Serbia: protests and state violence expose the crisis of the Vučić regime

Weeks after declaring a landslide electoral victory, the regime of Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party is facing growing dissatisfaction and civil unrest. There are many legitimate reasons for the unrest. Most people are angry over the criminal mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis, and deeply concerned about the looming economic disaster. Up to 300,000 workers are expected to lose their jobs this autumn. However, the protests erupting all over the country are mostly amorphous, relatively small in size and without clear demands. This makes them easy pickings for right wing provocateurs and an unprecedented campaign of police brutality and state repression.

Electoral farce

Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić, leader of the largest party in the ruling coalition, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), had declared a spectacular victory in the recent general election, of June 21st. The SNS now holds a supermajority in the parliament, while the only non-government parties are opposition in name only: Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS, former party of Milošević and a close ally of the SNS), Serbian Patriotic Alliance (SPAS – ‘SALVATION’, a more recently formed right-wing populist party) and the parties of national minorities. The parties that actually oppose Vučić’s rule have either boycotted the election or failed miserably to reach the electoral threshold of 3 percent.

One might expect that such a result ushered in a period of stability for the SNS regime, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth. The elections themselves were quite obviously a farce from start to finish, marked by numerous irregularities (the Republic Electoral Commission admitted irregularities and had to redo the elections in 234 polling stations across Serbia) and the lowest voter turnout in Serbian history, since the beginning of capitalist restoration – around 48-49 percent. The elections were organised in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, with quarantine measures being completely dropped in order to facilitate campaigning and voter round-ups. In order to cling to power, Vučić was willing to write his name in the annals of quackery and try to decree a pandemic away. The Crisis Staff, a body of doctors in charge of determining measures for fighting the pandemic, bent under the regime’s will and did next to nothing to warn against holding elections in such a dangerous situation. Not only that, but there have recently been reports by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) that the actual figures of those who died due to COVID-19 were doctored, that people were denied testing and that we might never know the exact death toll of the disease in Serbia.

The mishandling of the pandemic crisis, however, did not begin with the elections. From the very start of the pandemic, back in March, the government and its medical experts issued contradictory statements about the gravity of the threat. One of them even told people that SARS-COV-2 was “the most ridiculous virus in history”, which only existed on social media, going so far as to suggest half-jokingly that people should go shopping in Milan, while Italy was being overrun by the virus! Once they finally acknowledged the threat was real, they introduced martial law, forbidding senior citizens from leaving their homes, and instituting night curfews. They even ordered the army to patrol the streets. However, what they didn’t do was shut down the actual pandemic hotspots – places like factories, where workers had to spend hours every day in crowded halls, commuting between home and work in even-more-crowded buses. The martial law didn’t apply to privately owned industries. To them, the government merely issued ‘recommendations’: proposals which weren’t legally binding in any way. The martial law did motivate workers in some factories to put pressure on their bosses and demand protective measures through short-term strike action. Pressure from the public also helped make some companies send their workers on leave. However, none of it was nearly enough and it was only a matter of time before the number of those infected would overrun our healthcare system. That time has come now.

Deaths, denial and theatrics

At the moment, the COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc in Serbia. Healthcare systems in some towns have been overrun and there are reports of people dying in hospital hallways. Once it became clear that the pandemic was never over and that what was happening in post-election Serbia wasn’t some ‘second wave’, but the continuation of the original wave of the coronavirus infections, Vučić and the Serbian government, which he controls, set out to the only thing they know how to do – posture and spin.

