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Belgrade Calling 2

15 July 2020

Katarina Kostandinović

Birdhead, April protests in Belgrade, 2017

When thinking about the title of this text, I thought of “Is Belgrade Burning?”, referring to “Is Paris Burning?” – the question Hitler is said to have asked on receiving the news of its fall. But I changed my mind; I did not want to dramatize the situation in Belgrade, which has, in the last week, escalated into several days of protests, police brutality and general dissatisfaction that threatens to be annulled by the authorities and the regime media. In a previous article that I wrote for this journal, through the form of diary entries, I dealt with the situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This text is a reaction to the current situation caused by unprofessional management of the coronavirus crisis, by the state representatives and the Crisis Staff.

I’d like to clarify the position I am taking in writing the following text. I am an academic citizen and cultural worker employed in one of the public institutions of the city of Belgrade. In addition to supporting my generation in protests and expressing our dissatisfaction and recoil in fear, I want to condemn the rhetoric of violence, to rebel against corrupt officials, to condemn sexual predators and take the side of their victims. I want to allow myself to tell for the first time what kind of future I want and where I (don’t) want to live. To get out of the media darkness that has been overshadowing us all for some time, to support my colleagues and professors in the fight against plagiarized diplomas, I want nepotism to stop and positions in institutions to be filled on the basis of competency and knowledge. I want to support the fight for human rights, the rule of law and justice!


On June 21, the citizens of Serbia voted in the first parliamentary elections in Europe during the coronavirus pandemic, and part of the opposition decided to boycott the elections. A little more than a month before the elections, the state of emergency was lifted and people were encouraged to return to “normal”. That meant the possibility of holding sports matches and celebrations again, re-opening clubs and conducting an election campaign, as well as the elections. The new COVID-regime was meant to set the conditions for the upcoming parliamentary elections and voting procedures. While president Vučić was preparing, the cracks in the healthcare system and state’s neglect of health infrastructure became even more obvious than before [1]. Although the fact that the ruling Serbian Progressive Party won convincingly was not a surprise, there were discrepancies in real and reported numbers.

Shortly after, the number of infected people started to rise and this time the numbers of infected and deceased people from some cities did not match the official data coming from the Crisis Staff and the state representatives. New precautions had to be introduced; among other things, the president decides to evict students from dorms in the middle of the exam period, identifying them as a dangerous factor in spreading the infection. After the report on the president’s decision on the same day, July 3, students from Belgrade gathered in front of the National Assembly to protest – the reaction was spontaneous and urgent. On Tuesday, July 7, after President Vučić announced that a curfew should be introduced in Belgrade, due to the rapid spread of the virus, thousands of citizens took to the streets of the capital to express their dissatisfaction. It was the first of seven protests held so far, which turned into a brutal showdown between police and protesters for almost three nights in a row.

The protest turned into riots and people were throwing rocks and garbage cans, containers were set on fire, as well as police vehicles. On the first day of the protest, according to the information by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, four vehicles were set on fire, while one was damaged. Shortly after the arson, a story erupted on social networks that members of the police a.k.a. trained hooligans controlled by the state were behind such deeds. Most social network users are convinced that the Ministry of the Interior burned their vehicles on their own, old and unusable ones, which they are trying to prove with photos. On the other hand, the representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs deny it.

Social media, these days, is a serious channel through which information travels, people who protest from the streets report, and people who are not able to get to the streets share the content with incredible speed. Messages are of various content – from warnings about the movement of the police, mapping of suspicious persons at protests to articles of the law on protection of citizens and rights during arrests or police duties when using weapons, etc. Such mobilization through social networks was encouraged partly by footages of independent journalists who were the few to report on the protest, and largely by footages of protesters noticing police brutality and false statements by government officials denying the brutality in the media.

Mass civil protests are a burning topic on social media and the public sphere. Numerous people have been discussing violence they have been witnessing. Thus, there is also fake news (both on social and TV networks) and corrupted media are now attracting even more attention – it is a matter of different content, and I will mention one. Reporting by a pre-written text, while people were sitting at the protest third day in a row, B92 TV news anchor states in the news at 11 pm that “the protest turned into violent demonstrations and clashes with the police”, although that was not true. The same reporter later joined the program live, saying that “there were no major incidents”. The fact that the “script” which anchor read in the studio was written in advance is evidenced by photos and recordings from the protest on Thursday, which, apart from a few minor clashes between the protesters, took place in peace and without clashes with the police.

The mobilization on social networks gives the impression that the news from Belgrade is being transmitted outside the borders of Serbia. However, again, there are notable examples of biasing and altering news.

