Just outside the European Union, Serbia is the latest country in the COVID-19 era in which simmering unrest has given rise to open revolt. In this upheaval, as at the beginning of the Gilets Jaunes movement in France, protesters of every persuasion from fascists and football hooligans to liberals, leftists, and anarchists are competing to determine the shape of future protest movements. In the following account, anarchists in Belgrade describe a week of confrontations in the capital city, analyzing why it is important to prevent fascists from dominating clashes with the authorities and to prevent liberals from delegitimizing such clashes as “violent” or inherently fascist.
As images of civil unrest and police violence in Serbia spread around the world, many of us here in Serbia received messages from comrades inquiring about the nature of the unrest, especially considering how confusing and often contradictory these images and narratives have been. A few of us who have been on the ground every night since the protests began in Belgrade wish to offer our observations and analysis. We will only speak about Belgrade, since the situation in Novi Sad and other cities has been quite different.
Although the recent unrest was triggered by a government decision to reintroduce curfew and other restrictive measures following a new surge in COVID-19 cases, the true causes lie in long-term widespread discontent with the increasingly repressive regime of Aleksandar Vučić and the Serbian Progressive Party. At the very beginning of the epidemic, the regime paraded out a quack doctor at press conferences who literally laughed off the virus, claiming it to be the “funniest virus in the world” and making sexist remarks about how women should take the pandemic as an opportunity to go shopping in Italy. As the virus spread, the government quickly shifted gears and Serbia implemented some of the strictest measures in Europe. Vučić and Prime Minister Brnabić denied ever underestimating the virus and placed blame on ordinary people, giving the lockdown measures a punitive character. By early May, as soon as the numbers were down, the government rapidly abandoned most precautionary measures and allowed life to return to normal. Within a week, residents of Serbia went from being instructed not to exit our apartments to being told that we could freely go to bars.
This end of the lockdown was just ahead of the planned June elections, which the opposition parties were boycotting even before the pandemic. The government manipulated the death tolls and infection numbers until the elections. The ruling party won easily, having run virtually unopposed. After the elections, the dire nature of the situation quickly became apparent. Serbia’s crumbling public healthcare infrastructure, in shambles from decades of neglect, was overwhelmed. In badly hit cities like Novi Pazar, healthcare workers reported being forced to treat COVID-19 patients in hallways as a consequence of lack of space and resources. President Vučić and Prime Minister Brnabić gave press conferences essentially gaslighting medical professionals, stating that Serbian hospitals are as well equipped to deal with the epidemic as the hospitals in the richest countries of Western Europe.
Spontaneous Protests: Chronology and Composition
The prelude to the large spontaneous protests occurred on the night of July 2, a few days before the announcement from President Vučić that triggered the upheaval. In response to the declaration of increased control measures including the eviction of students from their dormitories, many students marched from dormitories in various parts of Belgrade towards the Parliament building in the center of the city.
The students had a number of reasons to be angry. They had just recently returned to their dormitories after the university had reopened, only to find out that they had been lied to and now ran the risk of being sent back to their homes to potentially endanger their families. This is a major concern in a country where many people live in multi-generational households, especially for students from smaller towns and rural areas that are even less equipped to deal with an influx of new cases.
These protests passed without any major state intervention. However, as more people began to arrive, a contingent of right-wing protesters gathered as well, leading to a confrontation when some of the student activists confronted the right-wingers, demanding that they remove a nationalist banner. After the protest, these activists were subjected to doxxing and threats of rape and murder from online right-wing trolls.
Hours after President Vučić announced new measures, including a curfew over the weekend, protestors began to gather in front of the parliament building. Most of us heard about this by word of mouth; others saw posts about it on the internet. By the time I arrived, well over a thousand people had already gathered. The crowd included many regular people, members of various left and liberal groups and parties, and a vanguard of right-wingers in the front, closest to the parliament. The right-wingers are primarily identifiable by their flags and chants, commonly heard at football matches and other right-wing gathering places. By 10 pm, protestors had occupied the steps of Parliament and began to lob flares and fireworks at the building; eventually, some protesters gained entry to the building.
Many people were still arriving when the police deployed tear gas. The police response was heavy-handed; they arbitrarily tear-gassed many bystanders, apartments, and people stuck in traffic. The clashes continued for hours, winding down around 3 am.