The cold brutality of the regime’s cynicism became particularly obvious in the town of Novi Pazar, in the South West of Serbia, the region known as the Sandžak, where the situation became especially catastrophic. According to the statements given by locals to the media at the end of June, every person in Novi Pazar has at least 10 deaths from COVID-19 among their family, friends or acquaintances. The hospitals were filled beyond capacity and the respirators were, reportedly, malfunctioning and taken offline. The town was said to have been covered with newly printed obituary posters. The government’s response was swift. Prime Minister Ana Brnabić and Health Minister Zlatibor Lončar went on an official visit to the Novi Pazar hospital, determined to fight this problem – by explaining to the people there that their grievances are all lies and fake news. The Prime Minister even went so far as to insinuate that the grievances of the Novi Pazar citizens were politically motivated, and that the Sandžak was “an exceptionally, exceptionally, fertile ground for politisation”. Behind this vile counter-accusation lies a particularly insidious kind of thinly veiled chauvinism, as Novi Pazar is a Bosniak/Muslim majority town. In the wake of the prime minister’s and health minister’s arrival the hospital hallways had reportedly been cleared of additional beds – and patients. But the regime was even more meticulous in its art of spin. The new patients in dire condition were sent home, and local regime activists were scouring the town looking for COVID-19 obituaries and taking them down! It is very likely that Novi Pazar is no exception, but just the most glaring example of what many parts of the Serbian interior are going through.

Protesters greet the prime minister in Novi Pazar Image fair useProtesters greet the prime minister in Novi Pazar / Image: fair use

It’s becoming clear to more and more people, without a shred of doubt, that the deaths of ordinary working people concern the regime only as a public relations problem to be ‘fixed’, i.e. to be spun into oblivion, with explanations that insult intelligence. However, there’s only so much you can hide with media tricks and idiotic statements. In order to maintain the illusion of taking the pandemic seriously, Vučić and the government, with the help of the compromised and bankrupt Crisis Staff, resorted to more theatrics.

The measures the regime announced on 2 July however, were not just inadequate and half-baked, but downright counterproductive and harmful. The students of Belgrade campus complexes, which have been evicted once already at the start of the pandemic and which have been irresponsibly called back to keep election-time appearances, were once again to be evicted and sent to their homes all over the Serbian interior, allegedly to prevent the infection from spreading through the dorms. In a situation where there is a growing number of infected young people and where hospitals are crowded above capacity, the government’s brilliant solution was to send them all home to spread this infection to the passengers in their buses, their families and their home towns and villages.

The students stand their ground

As soon as the new eviction measure for student campuses was announced in the late evening hours of 2 July, anger and fear reached a tipping point. In a spontaneous show of outrage, the students from various Belgrade university dormitory complexes took to the streets in their thousands, on a night march on the Serbian National Assembly, blocking the traffic in the city centre along the way. They had had enough of the madness.

Coordinating through the Facebook page ‘Let us stop the evictions from the student dormitories’ and that of the ‘Krov nad glavom’ Coalition (‘Roof over our heads’ is a coalition which fights against illegitimate foreclosures, with which the Yugoslav section of the IMT also collaborates), the students marched, chanting slogans against evictions, live streaming the entire event and gaining support and sympathy from a vast online audience all over Serbia. Socialised in former Yugoslavia, older generations in Serbia always have a special soft spot for the youth, especially for university students. Educated young people are seen almost by default as pioneers of change and a vanguard of sorts – as people casting a new light and offering fresh views and energy to solve long festering problems. It’s no wonder that the aforementioned Facebook pages were flooded with countless comments along the lines of “Onward, youth!”, “Bravo, our children!” and the like. It’s no wonder that the regime was forced to blink and reverse its decision to evict a mere couple of hours after the original announcement.

With some crowds of students still on the march, having not even reached the parliament, they had already won! The regime blinked, and in so doing exposed the soft underbelly of its recent ‘landslide victory’. It was only a matter of time before someone made it blink again.

Cornered rat

Another measure, announced the following week, was the introduction of a completely arbitrary three-day curfew this weekend, which would do nothing to help stop the infection, but would do plenty to hinder getting supplies, and impede everyday life for millions of people, including those who are getting sicker every day. Who in the world would take all this lying down? It was clear there was going to be another struggle and that Vučić would have to blink a second time. However, as the saying goes, a cornered rat will bite the cat. Aware that they will most likely have to blink a second time as well, Vučić and his stooges were going to make that victory a costly one.

As expected, the lightning-quick victory of the Belgrade students emboldened the youth of the city and the following week, on 7 July, they gathered to protest the introduction of the weekend curfew, confident that this decision, too, could be overturned. And overturned it was, shortly after. However, this time the regime was ready. Vučić wasn’t going to let the protests get out of hand and spark more widespread resistance, against other measures he might undertake, coronavirus-related or otherwise. And there are plenty of other measures, which are certain to cause major uproar.

