New wave of protests in Serbia – opening new horizons?
by Anja Ilic
For the last five weeks, every Saturday night in Belgrade was a night of protest. Thousands of people took to the streets to show their dissatisfaction and anger with the regime of Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party, which took a grip on power in 2012.
Although this latest wave of protests was initiated by opposition political parties, gathered under the umbrella of the freshly-formed Alliance for Serbia, growing number of participants and cities joining the protest wave tends to outgrow the capacities of the organisers. This loose atmosphere of “civil disobedience” also opens a window of opportunity for the left in Belgrade and elsewhere to propagate its ideas and activities, and point to the roots of social issues that Serbian citizens struggle with.
The first in a series of protests in Belgrade was organised on December 8, in the aftermath of a politically motivated attack which took place on November 23. One of the opposition politicians, Borko Stefanović, was attacked by at least seven men as he was approaching the site where his party’s coalition, called the Alliance for Serbia, was having a public event. Stefanović and several other members of the Alliance for Serbia (Savez za Srbiju, or SzS) were beaten up; three of their attackers were identified and held in custody for 30 days, only to be released after this period.
SzS organised its first protest on November 30 in Kruševac, a city in Central Serbia where the attack occurred. A week later, some 4.500 people protested in the capital of Serbia against political violence, gathered under the “Stop to bloody shirts” („Stop krvavim košuljama“) banner.
SzS initially planned to take a break after the second protest, and organise the third one on January 16, which marks a year since Oliver Ivanović, a Kosovo Serb politician known for his vocal criticism of Serbian government’s policy towards Kosovo, was assassinated under still unknown circumstances. However, vivid citizen’s revolt made the organisers change their initial decision, so the third protest took place on December 22.
Despite the attempt of opposition politicians to present these protests as non-partisan from the very beginning, one should be absolutely clear that the Alliance for Serbia is hoping to get some political points for itself by the means of organising the protests. This catch-all coalition was launched on September 2, and it presents the latest revival experiment of ex-Democratic Party functionaries, paired with some more conservative politicians.
The Democratic Party (Demokratska stranka, DS) was in power before the now ruling Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska napredna stranka, SNS) took over. In contrast to SNS, which emerged as a split from the Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Šešelj in 2008, DS aimed to represent a pro-European, modern political option when it first came to power in 2001.
In other words, while Šešelj’s party was one of the main proponents of the so-called “First Serbia” – the traditional, nationalist, “pre-modern” one – DS represented the “Second Serbia”, willing to set the country on the path to becoming a “civilised” western democracy. One could argue that SNS effectively merged these two, especially after Vučić’s pro-western wing ousted the other, pro-Russian wing of SNS’s founder Tomislav Nikolić in 2017.
Nevertheless, after numerous DS splits occurred, a number of its renegades is now trying to recreate both themselves as political figures and the old fame of the Democratic Party – reinvented in the form of the Alliance for Serbia (SzS).
Along with the old DS cadre, SzS was joined by some more right-wing politicians (and their respective parties), who added a well-known conservative flavour to this “big tent” mishmash – or, in Tariq Ali’s words, yet another incarnation of the “extreme centre”.
Some of them were previously in the Democratic Party of Serbia, which was a right-wing split from DS in the nineties; however, the most prominent right-winger within SzS is Boško Obradović, one of the founders of Serbian Movement Dveri, which started as a far-right/proto-fascist citizens’ association, but is now a parliamentary political party with “polished” right-wing agenda.
So, despite the presence of nominally left-wing Serbian Left – whose founder Borko Stefanović was beaten up – in the Alliance for Serbia, even its “big tent” political programme reflects right-wing influences of Dveri and the like, such as: insistence on Kosovo as integral part of Serbia, continuation of “special relations” with Republika Srpska, emphasis on national heritage, pro-natalist policies etc.
And despite the neo-Keynesian rhetoric of SzS’s leading figure, Serbian tycoon and ex-Major of Belgrade, Dragan Đilas – known for his excessive and unnecessary public infrastructure projects in the midst of global economic crisis, forcible evictions of Roma people and some other noble capitalist causes – SzS would, at best, wrap up the very same socioeconomic policy SNS is currently pursuing in a more colourful paper; at worst, it would go even further to the right than the current government does.
The Alliance for Serbia is well-aware of its relatively low attractive force. For that reason, prominent political figures of SzS stepped aside, pushed their younger members to the fore, and deemed the protests as entirely non-partisan, acts of pure civil disobedience.
