Serbia and Macedonia: a story of two protests

Civic Action10 May 2017Gordana Knezevic

Recent mass protests in Belgrade and Skopje have shown that public dissent can be driven by very different forces. Following an election that produced no change, people in Serbia have taken to the streets to express their discontent with the power elite. In neighbouring Macedonia the outgoing government, after losing its majority in the latest elections, has mobilized its supporters to block the process of political succession. This article takes a closer look at these two very different protests in order to shed some light on what is happening in Eastern Europe.

Serbia: ‘How did we get here?’

On 3 April, the day after Aleksandar Vucic’s victory in the Serbian presidential elections, an apparently spontaneous outpouring of public anger erupted in the Serbian capital Belgrade and some other cities. Although now, over a month later, there may be fewer people on the streets, the protests are still going on.

The people flooding the streets of Belgrade are mainly young people who either did not vote or who cast their ballot for one of the opposition candidates. After Vucic’s overwhelming electoral victory, what has been driving these protestors is disappointment with a system that appears to keep the same people in power, with one party, the SNS (Serbian Progressive Party), dominating political life and controlling the media, the job market, and seemingly all aspects of life.

Those who remember the demonstrations against Slobodan Milosevic in the mid-1990s believe that the same guiding spirit is behind the current protests: Nebojsa Popov. A champion of civil society and a leading figure in protests against the late Serbian strongman, Popov was the editor of ‘Republika’, a magazine whose mission was to promote human and individual rights. Popov passed away last year, but many observers note that his ideas have surfaced in some of the slogans used during the demonstrations.

Popov’s idea of a ‘Republic’ “is a kind of society that demands the participation of free, independent citizens. Citizens who take an active interest in their own lives, the life of their micro-community, as well as broader issues, such as the makeup and policies of the national government,” art historian Nebojsa Milenkovic told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Belgrade. “Thus, the current protests are in a sense an extension of ‘Republika’ (which is no longer published) and Popov’s unrelenting fight against (totalitarian) ‘one-mindedness’”, Milenkovic adds. Popov’s last book, How We Got Here, is both a memoir and a blueprint for resistance against any authoritarian regime.

Regional currents: the Romanian example

If Popov provided the blueprint for the Serbian protests, the immediate inspiration may have come from Serbia’s neighbour to the north, Romania. Only two months ago, and despite freezing temperatures, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Bucharest and other cities protesting the government’s attempt to weaken anti-corruption laws. Reports from Romania were among the most commented on stories in Belgrade media, and Romanians were widely praised for their bravery in holding the government accountable.

At the time, many in Serbia lamented the apathy of their own fellow citizens – but it did not take long for them to emulate the Romanian example. Facebook was useful in spreading awareness, but “the protests started spontaneously”, claims Miran Pogacar, of the Novi Sad student movement, speaking to the RFE/RL Balkan Service program The Bridge. According to Pogacar, the sense of grievance that has been driving young people into the streets day after day has much deeper roots than the election itself: “The choice facing us is stark – when we graduate, we can either leave the country, or join the governing party in order to get a job. Most of the younger people reject that narrow spectrum [of choices], and that is why they are in the streets”.

Macedonia: patriotism as the last refuge of the populist

While what we are witnessing in Serbia is a grass-roots initiative, led by ordinary citizens demanding change, the ongoing protests in Macedonia are a different kettle of fish. The party which has dominated Macedonian politics for the past decade, the Christian democratic and nationalist party, VMRO-DPMNE, won only 51 parliamentary seats in the December 2016 elections; a dramatic loss of 10 seats. Although the VMRO-DPMNE does not have enough seats to secure a majority and form a government, the party, under the leadership of (former) prime minister Nikola Gruevski, refuses to step down. Wrapping themselves in the national flag, the leaders of the former ruling party are using mass gatherings to prevent a peaceful transition of power to the Social Democratic Union.

The protests in Macedonia are being organized by people close to the former prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, and claim to be gatherings of ‘patriots’ defending national unity. The Macedonian nation is allegedly threatened with the prospect of Zoran Zaev, leader of the Social Democrats, being allowed to form a government – as he is entitled to do in the wake of his victory in the latest elections. Refusing to accept the results of the election, it seems that the VMRO-DPMNE and its sympathizers would rather see a civil war than give up power.

Macedonia is a candidate for EU membership and a fledgling democracy, but right now it needs outside help to reinstate the rule of law and defend the democratic process and institutions. However the EU is facing its own moment of reckoning, and is extremely reluctant to interfere in the domestic affairs of a non-member state – even one with aspirations of joining the Union.

Vucic: keeping the peace and the power

The street violence that has erupted in Macedonia is now being used by Serbian authorities to demonize the dissenters in Serbia. According to them, the Macedonian experience shows that the only alternative to president Aleksandar Vucic and his party is chaos, violence, and instability. The Belgrade protests should, however, serve as a warning for Vucic to tread carefully, even though the demonstrations are unlikely to bring about significant changes in the near future. By steering clear of using force against the protestors, Vucic is also managing to keep the interference of EU officials at bay. And, as long as he maintains the dialogue with Kosovo and purports to be a guardian of regional stability, the European Union will be satisfied. That, however, is scant consolation to the men and women in the streets of Belgrade yearning for meaningful change in their daily lives.