It would be naive to assume that this was just about COVID-19. Vučić is a rat cornered from multiple sides. The rising death toll among coronavirus patients is just the immediate cause for anger and distress among the population. There is also the encroaching world crisis of capitalism, which is making itself known to Serbia’s economy. Already there are sackings in the private sector and talks of more measures that would impact the public sector as well, particularly Air Serbia, Serbia’s national airline. According to Zoran Mihajlović of the Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Serbia, between 250,000-300,000 workers will lose their jobs this autumn.

An additional factor is the recent pressure on Vučić from imperialist powers, regarding the question of Kosovo. On the one hand, there is increasing insistence of the Western powers, particularly Germany and France, for a permanent resolution, which clearly means that they expect Belgrade to recognise Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. On the other hand, there seems to be significant pressure on behalf of Russia and some pro-Russian forces within Serbia not to allow for the recognition to take place. As the global crisis of capitalism spreads, as markets contract and imperialist powers become increasingly more aggressive about their regional interests, it will become ever harder for Vučić to continue with his balancing act of keeping Serbia as a co-dominion, open for exploitation by all and sundry. It is clear that Serbia will, at some point and sooner rather than later, have to admit to the reality that Kosovo is no longer a part of its territory. Even in this age of self-identification fetishism, it’s becoming clear that pretending and insisting that Serbian borders still extend to the Šar Mountains will in no way change the reality of Kosovo’s separation. However, Vučić is fully aware that the very act of recognition of Kosovo might be highly traumatic to a significant portion of Serbia’s population. This is in no small part his own doing, as he used to be one of the loudest mouthpieces of extreme Serbian chauvinism and anti-Albanian hysteria. It could even be considered ironic that a man who built his entire political career on Greater Serbian delusions and nationalist mythomania would now be the one to rubber stamp the acknowledgment of a fact he spent two decades denying.

But, make no mistake, no irony is involved here. Nationalist parties are always used by imperialism to make the selling out of their country’s independence to the interests of transnational capital more palatable, just as reformist parties are used to make cuts and assaults on labour rights easier to swallow. The trouble with Vučić and his regime is that he tried to be both. His coalition has persistently been doing what no healthy or stable bourgeois state should ever risk: creating a unipolar political scene, where the bourgeois left and the right openly rule together and make it clear for everyone that there is no difference between them. Such tactics might ensure that a certain political clique and their leader remain in power for several consecutive mandates, but the fact that even the semblance of ideological difference is discarded in favour of blatant class dictatorship of tycoons and foreign corporations sooner or later comes back with a vengeance and threatens to blow up the entire system.

This problem is exacerbated by the utter lack of the bourgeois opposition parties to inspire any mass confidence in their parties, which are widely seen as just more of the same, at best – or even a worse alternative to Vučić. Under such conditions, a mass social movement directed against particular government reforms would be unpredictable for the bourgeoisie, and could go into any direction. One thing is certain – if it gained traction, wherever it led, it would be the end of Vučić’s political career at the very least, and it’s possible that not even the backroom deals with the opposition forces would be able to stop the drive for retaliation and revenge. This he had to stop.

Civil war rehearsal?

What followed was a campaign of police repression the likes of which hasn’t been seen in this country for at least 30 years, if not longer. Even a couple of media commentators said it was something they’ve never seen in Serbia before. The protests during the civil war period in the 1990s, when Slobodan Milošević was in office, used to be 10 to 20 times larger than the current ones. They faced some pretty hard crackdowns by the riot police and plain clothes hired thugs, no question there. However, Milošević’s response pales in comparison to what’s been happening this week.

