NEWS INSIGHT

What is Happening in Serbia: COVID-19 Protests

by Didem ÖZÇAKIR

Protests began in Belgrade, the capital city of Serbia on the 8th of July after the government of Alexander Vucic declared another curfew against the rising number of cases in the country. Both the police and the protestors were hurt during the protests and did not easily come to an end despite Vucic’s decision to cancel the curfew. The unrest is seen as the most intense one in the country since 2000, when Slobodan Milosevic was overthrown, who was responsible for the massacres that took place during the 1990s when Yugoslavia was dissolving.

Serbia was thought to handle the pandemic well during the first weeks with the strict restrictions that were brought upon. Most of the meetings were canceled, curfews over the weekends were imposed and people were at lockdowns at their houses-very similarly to the rest of the world. The restrictions were eased amid the fall in the number of cases. The government decided to hold sports events with spectators, the nightclubs and bars were opened, despite the warnings from the experts that these kinds of activities would lead to an increase in the number of cases per day. Serbia’s first wave saw a maximum of 445 cases and 9 deaths per day, and the country had managed to have less than 100 cases a day before the second wave. As of mid-July, the country has 23.000 total cases and 526 total deaths.

Serbia had a general election on 21 June 2020, which resulted in the re-election of Alexander Vucic. Some critiques have stated that the government was not revealing the true number of cases to create a sense of comfort and most importantly economic activity before the elections. Some protestors stated that they felt that the country normalized too early, just to have the majority of the votes during the elections. As it was expected by the health experts, the number of cases began to rise, starting a second wave. The restrictions were brought again as a response, and a state of emergency was announced in several towns and cities. Some protestors stated they felt like the country was normalized just for the elections, and they were obliged to stay at home both before and after the event.

The protests began as a response to Vucic's decision of imposing a curfew over the weekend after the country saw its deadliest day with 13 deaths. They began peacefully and included families and students. Although the group exercised social distancing, not everyone was wearing masks. The protests soon became violent when a group of people entered the national assembly building. The police got involved, tear gas was used. A video in which police were using truncheons to beat the protestors resulted in an investigation. Police were also among the ones who got wounded as there were protestors who were throwing rocks or alighting police cars. It was said that the far-right nationalist groups were responsible for the violence and storming of the assembly building. It was reported by the Serbian media that they included an anti-vaccine MP who supported anti-5G conspiracy theories. Many protestors were also seen wearing t-shirts that read “Sit Down, Don’t Be Set Up”. They were referring to the belief that the violence was staged by the government by using the far-right groups close to them.

Alexander Vuvic stated that he did not believe the protests would be able to decrease the power and influence of their government. He said that his main concern was this kind of massive gatherings and protest would accelerate the spread of the virus. Other Serbian officials said the protests were staged to weaken Serbia’s position in ongoing negotiations about Kosovo. Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, which is not recognized by Belgrade, and there are currently EU-led negotiations about the state of the region. (1) (2) (3)

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