Bearing in mind that these protests have constantly grown in number for the past few weeks (with the exception of the latest one, which was still very numerous for an average protest in Serbia), that several thousands of people are taking to the streets every Saturday, this protest wave indeed represents general dissatisfaction with the government and politics in Serbia in general, much more than it is a sign of support for and trust with the Alliance for Serbia. It also comes on the back of Balkan-wide, Europe-wide, and worldwide protests which generally address flaws of “the system”, howsoever (in)directly.
Increasingly popular character of these protests was the reason the left decided to step in. The left in Serbia does not yet exist as a unified and undivided body; the same applies even for the left in Belgrade. For decades now, there has been no left party on the political scene. Nevertheless, a number of left or left-leaning groups, initiatives and organisations, along with individual leftists, has been working together since the April protests of 2017; most important and most visible fruit of this joint work is a coalition named “A Roof Over Our Heads” (Združena akcija [ZA] „Krov nad glavom“). The left in Belgrade participating in the protests goes under the banner of ZA.
ZA was formed in 2017, when forcible evictions gained new momentum and started becoming more or less an everyday feature of life in Serbia. Up to now, activists of ZA, along with many solidary citizens, prevented dozens of families and individuals from being forcibly evicted; they also successfully mobilised against preparatory activities for a public high school and public hospital privatisation.
Since forcible evictions usually target working-class and poorer sections of society, ZA joined the protests with the aim to point to ongoing social struggles and their causes – and outline the path which offers real solutions for capitalist issues. Connecting its primary issue – forcible evictions – with numerous workers’ deaths which occurred in 2018, largely on construction sites, as a result of deregulation and continuous attack on workers’ rights (and, indeed, lives), ZA proposed the alternative message: “Stop to bloody work suits” („Stop krvavim radničkim odelima“), along with its usual motto: “No one without home!” („Bez doma niko!“).
Despite the organisers’ claims that these are citizens’ protests, ZA was already targeted twice – first, when its activists announced they’ll be spreading leaflets among the people, to which the organisers responded by formally not allowing them to do so; the leaflets were nonetheless spread, to an overwhelmingly good response from the people.
In the second instance, Borko Stefanović himself obviously felt insulted for falling out of the spotlight: he complained (on Twitter) about the alternative slogan (“Stop to bloody work suits”), despite – or precisely because of? – the fact that more than 30 workers’ deaths in 2018 alone went almost entirely unnoticed not only by the government, but also by the opposition parties.
In fact, two construction workers who died after they had fell from the 22nd floor of one of the Belgrade Waterfront buildings – and who hadn’t been provided with necessary equipment for safe high-rise construction works – were officially declared victims of their own fault! None of the opposition politicians organised a protest around that issue – although it is widespread, and it is a stark symbol of systemic capitalist violence against ordinary people.
This is why the left stepped in. ZA first joined the fourth protest, which was the most numerous up to date – more than 20.000 people took to the streets. In the latest, fifth protest, ZA proposed two concrete demands – putting a moratorium on forcible evictions, and applying safety measures at work – in contrast to either very abstract or very narrow demands of the organisers (such as, for instance, “End to all violence”, or “Give opposition parties five minutes on public media service”).
The regime has so far acted as it was expected: Vučić’s marionettes keep underestimating the size of the protests – which have now started spreading across several other cities in Serbia – and denouncing Vučić’s political opponents, while Vučić himself keeps offering snap election as a “solution”.
He knows all too well that it is highly unlikely his party would lose the election, bearing in mind both the extent of its party bureaucracy, and the unattractiveness of opposition parties. Streets and workplaces have historically proven to be the main arenas for profound political changes – but it is always up to the strength and political content that the actors involved have to offer.
The left in Serbia participating in the protests seems rather realistic about its current strength and possible impact. It cannot present itself as an alternative electoral option, because it still has no party, but it can and should point out that SNS and SzS represent two sides of the same coin. It can invite people to join ZA, as this is one of the most prominent fronts of ongoing social struggles. And it has the unique advantage of being the only political force in Serbia – howsoever dispersed and loosely organised – that truly fights for the working class and against capitalism in its various political disguises.
It is the only force fighting various bottom-up battles with the class itself, aiming to connect these single-issue fights and generate a wider and more permanent anti-capitalist front. Whatever the outcome of these protests, the left should keep acting as a counterweight to the established political order in Serbia, and consolidating itself as a radical alternative to the system of indebtedness, austerity and ever-harsher exploitation of ordinary, working people.