Photo by Katarina Kostandinović


For several days now, I have been witnessing a similar choreography of police and “hooligans” who are believed to be there to provoke incidents so that the government, supposedly, can blame the “organizers” of the protest for the violence and take violent steps to suppress the protest. People gather in front of the Assembly, the loudest and right-wing ones are in front of the entrance to the building, most of the other protesters surround them. Derogatory words are being shouted, the government is called out, Kosovo is mentioned, and specific demands are heard in some places. Some of the demands that can be heard are the following: the resignation of President Vučić; resignation of members of the Crisis Staff; overthrowing parliamentary elections;  that the formation of Assembly and the Government should not be allowed on the basis of illegal and fraudulent elections, a law prohibiting party affiliation to employees in the judiciary, inspection, education, health, police and military; return open calls for employment in the public sector, without party employment; etc.

Tension and dissatisfaction grow and after a while rocks are fired. The police came  out of the Assembly and moved to the crowd in front of the building. Torches were lit, they flew towards the police, and at that moment, tear gas was flying from the other side towards the protesters who were fleeing from the police cordon that separated the group and continued to suppress it in the side streets and parks. It was the first time that my friends and I felt tear gas and its consequences. Later that night I saw the footage of the N1 television (one of the few that was on the scene that night).It showed the brutal beating of young men who were sitting in the park next to the Assembly. In the following evenings, from the terraces of apartments in the city centre, people recorded various cases of police brutality, and the number of arrested and beaten people on the streets grew from night to the night. It is undeniable that some police officers were hurt too, but the number of hurt unarmed civilians was much larger than reported. 

Revolted by the reaction of state representatives, whose speeches and announcements often confuse the Serbian public, regarding the protests and their violent suppression and final disintegration, people continue to gather next day at the same time in front of the Assembly. The next day, reactions to the police violence that happened the previous evening could be heard from the crowd. Then, after a couple of hours of protest, the situation escalated again into chaos and fleeing from tear gas and, now, better-equipped police forces, cordons, cavalry, and special anti-terrorist units in armoured vehicles. The violence on the streets of Belgrade which we witnessed opened the question of who are these people attacking police and whether there are those who are there to quell the protests from within “inserted” among us. This time, the aggression increased on both sides and the collision with the police continued. A huge amount of tear gas was fired, which was now coming to the apartments in the streets where people were fleeing and hiding. The denial of the fact that the police fired tear gas at all, by the prime minister herself, led the protesters to take the streets peacefully the next day, to show disgust with the police brutality while sitting in front of the Assembly.

After two days of brutal clashes with the police, the protesters gathered under the slogan “Sit down – Don’t be manipulated”. Authorities withdrew the police and seemingly acknowledged the peaceful protests, which escalated with the president’s next public announcements. As usual, his aggressive rhetoric when addressing citizens and journalists, which oscillates between the role of a worried father and a frightening tyrant, encouraged protesters to take to the streets for the fourth night in a row.

And the now well-known choreography is repeated with even stronger police forces, which this time arrest everyone who is on their way and take them to, as it is stated, the Assembly, where they interrogate the detainees, beat them, take away their phones and write reports. The media have been reporting that after the conflict in front of the Assembly, the police fired a large amount of tear gas into the mass of peaceful demonstrators, some of whom are 30 years old. The cartridges that were scattered on the streets near the Assembly of Serbia clearly show that the year of production is 1990. The current debate in media discusses the effects of old tear gas, which, apparently, after five years changes its chemical composition and the substance becomes stronger.  This can imply that the convention on the use of chemical weapons was violated and human health was directly endangered. State officials and Ministry of the Interior denied these reports, stating that the inevitable was done in order to quell the violent protest and prevent greater damage.

People are more and more scared and, consequently, there are obviously fewer people gathering, unlike the first two days of the protest. During the weekend the number of protesters almost halved, and this Monday (July 13) was immeasurably lower than the first few days. This is partly a consequence of the increase in police patrols, which have been on the streets of Belgrade, searching for people who get in their way, especially those with protest banners.Several arrests have been reported. On the other hand, reported cases of cell phone hackings and deleting of the protest recordings brought unrest and additional fear due to privacy violation. The police have arrested non-violent protesters, among them leftist activists. This prompted the protest movement from the Assembly to the Central Prison in Belgrade, where protesters are demanding the release of “political prisoners” [2]. Yesterday and today, July 14, people are protesting because of numerous arrested activists and students who were not violent during the protest –some were just passers-by interrogated by police whose statements were falsified. They were then sentenced to 30 days in prison, without the possibility to contact a lawyer and defend themselves in court.

We are scared and disoriented, it seems that the expressed rebellion and anger did not get any political articulation and does not turn into a strategy in the fight against the current government or a strategy of clearly defined demands that would pressure the government to meet those demands. The role of the opposition, which has been left without the organizational capacity and credibility to address the citizens at this political moment, seems unwelcomed. How to articulate a rebellion against impotent representatives of the people, who confuse, deceive and criminalize their citizens? How to express dissatisfaction with public information and corrupt media? How to invite colleagues, professors, friends to join and not be afraid to withdraw from obedience to the perennial fear government?

