In-depth | Serbia

Is there any hope for a Serbia without violence?

By - 31.05.2023

Two mass killings spark some of the biggest Belgrade protests in two decades.

On the morning of May 3, Serbia was stunned by the news of a mass murder that happened in Belgrade’s Vladislav Ribnikar Elementary School. A 13-year-old seventh-grade student is suspected of having used his father’s pistol to kill eight schoolmates and a school guard. Six other students and a teacher were also wounded.

A few days later, one of these injured students died in hospital, bringing the death toll to 10.

On the evening of May 3, several thousand people spontaneously gathered at Flower Square — located near Vladislav Ribnikar Elementary — to pay their respects to the victims. Afterwards, the gathered people marched in protest towards the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development demanding that the responsible authorities resign. (Education Minister Branko Ružić submitted his resignation on May 9.)

The very next day, another mass murder happened.

Late in the evening of May 4, according to the Smederevo Prosecutor’s Office, suspect U.B. killed eight people with an automatic weapon in the area of Smederevo and Mladenovac and attempted to kill 12 more.

Alongside the escalation of violence represented by these two mass shootings, intimate partner violence and domestic violence have led to the murders of 18 women in Serbia between January and mid-May 2023. In response to these facts, and in anger at the government’s controversial reactions to the mass shootings and unprofessional media reports by pro-government tabloids and television, tens of thousands of Serbians have been protesting weekly throughout May under the slogan “Serbia Against Violence.”

K2.0 explains where these protests came from and what (for the moment) has been the response of the Serbian government.

Serbia Against Violence

The first protest under the slogan “Serbia Against Violence” was held shortly after the two mass murders.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in the center of Belgrade on May 8 and 12, while similar protests were taking shape across the country. A number of opposition parties voiced support for the protests.

The government’s response to the mass shootings took a number of forms, including proposals to employ thousands of police officers as security in schools, leading to protests signs such as “Money to schools, not to the police.” The government also announced a plan for disarming Serbia and the president and prime minister toyed with reinstating the death penalty.

Protesters’ demands included calls for the resignation of Interior Minister Bratislav Gašić and Director of the Security Intelligence Agency Aleksandar Vulin. Protesters also called for the government to replace current members of the Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, to shut down all tabloids that promote violence and infringe on journalism’s code of ethics, to ban reality shows and to drop Serbia’s leading reality TV channels Pink and Happy from national frequencies.

The third “Serbia Against Violence” protests. Photo: Mladen Savković / K2.0.

These protests, featuring crowds blocking Belgrade’s busiest roads — including the highway and the Gazela Bridge which is the most high-traffic bridge in the city over the Sava River — have been only sporadically covered by the public broadcaster Radio Television Serbia (RTS) and other television stations with nationwide coverage. Numerous online and print tabloids have reported on these developments from the perspective of government officials, giving an advantage to the government line on the protests.

Immediately after the May 12 demonstration, President Aleksandar Vučić went on social media and posted a photograph of himself with Prime Minister Ana Brnabić and Minister of Finance Siniša Mali. In a sneering caption alleging that footage of the protest was photoshopped in order to make it appear bigger than it actually was, Vučić announced that the ruling parties would organize a rally in Belgrade on May 26 with “no faking and no photoshop.” 

This provoked a backlash and critics noted that the president was organizing a protest against people who protest against violence. An even stronger negative reaction came after a social media post from Prime Minister Brnabić where she appeared to be mocking the thousands of people who blocked the Gazela Bridge earlier that day.

In response to this reaction from the government, the next “Serbia Against Violence” protest became the largest yet. On Friday May 19, the largest in this series of demonstrations saw people marching for hours.

According to some unofficial estimates, between 50,000 and 60,000 people showed up on May 19. The size of the protest drew the attention of international media. Deutsche Welle has referred to this series of demonstrations as the largest outcry Serbia has seen since October 5, 2000. 

Meanwhile, AP News noted the Serbian Progressive Party’s (SNS) counter-demonstration that was organized in Pančevo on May 19. “In a show of defiance, the nationalist right-wing party of autocratic Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić organized a counter-protest in a town north of Belgrade attended by thousands of his supporters,” AP News reported.

A Serbia of Hope

Instead of engaging with the protesters or considering the calls for resignations, the SNS and Vučić decided to proceed by organizing what they were calling the largest rally Serbia will have ever seen.

This rally, “A Serbia of Hope,” was scheduled to take place on Friday, May 26 — on the same day another “Serbia Against Violence” protest was planned.

In the following days, the media was filled with reports that employees of public institutions across Serbia were facing pressure from their superiors to attend the pro-government rally. For instance, more than 20 staff members of Niš’s municipal IT department were said to have been reassigned to different jobs after refusing to attend SNS’s May 26 rally in Belgrade. According to N1, this effectively shut down the department. There were also reports of mass transportation by bus and train being organized for people outside Belgrade to be taken to the government rally.

Only a few days earlier, Niš Mayor Dragana Sotirovski said that if the city government offices were to empty out on May 26 that would be “no indication” that the staff took an organized trip to the rally as the city government offices are empty some other days as well.  

An increasing number of public figures voiced support for either one of the demonstrations or the other while many civil society organizations called for the president to cancel his rally.

A statement from a group of these organizations reads: “That people take to the streets of Belgrade in anger is very much warranted. They call for the government to provide them and their children with the bare minimum of security and bring violence to a halt.”

“The government ought to respond,” the statement continues. “A massive anti-violence gathering of citizens must not be responded to via an even more massive gathering of some other citizens. What kind of message are the latter trying to send — that they are not against violence?”    

Two days, two Serbias

In the early morning of Friday, May 26, buses from across the country began to arrive in Belgrade for the “Serbia of Hope” meeting from across Serbia as well as from Bosnia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Kosovo.

Kosovo Online reported that around 10,000 Kosovo Serbs went to the rally — either individually or by one of 200 buses chartered for the occasion.

At the same time, tensions escalated in the north of Kosovo with clashes between Kosovo police and Serbs — and a few days later clashes between NATO soldiers from KFOR and Serbs — after a boycotted local election led to questions about who should control the municipality buildings.

“From tomorrow onwards, I will be the president of all Serbian citizens, rather than the president of a single political party,” Vučić said.

Although Tanjug and other pro-government media reported that more than 200,000 people took part in SNS’s rally, aerial footage and activists’ estimates indicate that the number of attendees was much smaller than the number of people who took to the streets on May 19.

In his address at the rally, whose numbers dwindled due to rain as the event went on, Vučić announced that he was stepping down as SNS’s president. 

“This will be the last time I address you as the president of SNS. Starting tomorrow, someone else will lead my SNS, your SNS, our SNS, of which I shall remain a loyal member. However, from tomorrow onwards, I will be the president of all Serbian citizens, rather than the president of a single political party,” Vučić said. 

He also announced that SNS would be the axle of a new movement “that is going to be our base of support, helping us preserve our country in the forthcoming two to three years of crisis — the years which may decide Serbia’s future.” There was speculation that Vučić would take this opportunity to call for elections in the fall, but this did not happen.

Vučić did not respond to the demands put forward by “Serbia Against Violence” and announced no measures that the government would potentially take in order to combat violence.

On the following day, at the exact same location, the fourth “Serbia Against Violence” took place, drawing similar numbers as the previous protest and clearly outnumbering the pro-government rally of the day before. 

The fourth “Serbia Against Violence”. Video: Mladen Savković / K2.0

This time the protesters marched around Tašmajdan Park in the center of Belgrade and formed a circle around the RTS building. RTS opened its prime-time news program with live coverage of the protesters surrounding the building.

Up until then, for weeks no television station with a national frequency had objectively reported on the protests. However, the focus soon shifted to unrest in the north of Kosovo and pro-government media accused the organizers of “Serbia Against Violence” of causing instability in Serbia at a moment that is, as they repeatedly state, one of the most difficult in history for the country.

Several small protests broke out in the last days of May led by various right-wing groups calling for people to fight for the rights of Serbs in the north of Kosovo and against “betrayal” and further negotiations between Belgrade and Prishtina.

For the “Serbia Against Violence” protests, it remains to be seen whether they will be able to persist in the face of this media noise or if they can succeed at distinguishing themselves from prior protest movements with precise and meaningful demands. It remains a question whether they will be able to continue drawing tens of thousands of people to protests week after week.

The next “Serbia Against Violence” protest is scheduled to take place on Saturday, June 3. Though it may seem longer after such intense weeks, the protest will take place one month after the mass murders shocked the country.


Feature image: Mladen Savković / K2.0.