Serbia Protests: Trojan Horse? And at a Crossroads.

Protests continue, after a fashion, in Serbia, for the 15th day (below, photo of a sparse pre-Easter crowd on day 13, Belgrade).  But, a question could be, why haven’t they ever been bigger, given that they do echo mass sentiment in the country of unhappiness with the current situation?

Several reasons, but the longer they’ve gone on, and the longer that no one’s come forward as the organiser, the more that cynicism has grown as to who’s behind them, and if that person may not actually even be worse than current incumbent, and generally not-that-popular, Alexander Vucic. 

A feeling hardly helped by an announcement on the 13th April that runner up in recent presidential elections, with 16.37%, former ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, a liberal, pro-EU, and even less popular than Vucic figure, is ‘forming his own political movement’.

Now while there’s no concrete evidence of Jankovic’s involvement in the protests here, the timing of his annoucement hardly helps, as protests enter a crossroads. Momentum sunk during Easter, and whether it can be recovered this week, will be seen.

Serbia Update: 10 Points to Note on the Protests

1. No question that, after 12 days of protests across Serbia, against president-elect Alexander Vucic, the protests are diminishing in numbers, from a high in the tens of thousands last Saturday, in Belgrade, to around 500 yesterday.

… and it was even fewer today. 

2. It’s been clear as the protests pass through the centre of Belgrade every evening, that they enjoy the general goodwill of people who are not participating in them, many taking photos etc, some even joining in…

3. So, why are the protests dimishing? Firstly, take into account Easter. And secondly, take into account growing questions about them, as they go on, namely – who is behind them?

4. Who is behind them? No one knows that. Protests are arranged via various Facebook and Twitter accounts, but they sometimes even conflict each other in information. Meanwhile the protests are not addressed by any politicians, or prominent speakers.

5. On April 10th, the protesters made a list of demands to the government, workshopped via Facebook: 

The demands are:

Abolition of the ‘dictatorship’ and the complete removal of the political elite headed by Aleksandar Vucic

Fair and Free Elections – the cleaning up the electoral roll, which is widely believed to contain ineligible and deceased voters; removal of the management of the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media, REM, and of the State Electoral Commission, RIK; equal access by all candidates in elections to the media; imposition of strict penalties on those putting pressure on voters; obligatory TV debates between candidates; transparency over the costs of election campaigns. The protesters also want the regularity of the recent presidential election to be checked and reassessed.

Free Media – removal of the top management of the public broadcaster, RTS, and of the provincial broadcaster RTV; the sanctioning of all editors who breach media laws and the journalists’ code.

De-party-isation – removal of all party-assigned and corrupt officials from state-owned and public companies.

Decentralisation – direct elections for local government and more power to be given to local authorities.

Shift in priorities of economic and social policies

Protection of labour rights and improved status of all workers – changes to labour laws to improve the conditions for workers and uphold their rights; increase in the minimum wage

Protection of living standards – pension and wage cuts to be scrapped; reform of the welfare system; agricultural reform and increases in subsidies for farmers; revision of agreements with the IMF; no further privatization.

Entirely publicly financed educational and health services that are available to everyone

6. However there was, is, no real chance of the government bowing to this. Vucic is actually playing a clever political game – saying that he supports the continuation of the protests as long as they are peaceful, and using as a case in point for the existence of democracy in Serbia…

7. Yet online, Vucic activists and pro-Vucic supporters are active in their opposition to the protests. The line they are taking, is the protests are Soros-funded.  Actually this has even become an in-joke of the protests, with banners declaring ‘afterparty at Soros’ ‘.

8. The general mood in Serbia is that the protesters do have a point, read more about that here, and they enjoy widespread support, in principle, as a way of sending a message to president-elect Vucic. Yet, as mentioned, doubts about who is behind them, and a campaign against them by state-controlled media, and online, means they have never really reached ‘mass’ status (last Saturday was the largest in Belgrade, and that, estimated around 30,000-50,000, depending on source, a lot, but Belgrade has some 1.5 million).

9. Lack of a viable alternative to Vucic is further undermining the cause. Runner-up in the recent presidential elections was liberal Saša Janković , but there’ve been no Janković banners at the protests, no one’s been calling for him. He received some 16% of the ballot in the presidential election, and while protesters say this was rigged (giving Vucic over 55%), there’s no suggesting that support for Jankovic himself would top 20% in any case. So, if not Vucic, then who, is the question? Protesters don’t seem to know themselves…

10. The first rush of momentum of the protests has gone. Despite it all, for the first 10 days, the protests were on a high. Yet, down to a cluster of protesters now, the wind is truly out of the sails. Easter has no doubt played its part, but the test will be on the 18th, when the protests (officially) re-convene, if there’s enough momentum to push for another ‘big Saturday’, or whether they’ll make it to next weekend.