In the previous few days, perhaps the most serious protests were held during the rule of Aleksandar Vučić, who already after the first evening fulfilled the first and so far the only request of the demonstrators – a change in the decision to reintroduce the curfew. Some would say that no matter how these protests end, it is a big and serious thing, especially since the public, after the “One in Five Million” protest ended, speculated whether and when energy would be accumulated for new protests. It turned out, on Tuesday night, July 7, that only one spontaneous gathering of angry citizens, due to the announcement of a new curfew, was more fruitful than about a year of protests led by the opposition. The protest became a place where politically, ideologically diverse people gather, and how the day will look like depends on the current dominance in the number of some of them. The only thing that is constant and common to everyone in front of the Assembly of Serbia is dissatisfaction with the regime and the current situation in the country. For the first time since the April protests in 2017, when Vučić was elected for president, we see young people on the streets, mostly those aged 18 to 30-40. There were also sympathizers and activists from the oppositional Alliance for Serbia, Don’t Let Belgrade Drown, activists from the Roof (anti eviction organization), the New Social Democratic Union, artists and cultural workers, but also alt-right groups such as People’s patrols, Levijatan, as well as workers from the Private Security Agency Protector.

Public institutions are still in the dark, no one has stepped forward, unions are silent too, and people are scared to join because they see no defined prospect. It is showed that those who stood against the current rule were criminalized and overshadowed, even silenced. I am afraid that any civil protest that will take place in the future in this way will be compromised. It seems to me that the public is confused by the number of young people on the streets. They are not seen at rallies of the opposition or the ruling party, the public is confused by the so-called orientation of people, which again, cannot be reduced to those political and ideological phrases that existed at the time of October 5th 2000, when the people rebelled against Milošević’s rule and finally overthrew him. This is a generational thing, there are young people left and right oriented, civic oriented and patriotic oriented, but the regime media impose their ideological phrases and criminalize what they do not understand. The notion of left and right is not valid at this political moment, we also have to rethink the terminology and its historical and/or current state. We wonder whether the right-wingers are the people who are advocating for Kosovo at the protest and its preservation in the constitutional and legal order of the Republic of Serbia, advocating for physical security and the right to property and the rule of law, both for Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo. Is it a right-wing or liberal vocabulary? Is a leftist someone who stands for ethnically clean territories – for the policy of demarcation and, thus, follows the policy of the West? How broad is the political spectrum that we know, and how much do we know?

Now, only a thin layer of educated young people from larger cities are on the streets (Niš, Novi Sad, Zrenjanin, Kragujevac, Novi Pazar, etc.). Those who still have a lot of strength and a lot of life ahead of them. But we fail to turn indignation into political demands, because the opposition is incapable of helping us, among other things. Our parents have been exhausted for a long time and are not ready to stand up, those who fought for the democratization of society in 2000, gave up. We live in Belgrade, in a bubble, without contact with people who vote for the ruling party and whose world and worries we do not understand. They are trapped in an authoritarian system that their children, WE, want to blow up. I don’t want to be pessimistic, but even this time it doesn’t seem that the uprising will be successful, the spontaneous civic protest is facing the question of “and then what”. It seems that our opposition, as it is today, is not ready and is lacking strong support of the people. We need an organic opposition that will be formed at the protests. We have to think long-term and offer ideas and policies, talk about solutions because it will be difficult to defeat the tyrant in his field of violence.

Photo by Katarina Kostandinović


It seems that the fight against the coronavirus will not end so quickly. It seems that the members of the Crisis Staff found themselves unprepared again in the fight against the epidemic. While the authorities have the responsibility to ensure public order and to respond to individual violent incidents, the disproportionate use of force against entire demonstrations is not justified. Heavy-handed measures of the kind we have seen over the past few days infringe the rights of those protesting peacefully and will only increase tension and provoke hostility, leading to an escalation of the situation. It is a matter of time before a state of emergency is introduced again, which in a way blurs some priorities and raises alarms about how human rights are being balanced against the risks posed by COVID-19. The last time Serbia was in the State of Emergency was in 2003 following the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić; on which occasion the government derogated numerous human rights, including the right to privacy, the right to freedom of movement, the right to freedom of expression and the freedom of media.


This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the great demonstrations in Belgrade that ended Slobodan Milošević’s rule on October 5, 2000 [3]. The Democratic Opposition of Serbia called on the citizens to gather in front of the National Assembly on October 5 in order to oppose the great election theft that the Federal Election Commission carried out on the order of Milošević. The opposition ultimately demanded that Slobodan Milošević recognizes the electoral will of the citizens expressed in the federal, presidential and local elections held on September 24, by 3 pm on Thursday, October 5, 2000. It was also demanded that all those arrested be released, as well as that the arrest warrants and criminal charges filed against those who protested for respecting the electoral will of the citizens of Serbia be withdrawn. Currently, the then participants in Slobodan Milošević’s government are once again occupying the most important positions in the country.

Katarina Kostandinović is an art historian and curator based in Belgrade, Serbia.
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