and up to the ouster of Milosevic in 2000.
In 2008, Vucic broke off his links to Seselj. Four years later he entered the Cabinet again, with his new Serbian Progressive Party. He soon advanced from the post of defense minister and coordinator of intelligence agencies to prime minister in 2014.
By that time, Vucic had denounced extreme nationalism and pledged to lead Serbia into the European Union. He has also shown readiness to negotiate over Kosovo and comply with the International Monetary Fund's austerity demands, earning him support from EU countries. In 2017, he handpicked Ana Brnabic to succeed him as prime minister while he ran for president. He won the election with over 55 percent support. Though his current post gives him only limited formal authority, Vucic has managed to keep de facto control over the Cabinet and remain the dominant politician in Serbia.