The repression began on 7 July, as soon as the protest itself, and it continues until this day. The protest’s spontaneous character and lack of any leadership, organisation or clear demands, made it vulnerable to infiltrated elements and provocateurs. This vulnerability was fully exploited by the regime. As the mass of (according to some reports) up to 10,000 people gathered, groups of fascist thugs and hooligans started acting. Among them was a member of Serbian parliament, as well as a gang of so-called ‘people’s patrols’, who harrass refugees in the late-night hours and brag about it on YouTube. They were chanting slogans and singing songs about Kosovo and refugees and then led a charge on the National Assembly hall. After barging in, they were escorted out by the police in charge of Parliament security. However, the provocations did not end there. Soon after, as the riot police and the gendarmerie approached (the Gendarmerie is a special, heavily armed and armoured unit of the police, used for combatting terrorism and quelling massive riots), the thugs began throwing stones and pyrotechnical devices at them, turning the protest into a warzone. What was very interesting is that these hooligan groups appeared to be highly coordinated, without having any apparent leader or centre of organisation. This leads one to draw the only possible conclusion – that there was a centre of command which was not apparent, which covertly organised and coordinated these seemingly fractured groups. These acts of random violence by the hooligans turned the protest into a riot, depoliticised it, and gave their colleagues on the other side all the excuse they needed to crack down.

And crack down they did! Never before in our lifetimes have the police come down on a relatively small crowd of protesters (taking into account that Belgrade is a city of 1.5 million) with such brute force. Riot cops, attack dogs, cavalry, even light armoured vehicles with tear gas and shock bomb launchers were there. The demonstration was broken up fairly quickly, with an unprecedented level of brutality. One video even showed the police assaulting a group of young men who were just resting on a bench in the park. In the following several days, as this pattern continued, the police began practicing various kinds of brutal tactics, including the infamous practice of kneeling on a person’s neck and hiding armoured cops in an ambulance, ready to jump and assault people running away from their colleagues. It was, plain and simple, a campaign of terror. According to some reports in the media, coming from as-yet unverified sources and denied vehemently by the regime, even the elite unit of the Army of Serbia, the 63rd Airborne, was ordered to intervene in the streets of the city of Niš (in the south of the country) – an order they allegedly refused to carry out.

The operation described above was rinsed and repeated all over Serbia, with varying degrees of intensity. Why would the regime use unprecedented crackdown techniques against a relatively small protest? Surely, this is irrational behaviour for a ruling elite that just proclaimed a stunning electoral victory and holds de jure a two-third majority and de facto a 100 percent majority in the National Assembly! The obvious answer is that Vučić and his stooges are far less confident in their popularity and ability to control the masses through regular means than they pretend to be. Vučić is failing in every field – bourgeois statesmanship, health crisis management, economy management. He has never been a success at anything other than smoke and mirrors, but the coronavirus outbreak made it clear that his governance can actually kill. Adding to that, the social safety valves, such as the emigration of Serbian workers to EU countries, have been closed because of the pandemic. Even worse, they may never be as open as they used to be, once the crisis hits countries like Germany, Italy, Austria and such in full swing. The youth of Serbia ‘voting with their feet’ might soon face serious disenfranchisement. With Serbia’s GDP declining and foreign debt rising, with the present foreign investors re-evaluating the profitability of their stay in this country and preparing to sack hundreds and possibly thousands, the usual strategy of media brainwashing (for which Vučić has become notorious internationally) will no longer suffice. Learning from the experience of his predecessors, Vučić doesn’t want to take any chances. He wants to be prepared for the worst and he wants the people to know it. Turning the protests into police drills, thus, serves a dual purpose: repression and rehearsal. Vučić is performing a headcount of his repressive apparatus. He needs to know what forces he can count on when push comes to shove. He needs a rehearsal for a situation that might descend into a civil war.

The techniques he’s implementing are useful to study, recognise and denounce globally. This is especially true because the provocation in the protests is always twofold. It isn’t just about starting a riot and giving the armoured police an excuse to go in. Before the riot starts, there are concerted efforts to depoliticise the protest, to deflect from the acute social issues, such as jobs and COVID-19 crisis and make the whole thing about the recognition of Kosovo. Diverting the popular anger from the local ruling class towards a foreign enemy – even if that enemy is imperialism or those perceived as being imperialist tools – shields both the ruling class and that foreign enemy. It empties the protest of any viable demands and turns it into howling at the moon. Abstract, nationalistic, identity-based demands are the death of any social movement, regardless of how legitimate its grievances might be. There is no successful anti-imperialist struggle without proletarian internationalism. Those who want to keep their struggle limited in terms of nation and ethnicity are useful idiots of the bourgeoisie, surrounded and enabled by provocateurs.