Serbia: 10 Reasons Why People are Protesting

To give you a guide to why the protesters are on the streets, in their words, and the general situation in Serbia.

1. Life really isn’t that good for most people (population around 7 million) in Serbia, the stated salary of 400 Euros is a dream for most, with many earning just 200 Euros a month. These young protestere here in Belgrade speak about working for ‘5 Euros a shift’ –

2. Alexander Vucic, Prime Minister since 2014, (though actually running the show since 2012, as leader of the largest party – SNS) may have officially taken 55% of the vote in recent presidential elections, but few believe that was the real result, with mass denouncing of the election as ‘rigged’. 

3. While presenting the appearance of being pro-Russian, to appease a generally pro-Russian Serbian populace, Vucic is actually taking Serbia closer towards the EU (which many Serbians in general support), the US, and NATO (which almost all Serbians are strongly opposed to, due to NATO bombings of Serbia (then Yugoslavia) in 1999).

4. Many feel that Vucic is authoritarian, and in a position where he now controls everything in Serbia, including the state media, giving plub jobs to his inner circle etc, while many in the country struggle. Interviews with protesters here:

5. Driving the protests on is indignance by protesters, who feel they are being ignored, by wider media, but particularly by their own Serbian, state-controlled media. Often the most heated parts of the (peaceful) protests are when the march passes the national newspaper, and television news, offices. This video here, from April 12th, outside state tv channel, RTS –

6. Back to the economy, and things are not going well in Serbia. Debt to GDP has risen from 41.8% in 2010, to 73.4% in 2015.  Serbia’s national debt is estimated at over 29 billion dollars now, rising fast.

7. Rather than addressing the problems of the country, protesters accuse of Vucic of covering them up, ie declaring the national average monthly salary had ‘passed 400 Euros‘, when that patently wasn’t the case, or whitewashing them – in the case of engaging a PR firm to rewrite his wikipedia page. 

8. More, there are allegations that Vucic himself, is corrupt – he and his family own seven properties in Belgrade, worth over 1 million Euros, and recently sold an eighth.  Yet Vucic reports himself as having only one property, a studio flat, and an income of only 1000 Euros a month.

9. All of this has contributed to a malaise, where many in Serbia feel there is little hope for them, or their lives. Unemployment is high, almost 20%, youth unemployment extremely high, 44.2% with many young people feeling there are little prospects for them in Serbia:

10. While the protests are peaceful, which they currently are, with few police even along, and while there is no prospect of them escalating to seizing administrative buildings, violence etc, as per Euromaidan, no one is stopping the protests, Vucic himself, meanwhile, has sought to defuse the protests by making out he actually ‘supports’ them – read about that here. And, in cases strong, personal dislike for Vucic himself, would also have to be another factor –

Make sure you are following me on Twitter, and YouTube, for full coverage! This, yesterday:

Serbia Protests: 3 Ways of Looking at the Protests

I’ve been covering the Serbia protests for 3 days here now, in Belgrade. In that time, I’ve heard a lot said about protests, from all sides. That they are the ‘new Euromaidan’ , that ‘Soros is funding them’ (though given that Serbia already has a pro-EU, pro-US president, hard to see what his motive would be).

I’m covering the protests just as they are – interviews, numbers, facts. Follow me on Twitter for all of this. 

As we get set for Day 10 here, a look at the protesters, on Day 9 of protests.

GoPro footage:

360 Degree footage:

Stay tuned for further developments.

Why are protests in Serbia being ignored by the media?

Protests in Serbia enter their 9th day today, with anti-Vucic protesters claiming the media are ‘blacking out’ their campaign. And it’s true, that media coverage – in every media, has been muted, only now starting to trickle out.

Why is that? Well, the reason is surely president-elect Vucic himself. He’s supposedly anti-NATO, yet Serbia conducted 206 training drills with NATO last year (to 17 with Russia). He’s supposedly a ‘pro-Russian’ politician, who gets congratulated by John McCain on his victory.  

And do the protesters support the EU? Some do, but a lot are angry with the EU for supporting Vucic, see my interview from Belgrade, yesterday –

So, what are the protests? Pro-EU or anti? Pro-NATO or anti? Is Soros funding them, as some say. Is it a new ‘colour revolution’? No one knows, it’s all unclear, and it doesn’t suit the agenda of any mainstream media. Hence the blackout.

See some of my coverage from Belgrade yesterday, here: