Mood of revolt in Serbia as anti-Vucic protests grow

Nicolas GAUDICHET and Katarina SUBASIC
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Protesters at one rally held a banner reading 'Stop to bloody shirts', a reference to an attack last November on an opposition politician that set off this round of protests

Protesters at one rally held a banner reading 'Stop to bloody shirts', a reference to an attack last November on an opposition politician that set off this round of protests (AFP Photo/ANDREJ ISAKOVIC)

Belgrade (AFP) - Major opposition protests in Serbia have been relatively rare over the past decade, but the icy January air has ushered in a swelling mood of revolt.

Since last month, thousands of demonstrators have rallied each Saturday through Belgrade's frozen streets against President Aleksandar Vucic, accusing him of stifling media freedoms and cracking down on the opposition.

This Saturday, for the sixth time in a row, the marchers will again hoist their flags and banners in a united display of discontent against Vucic's increasingly controversial rule.

"Dictator!" cried the crowd at a recent demonstration in the capital.

More than a dozen people carried a giant banner reading: "Stop bloody shirts" -- a reference to opposition politician Borko Stefanovic's bloodstained shirt after he was beaten up last November.

It was that incident that triggered the first protests.

The assault was reminiscent of the violent attacks on political opponents in the 1990s under the rule of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

The authorities denied involvement in the attack on Stefanovic, but the Alliance for Serbia, an umbrella group of opposition parties from across the political spectrum, blamed Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).

Then youth activists, who insist they are not affiliated with any political party, decided to step in.

"We realised that the time had come to do something on the street," one of the protest organisers, Jelena Anasonovic, told AFP.

"The violence, both physical and verbal" in everyday Serbian life, had become "the norm", Anasonovic said.

Vucic, a former ultra-nationalist who now says he favours Serbia joining the EU, has rejected claims he has become autocratic.

And despite the protests, opinion polls suggest Vucic's SNS party dominates the political arena. Serbia's divided opposition that has little in common other than an aversion to the president.

The opposition does not offer "a viable alternative to the autocracy of Vucic" even though "he is unbearable", said protester Milos Banjanin, a 27-year old economist.

The next national vote is expected in 2020 but Vucic, who served as premier from 2014 and became president in 2017, has hinted he could call early elections.

Observers and polls suggest he would likely win.

- 'One in five million' -

The first anti-Vucic protest on December 8 drew several thousand people, but the numbers quickly grew due to two unrelated events -- the reaction of the president and a report by a pro-government TV journalist.

Speaking after the first demonstration, Vucic told the nation "even if there were five million people in the street" he would not agree to the protesters' demands.

That acted as a catalyst for the demonstrators, who adopted the slogan "one in five million".

Then TV reporter Barbara Zivotic, from the pro-government private channel said that "very few people" were demonstrating. Those who were, she said, "calling for lynching, rape, violence and a coup d'etat".

Video of the report went viral and was widely mocked online.

"Thank you Barbara" protesters wrote on Twitter, as thousands of people were inspired to brave the heavy snow and freezing temperatures to join the protests.

The latest protests brought out 40,000 people on to the streets say organisers, although police have not confirmed the figure.

- 'Break media blockade' -

The scale of the demonstrations "caught many people by surprise, including some (opposition) politicians," said Dragan Djilas, an opposition leader.

Although opposition parties hope to capitalise on the protests, which now include celebrities and prominent activists, some protesters are wary of politicians trying to cash in on their success.

"Only when the opposition does something to prove itself in fighting" the authorities "will it get the right to speak," said actor Branislav Trifunovic, one of the most prominent protesters.

"For the moment they can walk with us and shut up," he said.

Protesters have called for the head of the public broadcaster RTS to step down. They want "at least five minutes of air time each day" to "break the media blockade", Trifunovic added.

The European Commission last year raised concerns about media freedoms in Serbia, denouncing threats, intimidation and violence against journalists.

But Vucic has rejected such criticism.

According to Serbian media, the president could use the next week's visit of Russia's President Vladimir Putin to show off the strength of his national support.

"These are protests of all opposition voters who are unhappy with the authorities. At some point it will have to be politically articulated," said independent political analyst Boban Stojanovic.