According to the latest reports, the number of protesters has significantly decreased, from between 5-10,000 the first night to somewhere around 1,100 on 11 July. Most people who decided not to attend the protest stated as their reason the fact that it was ‘hijacked by right wingers’. The enthusiasm for these protests may be waning, but the social contradictions that sparked them are only going to get worse.

Action of the Marxists

Initially, when the protests first erupted, the Yugolav section of the IMT – Marxist Organisation ‘Reds’ – decided against participating in them, after careful deliberation. There were multiple reasons for this decision.

Firstly, the surging number of coronavirus-infected people made attending a protest a highly risky affair, which would prevent mass participation. Secondly, the class composition of the protest, which consisted mainly of university youth, middle-class urban Belgraders and lumpen elements, with the notable absence of organised labour, made it clear that the gains of participating in the protests were dubious at best. This was reflected in the fact that the protest hasn’t put forward any clear demands. Thirdly, it became clear to us that this protest, while enthusiastic and energetic, is nevertheless sterile. A far better course of action, under these concrete circumstances, was to call upon forms of struggle that are both epidemiologically safer and potentially more damaging to the capitalist system. The main form of struggle we call upon is a general strike in non-essential sectors, in order to avoid infection at the workplace and on public transport. We also call upon the healthcare workers’ unions to set up their own, independent and uncompromised Crisis Staff in order to coordinate the struggle against COVID-19 without meddling and sabotage by the government. This would avoid exposing the most advanced layers entering the struggle unnecessarily to the two-pronged repression by the police and their fascist infiltrators. Both of these steps have the potential to weaken or even topple the Vučić regime far more than any spontaneous outburst ever could, especially a relatively small-scale outburst with almost no involvement from the working class.

This does not mean that we shouldn’t be aware of the fluid character of amorphous and spontaneous movements. Regardless of their initial – or even overall – sterility, such movements do have a certain social and political gravity about them and there is always a degree of possibility for them to attract the more militant layers of the working class. Communists must be ready for such a change in the situation and be prepared to respond accordingly, to stand beside their fellow workers should they decide to intervene.

On the third evening of the protest, 9 July, a situation emerged that provided a glimmer of hope that just such a thing might happen. A section of the youth involved in the protest developed a tactic to identify and remove the right-wing provocateurs. Whenever someone would attempt to start some form of violence, the crowd would sit down in order to expose the provocateurs and then groups would get up and physically push them out of the protest. Apart from that, there was a small number of unionised healthcare workers from COVID-19 hospitals, who came to the rally in order to share their experiences and grievances. On these grounds we decided to intervene in the protest the following night, with a slightly amended version of our April proclamation. This proclamation included a set of measures for fighting against the pandemic and its economic consequences. Serbo-Croatian readers can find the original document here. However, on the next day, 10 July, the size of the crowd was significantly smaller, making the right-wing provocateurs stand out more easily. On 11 July, things became even more surreal, with only about 1,000 people present and the protest being dominated by Orthodox fundamentalists flaunting icons and a stark raving mad priest at the microphone. At this point, it is most likely that the protest is waning and that different forms of struggle are needed to stand up to the Vučić regime effectively.

IMT comrade Serbia protest Image own workOur material attracted interest at the smaller demonstrations we attended, showing radical/class-based elements in the movement / Image: own work

Throughout these days there were a number of leftist groups present, who fancied themselves able to take over the protest and make it working-class by simply barging into the crowd with banners and megaphones. However, all they accomplished was to make themselves appear as a foreign object in a crowd already panicking and fearful of infiltration and to attract an open conflict with the fascists like a magnet. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with getting into conflict with the fascists per se. However, there is plenty wrong in letting a shouting match between your two groups cloud the focus of your intervention and impede your communication with the bulk of the crowd.

Intervention in protests isn’t about parading, or about flippant insignia baring. While insignia and iconography very often do have their place in protest interventions, and can serve as highly efficient recruitment tools labour or student rallies, they can be a shot in the foot in spontaneous rallies where people are tired or mistrustful of political parties and organisations. Communists must always employ flexible tactics and keep in mind that there are no mechanical, one-size-fits-all approaches. It’s imperative to always assess the mood of the crowds, the concrete circumstances that affect it, and to be able to rapidly change your assessment and your approach if you see sudden changes on the ground.

