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Serbia election protests mount in Belgrade

Serbia election protests mount in Belgrade

by host

BELGRADE, Serbia — Tens of thousands gathered in central Belgrade on Saturday in one of the largest protests since the Serbian election two weeks ago, united in their charges of vote fraud and in urging the EU to take serious note of unfolding events in the country.

“I want to invite our friends from Europe to pay more attention to what’s happening here,” Srđan Cvijić, a member of the Belgrade Center for Security Policy who was an election monitor in the December 17 vote, told those gathered around the capital’s Terazije fountain Saturday.

He decried the fact that Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who often boasts of his close relationship to EU and Western officials, only promotes European values and “hangs up EU flags” when officials from Brussels and foreign dignitaries pay the country a visit.

Vučić has for years skillfully navigated the tightrope between the West and Russia, often turning to the latter to bolster nationalist support. Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko has publicly backed Vučić’s unverified assertion that external forces are guiding the protests — a narrative often used by Russian President Vladimir Putin when confronted with dissent.

Serbia’s ruling party and pro-government outlets have disparagingly likened the protests to the Maidan uprising in Kyiv, which started in late 2013 and saw pro-democracy and pro-EU supporters engaged in widespread demonstrations and civil unrest. Notably, that movement was exploited by Putin as a pretext for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

“Support for the EU might have weakened, but it’s understandable because our friends from Brussels do not criticize the government of Aleksandar Vučić enough,” Cvijić said, holding up a faded European flag from back in the 1990s when he and his family protested against Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević.

Recent events in the country are reminiscent of protest movements during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Much like now, a diverse crowd of all ages but spearheaded by younger generations took to the streets at the time to resist the erosion of freedoms under Milošević’s rule, a period marked by bloody conflicts in neighboring countries.

Saturday’s demonstration was set in the same location most of the protests in the 1990s were held.

Both local and international entities, including the OSCE and European Parliament observers, have condemned election fraud and manipulation in the December 17 vote.

Actress Svetlana Bojković, part of the non-partisan ProGlas or ProVote coalition which encouraged electoral participation, passionately read out from reports pouring in from across the country detailing the tactics employed during the election. The list includes instances of cancer patients awaiting transplants being manipulated to support the ruling party in exchange for advancement on the donor list; senior citizens being enticed with monetary incentives to alter their residency; and deceased citizens resurfacing on voter rolls.

Since the Monday following the election, daily protests have unfolded in front of key institutions including the Belgrade city hall and the central election commission. Saturday’s rally marked the 13th consecutive demonstration, with a notable incident on December 24 when the police responded with considerable force after a small group shattered the front windows of the Belgrade city assembly.

Opposition politician Marinika Tepić, who has been on a hunger strike since the election, had to be hoisted on stage due to her frail condition as Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” was blasted from speakers.

“These elections need to be overturned,” Tepić said, after apologizing for not being able to say more. After her appearance, she was transferred to the hospital due to her worsening health.

An aerial view of people attending the protest | Vladimir Zivojinovic/Getty Images

Ahead of the protest, student organizations organized a 24-hour blockade of a key intersection in the capital, cutting off access to the foreign affairs and defense ministries.

They camped out overnight in around 20 tents set up for the purpose in freezing temperatures, passing the time by studying, doing crossword puzzles and playing chess. They also organized panel lectures, including one on what to do if they get arrested by the police. Dozens have been detained since the December 24 escalation of the protests.

Emilija Milenković, one of the leading student figures, said that her generation was deeply disappointed by the decay in democratic norms caused by the manipulations in the election.

“That disappointment was transformed into fury. We’re furious that our elections were stolen, that our votes were manipulated, because our will has been tampered with again and again,” she said. “A democratic election process is the absolute minimum,” she concluded.

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