Belgrade is Burning

by Stefan Aćimović
Belgrade is Burning

With the elections now over, the Serbian government was once again free to turn it’s focus on to the pandemic which they had apparently defeated in the weeks preceding the election day. Now, because the people were undisciplined and to no fault of the government, Serbia was quickly becoming a Covid hotspot in Europe. 

In the days leading up to the protests rumours from the government began suggesting that a lockdown will be enforced once more. On July 7th President Vucic finally addressed the nation at 6 O’clock, blaming the Serbian people for the new Covid wave and stating that he will close Belgrade once more. By 8 O’clock a large and angry crowd gathered in front of the Parliament building, with an energy of protest not felt in years, one that seemed to be ready to burn the structure down. Protesters who reached the Parliament steps were confronted by a small group of riot police guarding the entrance to the building. Short scuffles between the protesters and the police ensued with the crowd yelling out at the police asking “who are you protecting”. Around midnight a flare was thrown by the protesters, on the steps, behind the police line. The flare was then returned into the crowd before being picked up and thrown back at the police with a cheering crowd looking over. The police once more returned the now fully lit flare back into the crowd with the steps of the Parliament building starting a fire that lead to panic as people tried to move out of the way. Within seconds the first, of what would be many, tear gas grenades was fired behind the peaceful crowd standing in front of the Parliament. Chaos quickly erupted. 

Over the next few hours the police battled with the protesters who moved back and forth around the Parliament trying to reach the plato in front of the building once again. All night the crowd was bombarded with teargas, armoured vehicles were called in, and finally the police cavalry brigade was set loose to break up what was left of the demonstrators by charging in once the teargas barrage had taken effect. The protesters fall back shouting enthusiastically “We’ll see you tomorrow”. 

The July 7th demonstrations started because of the people’s anger towards the government and Vucic. After months of panic, lockdowns, PR stunts, fear mongering, confusing government decisions and finally a sudden return to normal followed by football matches, the opening of borders and of course the elections with a massive post election celebration by the ruling party. Now the president is saying that due to no fault of the government and all due to the Serbian people, they will lock us back up. The people say “No”. 

July 8th Vucic announces that Belgrade will not be under a lockdown, the crisis centre begins saying that the situation is getting better (over night) but during all of this the government said that the police did not use overwhelming force, that the protesters attacked the police with teargas and that this was an attempted coup by foreign nationals (for the first time hinting at not the West but Russia). The government response did little to calm the public down. Once more protests erupted, this time due to the actions of the police the night before and the government’s silence and attempts at spinning the story. A handful of violent protesters in front of the steps of the Parliament attacked the police. The massive crowd stood behind, peacefully. Finally, instead of professionally dealing with the group of hooligans that are separated from the rest of the protesters, the police once again fired teargas into the crowd of some 30.000 people. 

A massive police show of force thus starts and will last well into the night. Counter terrorism units were deployed, the horse brigade, police hounds, and most of the Gendarmerie were sent to the streets of Belgrade to deal with the unarmed crowd. The day began with Vucic saying he “is not afraid of the protesters”. So unmoved was he by them that police units from around the country were redeployed to Belgrade, leaving the protests in other cities around Serbia unguarded by the police. The night became marked by police brutality, police attacks and interference with members of the press, mass arrests, and finally the pro government media reporting on the brutality and violence against the police. 

In the days that followed the protests became calmer but not without police actions, the beatings, the arrests, and the lies will continue. Those arrested will be tried without legal representation, the police will give false testimony, the president will comment on how the arrested youth are weeping in prison. Evidence of police interference into the demonstrations in making them violent have come to light. In addition, heavy use of non uniformed men working alongside the police have come under great scrutiny as to who those men are. 

Twice in a week Vucic reversed his decisions due to public outcry. First when he scapegoated students for the rise in the infection rate, now the planned lockdown. Public trust is at an all time low, every government decision is now questioned. No one knows what will happen next but the consensus is that this is the beginning of the end for this regime. One fact is for certain, the people have had enough.

Photo: Getty Images, A.Isakovic

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