The opposition coalition Serbia Against Violence organized the eighth protest against election fraud in Belgrade. After the police dispersed the protests, the new demonstrations in Serbia took on a new context.
The protesters demanded the release of all those detained during the previous rally, including several students. As they noted, the whereabouts of some detainees are still unknown. At the same time, police representatives refused to answer questions from protesters.
Opposition protests dispersed by the police
On the night of December 25, when all Western nations celebrate Christmas and pay little attention to political news, police in Serbia broke up a rally of the pro-Western opposition protesting against election fraud.
The actions of the Serbian authorities have a distinctly Russian scenario, and President Aleksandar Vučić has thanked the Russian special services for providing information about “the preparation of a coup d’état”.
After the police dispersed the protests the next morning, Vučić defiantly met with the Russian ambassador, who, of course, expressed full support for the actions of the Serbian authorities.
President Vučić and Russia blame the West
The rhetoric of the Russian and Serbian authorities is also the same: both interpret the protests in Belgrade as an attempt by Western countries to “organize a Maidan.”
And of course, the Serbian authorities deny accusations of election fraud and reject proposals to hold a second vote, even in the capital, where violations were most obvious, according to observers.
Despite the fact that the Western response was rather toothless, the opposition has already resumed protests and promised to stand until the end.
Serbian election marked by violations
Opposition rallies in Belgrade had been ongoing for over a week at that time, starting after the announcement of the results of the parliamentary and local elections held on December 17.
In these elections, despite the predictions of sociologists, Vučić’s political force, the Serbian Progressive Party, managed to improve its results and regain a mono-majority in the Skupština (Serbian parliament).
The united pro-Western opposition, which ran in the Serbia Against Violence bloc, came in second, as expected. However, the pro-Western opposition’s result of less than 23% clearly fell short of sociologists’ forecasts (exit polls are prohibited during elections in Serbia).
The opposition expected a victory in the Belgrade local elections. But Vucic’s party secured a narrow win: 39,9% vs 35,5% of votes, and 49 vs 43 seats in the local parliament, as per the official results. Something, the pro-EU opposition didn’t expect at all.
It seems that the opposition leaders were unprepared for such a development in the elections. Opposition leaders Marinika Tepić and Miroslav Aleksić went on a hunger strike, demanding a re-vote in the capital, where the government’s use of administrative resources was particularly noticeable.
Despite the weakness of the opposition, the protest mood in Serbia was strong enough to make the rallies daily and number many thousands, and at the same time, it was quite organized.
OSCE international observers recorded the use of administrative resources, media bias, and voter bribery but refused to speak of recognizing the election results as fraudulent.
Against the backdrop of the protests, however, EU leaders refrained from congratulating Vučić; the Serbian president received a congratulatory telegram only from his friend, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, known for his anti-EU and pro-Russian views.
Violent scenario in Belgrade
In such a situation, the Serbian authorities desperately needed to discredit the protest—the actions of the opposition—which would give grounds for the use of force. And on December 24, this opportunity arose.
The protesters moved from the Central Election Commission building to the neighboring building of the Metropolitan Assembly (the city’s parliament). Demonstrators brought the flags of Serbia and the European Union to the protest. During the protest, they blew whistles and repeatedly shouted “thieves!”.
Representatives of the opposition wanted to speak from the balcony of the city hall, but the police did not let them in. The opposition candidate for mayor of Belgrade, Vladimir Obradović, said that the police did not allow them to get to their “workplaces”.
This led to attempts by some protesters to force their way into the parliament, breaking several windows and glass doors. Some masked people tried to break into the Belgrade City Hall building, but police forces inside used tear gas and dispersed the protesters.
This, in turn, was the signal to action for the police and gendarmerie, who began arrests, beating several journalists and opposition MPs. The police and gendarmerie arrested a total of 38 people during the events of that night.
Aleksandar Vučić, the Serbian President, stated that he would ensure all detainees face justice.
In his speech, the Serbian president said that “no revolution is taking place” and that “the state is strong enough” to “protect democracy, the electoral will of citizens, Serbia, and Belgrade.” He accused the opposition of attempting to seize state institutions by force.
Serbian opposition blamed the government
For their part, representatives of the “Serbia Against Violence” coalition accuse the government of excessive violence during the dispersal of protests.
Football fans affiliated with the Serbian authorities started the violence, according to the Serbian opposition. Dragan Đilas, the president of the Freedom and Justice Party, claims that fans from the group of Đorđe Prelić, who is serving a sentence for the murder of a French fan, have been identified as the instigators of the assault. The police did not arrest anyone from this group on the night of December 25.
Instead, the Serbian authorities immediately claimed to have prevented the coup attempt.
Vučić voiced this version in the morning during a meeting with Russian Ambassador Alexandr Botsan-Kharchenko. “The opposition initiated protests with external support. Vučić has irrefutable evidence that the incitement to the unrest came from the West,” the Russian diplomat said after the meeting.
“Information from Russian special services”
Russian special services passed on information about the opposition’s attempt to stage a coup, shared Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić.
“This is obviously not going to be popular in the West, but I especially feel that it is important to speak up for Serbia and thank the Russian security services who had this information and shared it with us,” she said.
Brnabic clarifies that the Serbian authorities passed this information on to other countries, but they “rejected it as Russian disinformation.”
The United States also responded to the events in Belgrade. US Ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill emphasized that Serbia’s leaders and citizens must remember the importance of transparency and the willingness of all parties, regardless of the election outcome, to respect the will of the people as expressed in the vote. He also stressed the need to address grievances through legal, peaceful, and non-violent means.
The very next day, after the dispersal, protests in Belgrade resumed. After marching to the police station on December 24, where they held the detainees, the protesters once again held a rally near the Central Election Commission.
Pro-EU opposition demands and new rallies
The opposition will decide on its next steps at a large rally scheduled for December 30.
However, the opposition has strengthened its demands; now they are demanding re-elections not only in Belgrade but throughout the country.
Do the Belgrade protests have a chance of success? Yes, but they do not seem high.
First, pro-Western sentiment is not dominant in Serbia. Sociologists estimated that Serbia Against Violence would win 30% of the vote in the December 17 elections.
The majority in the capital likely shares these sentiments, making it a key argument in favor of the protest.
Second, the West’s reaction has been extremely cautious, and there has been no open support for the pro-European opposition.
It seems that for the West, President Vučić, who balances between the West and Moscow in foreign policy, is a lesser evil than the risks of radical pro-Russian forces coming to power. While the pro-EU opposition is not strong enough to win the national election.