Militarisation of the police forces as demonstrated on the Police Day. Photo: Srđan Popović / blurred background added / licensed under CC 4.0, linked at bottom of article Militarisation of the police forces as demonstrated on the Police Day. Photo: Srđan Popović / blurred background added / licensed under CC 4.0, linked at bottom of article

Police brutality shows shallow support for Serbia’s government, reports Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Just two weeks after parliamentary elections boycotted by the opposition, Serbia was once again gripped by a protest wave.

Demonstrations broke out after President Aleskandar Vučić announced on television on 7 July that a police curfew was part of the government’s response to a steep recent rise in Covid-19 cases.

During the spring, curfew was regularly imposed, for up to continuous 60 hours during weekends. This particularly hit the working class and vulnerable groups, such as the homeless or people working in the informal economy.

The measures were only lifted recently, to facilitate the holding of elections. Yet, in the days after the election, it emerged that official statistics had vastly understated infection and death rates in a bid to lift lockdown and facilitate elections, which the ruling party, the Serbian Progressives, had been expected to win.

Thus, several days in a row, starting on the evening of the 7th July, up to 10,000 people took to the streets. They were met with exceptionally brutal police violence.

Tear-gas, violent police beatings of protesters and by-standers, and mass arrests and convictions without due process have exposed the government’s weakness.

Police in Serbia

Following the fall of the Milošević regime in October 2000, the police has been kept on a short leash by politicians. This was because of their hated role in crowd control during the 1990s, upholding an authoritarian regime.

Police did not withdraw fully from public life, however, playing part in the state of emergency after the assassination of Serbian PM Zoran Djindjic in March 2003.

After their failure to ensure the security of Belgrade pride in 2009, leading to its cancelation, police faced major pressure and on one occasion running battles to keep successive pride marches safe.

They were also visible as a quiet threat in response to worker resistance to privatisation. I remember going to a mass worker assembly in the summer of 2009 which saw workers vote en masse to end a privatisation of their bus-making company, Ikarbus. Heavily armed police lined the streets outside to prevent workers protesting on the highway.

You could not be a young person in Belgrade in the 2000s and 2010s and fail to notice the militarisation of the police forces. In recent years, police began to hold military-style parades on the day of the police in central Belgrade, to show off their heavy equipment.

But there was something quite new and unexpected about the violent police crackdown in recent days.

It was as if they had been unleashed. There was also a visible coordination with the far right, who were allowed to stage provocations like forced entry into Parliament, followed by police crackdowns. The obvious strategy was an attempt to drive ordinary people away, but also to ensure that the far right is represented as the only real opposition.

You would be excused for being perplexed: the ruling party had just won a two third majority in parliament, and no opposition worth the name sits in the current parliament.

Yet, the low turnout in the elections, below 50 percent, was an indication of something amiss. People were also genuinely angered by the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis.

Social unrest

Moreover, Serbia faces major economic and social problems. According to research in 2017, the richest fifth of the population earned 9.4 times what the poorest fifth earned, making Serbia the most unequal among EU member states and candidate countries.

With an economic recession of 2.5 percent predicted, and up to 300,000 jobs at risk according to trade unions, it is clear that the government is nervous. The police crackdown was a warning to opposition groups and the population that the state is ready to act.

Serbia is also under pressure to recognise Kosovo as part of its path to EU entry. Doing deals on Kosovo is likely to see a nationalist backlash, and presents a further source of worry for the government.

While pro-regime media have been ignoring the protests, the government has also started arresting people without giving them a fair trial. Several have been convicted in front of a judge, on the evidence of arresting police officers, without the presence of their lawyer.

The left responded to the arrests of left wing activists by organising protests in front of the police station in Novi Sad and in front of Belgrade Central Prison, demanding the release of ‘political prisoners’.

In the latter case, activists from the Joint Action Roof over Your Head, the initiative Let’s not let Belgrade d(r)own! (Ne davimo Beograd!) the Social Democratic Union (SDU), and Marks21 protested on Monday 13th July and Tuesday 14th, ensuring the release of some prisoners pending re-trial.

Indeed, the government has been forced to backtrack over its announcement about the police curfew as well. This bodes ill for a government that has tried to present itself as strong, and is likely to embolden protests in the medium term, even though the current wave of protest appears to be subsiding.

Yet we are now definitely entering a turbulent period. With crises on the horizon, the government has shown it is ready to repress opposition and mass politics has shown it is likely to polarise. The state and the far right seem united in their distaste for the left, which will be faced with major challenges. An ability to close ranks and appeal to broad sections of the population will be vital.

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Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.