More democracy and media freedom: these are the changes Serbians want to see in their country. A will that has pushed them to gather in the streets for more than six months now, putting apart their differences.
Weekly protests have been on-going for six months now in Serbia. Every Saturday evening, thousands of people gather in the streets to ask for political changes and a better media freedom. Mostly located in Belgrade, the protests movement has also spread to other major cities in the country.
Somewhere between popular activism and opposition agenda, those protests unite Serbians beyond differences. When people in the Balkans are usually divided because of ethnicity, religion or nation, the current protests movement push them to join forces for their goals: end with state control, corruption, poor media freedom and absence of rule of law.
“1 in 5 million”
The protests started on the 15thof December 2018, after an opposition politician, Borko Stefanovic, was beaten on November 23rd. Thirty-five thousand people marched in Belgrade to protest state violence and state media control, under the slogan “Stop the bloody shirts”.
Their current slogan “1 in 5 million” appeared after President Aleksandar Vučićsaid he wouldn’t meet any of the protestors demands, “even if there were 5 million people in the streets.”He later reconsidered his position, offering talks with the opposition and even snap elections. But people had already made the sentence their own and the expression spread in media around the world.
Every Saturday since then, people gather at 6pm in the centre of Belgrade, at the Students Square. Their walk leads them to all the important Serbian places of power, such as the presidency, the parliament or the public broadcaster buildings.
On Saturday 6th of April, they were already thousands marching in the streets of Belgrade to protest. Mirjana, in her thirties, is protesting with some of her colleagues from the post office, holding a big yellow banner. “I work for 300 euros a month,”she explains. “I want to change that.” Like them, many people are holding banners, placards, stickers, horns and whistles to show their discontent.
A few meters away, Stefan is marching with one of his friend. He also expresses his concerns: “There’s no future for young people in this country.” The young man recently graduated in a Master of International Relations, but he couldn’t find a job. “My ex-girlfriend left for Denmark to work”, he adds.
“We’re young people. Only the young can make a change now,”says Mihailo, while waving a Serbian flag.
Leaders change, state control remains
Since the 1990s, Serbia has been facing many difficulties in the political landscape. The rise of nationalism led to ethnic wars and the break-up of Yugoslavia. After thirteen years in power, former president Slobodan Milošević was overthrow by popular demonstrations on October 2000, after a presidential election. Followed years of transition where hopes were high to see some changes. But almost twenty years later, the situation is still the same. Current president Aleksandar Vučić, elected in April 2017, is described as an authoritarian populist and conservative. The leaders and political colour change, but the state control remains.
“Citizens are even tired of the opposition. There are no new faces, it’s always the same people in power,”says Zoran Sekulic, fundator and editor in chief of the news agency FoNet. Protesters are denouncing Vučić’s presidency, accusing him of corruption and of ruling the country as an autocrat. They ask for a reinforcement of the democratic rules, with a control of the election process and measures against corruption.
Political oppositions and people are also acting together to ask for media freedom. The situation is currently not good in Serbia, as the 2018 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index report, which underlined the “alarming number of attacks on journalists that have not been investigated, solved, or punished, and the aggressive smear campaigns that pro-government media orchestrate against investigative reporters.”
Towards a Balkans spring?
This union of people not only happen in Serbia. Since the beginning of 2019, several protests movement have sparkled in other cities, with similar revendications and a same sense of unity and gathering together.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the death of a student after alleged police brutality raised popular support, as people gathered in last December to denounce corruption and the lack of rule of law in the country.
Protests also sparkled in Albania in Mid-February. The opposition is asking for the government to resign and the organization of an early election, in an attempt to bring their party to power. Here again, the government is accused by the opposition of corruption and links with the organized crimes, denied by the government.
The denunciation of corruption is also at stake in Montenegro, following the “Envelope Affair”, a corruption scandal involving officials of the ruling party. The crowd is now asking for the resignation of President Djukanovic, after almost 30 years in power.