What the Yugoslav section of the IMT, Marxist Organisation ‘Reds’, did under these circumstances was to put concrete ideas first and iconography last. Our principle for this brand of protest was: invisible individuals - visible ideas. Our comrades formed no separate bloc, as we weren’t there to put off protesters and attract the police. Instead, our comrades distributed copies of our proclamation, with information about our organisation and ways for people to reach us if they agreed with what they were reading. Sure, there were a number of negative reactions, and refusals to read anything communist. But there were many more very positive and curious responses and very soon a number of young people sought out our comrades in the crowd and asked to take a copy of our material. A number of them even engaged in discussions and said they were going to look into our website and read more.

What next?

As in any large protest, we can see that a social and working class-based element is always present in one way or another. While only shy and latent among some layers of the youth in Belgrade, it actually managed to come out into the open in Novi Sad. This was the only city where protest demands had a clear class position, demanding, among other things, an end to sackings and reinstatement for the workers who lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 crisis. However, these demands were put forward by left-leaning intellectuals, who watered them down with sterile demands for a number of resignations of government officials, which serve no purpose. Worse, the demands were made less attractive by adventurous and theatrical tactics on behalf of the left-leaning protest leadership (the only leftist protest leadership in the country at the moment), which tolerated rioting and constantly overplayed their hand by suggesting outlandish tactics, such as blocking a highway. Such an approach reflects the vicious circle of petty-bourgeois leftism – its tactics are extravagant and outlandish because there is no participation by the labour movement to focus them, and the labour movement isn’t joining them because extravagant and outlandish tactics are risky and can hazard the workers’ jobs, threatening the security of their families.

It is becoming abundantly clear that the ‘civil protest’ model, which has been fetishised and used as a default approach ever since the toppling of the Milošević regime, is no way to successfully topple a regime, let alone change the entire system. When people analyse the protests of the 1990s and the ‘colour revolutions’ in early 2000s, they often forget that these ‘civil protests’ were often just a prop for a regime-change tactic, underneath which a series of backroom deals, defections and sabotages were being orchestrated by Western imperialism. In and of themselves, ‘civil protests’ are toothless carnivals, even with the most-justified demands, and they always serve the interests of forces that wield the strongest physical power behind them.

This force needn’t always be imperialism, though. We must beware of the various ‘it’s all engineered by Soros’ etc. conspiracy theories. The working class also has the power and the capacity to put itself at the forefront of broader civil unrest. It has proven that on numerous occasions throughout history and it shall prove it again soon enough. In order to do that, however, painstaking organising efforts are needed. In every workplace, in every trade union branch and confederation, political articulation of class demands is needed, in this situation more than ever. This won’t happen out of the blue. It can only be done with the involvement of the communists. This is where our main goal today lies. While we are by no means deaf to sudden changes, even minor ones, in the class composition of civil protests, our main goal in this period is to throw our support behind key social struggles that will take place at workplaces and schools, to help link them up and fight for a lasting and comprehensive solution that strikes at the root of our crisis – the capitalist system.

As this article was sent for editing, we received news that three members of the Roof Over Our Heads Coalition had been arrested and summarily sentenced to 30 days imprisonment. Their names are Igor Šljapić, Mario Marković and Dr. Vladimir Mentus. Igor Šljapić was protesting peacefully, holding a banner saying “What will you do when you run out of tear gas?” and was sentenced in kangaroo process for “insulting an official on duty”. Mario Marković wasn’t even participating in the protest, but was picked up as he was riding his bike on a food delivery job, and sentenced on equally false charges. Dr. Vladimir Mentus, associate at the Social Sciences Institute, took no part in the riots, but was nevertheless arrested, brutally beaten by the police and sentenced on the same false charge. In the three summary processes, none of the defendants had the right to a solicitor and the only witnesses the court allowed were the policemen who arrested them. We’d like to extend our support to these three activists. Marxist Organisation ‘Reds’, the Yugoslav section of the IMT, will stand in solidarity with them and demand their immediate release.

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