Although many people participated in the clashes with police, the primary participants came from the ranks of the right. Images of police violence quickly spread across social media and live television, notably including a video of a person on live TV stating that he was doing this for his father who had died because there were not enough respirators available in the hospital, and a video of cops viciously beating several guys sitting on a park bench.
Outraged by the previous night’s police violence, thousands of people descended on the Parliament building the following evening. This time, the police had significantly increased their presence in the city, bringing in riot cops from other cities along with Gendarmerie and special police units. The clashes started early; predictably, police repression was even stronger. They deployed tear gas throughout the city center, even reaching one of the main maternity wards in the city.
Over a period of hours, the police continued to violently push protestors away from the city center towards the surrounding neighborhoods. By the end of the night, there was seldom a street in the wider area around the center that was not blocked by some kind of improvised blockade, mostly dumpsters.
Although again, the far right were largely at the front of the clashes, this time there was more of an atmosphere of generalized revolt. That night, several of us encountered acquaintances of ours who have nothing to do with the right wing clashing with the police and engaging in property destruction.
The third consecutive day of protests was primarily characterized by what can be seen as a liberal reaction to the violence of the previous days. This time, the main call to protest was for a peaceful sit-in in front of the parliament. The idea promoted by the organizers and backed by several political movements and parties was that sitting down would prove that the majority of the protestors were peaceful and did not wish to provoke violence.
Once again, the protest was widely attended, but it was unclear to many people what we were supposed to achieve other than just sitting and denouncing “violence.” Some of us overheard comments from a number of people who were upset about being told to sit down over and over again in a patronizing manner.
Ironically, some protestors petted police horses and hugged the same cops who had mercilessly beaten people the previous two evenings. While protesters did succeed in pushing the right-wingers out to the fringe of the demonstration, most of the people sitting there eventually started to leave, since they lacked an agreement to do something concrete like occupy the square. Later in the evening, some of the right-wingers returned and sang the national anthem, broke out into a folk dance, and eventually went home.
Given the ineffectiveness of the previous night’s protests, it was unclear what was going to happen on Friday night. For the first time, a left bloc was visible, involving a few leftist groups with banners, mostly pertaining to police brutality and healthcare.
Once again, the most confrontational element at the front was dominated by right-wing groups. However, this time, there was a greater prevalence of chants that were not explicitly right wing. Overall, the mood seemed to favor confrontation; when people started to shoot flares and fireworks at the parliament, there was a mixture of boos and cheers, but on the whole it appeared people were more or less in favor. Protestors broke the police line defending the parliament and managed to reach the stairs, where a standoff eventually ended in tear gas and beatings from the police. The police made some arrests and eventually dispersed the crowd.
A right-wing group centered around a defrocked priest who traffics in conspiracy theories brought a podium with a sound system. While he rambled on to his supporters, most people abandoned the protest. As we were leaving, one of us overheard a guy saying “C’mon, let’s fucking attack parliament.”
Later that night, riot cops and undercover officers brutally attacked and arrested several people who remained, who were not associated with the aforementioned right-wingers.
Some Thoughts on Violence
From the very beginning, the narrative both from the state and from most political groups across the spectrum was dominated by denunciations of “violence” perpetrated by fascists on the grounds that it discredited the apparent message of the majority of the protestors. But what do the majority of protestors want? The mismanagement of the COVID-19 response is just a symptom of something much larger and the composition of the protests reflects a representative cross section of the opposition to the regime of Aleksandar Vučić.
The right wing was there because, to them, Vučić has betrayed his far-right roots and “sold out Kosovo,” becoming a puppet of the European Union/George Soros/NATO/migrants/reptoids or whatever the new conspiracy theory of the month is. For people unfamiliar with the Balkans, Aleksandar Vučić spent most of his political career in the far-right Serbian Radical Party; during the dissolution of Yugoslavia, it was one of the most virulent, genocidal political movements of the era, bearing responsibility for the deaths of thousands. Afterwards, Vučić remade himself as a “modern, pro-EU politician.” On the other hand, the liberal opposition to the Vučić regime, in all the different forms it assumes, is widely discredited for implementing the neoliberal reforms that enabled Vučić to come to power in the first place.
Obviously, as anarchists and anti-authoritarians, we reject all of the above options. Now it appears that a fair number of the other demonstrators on the streets do as well. On both the first and second days, several politicians who showed up to try to capitalize on the anger of the crowds were chased off or attacked. That included a far-right politician and several other opposition leaders of various stripes. Likewise, from our perspective, attacking the symbols of power and capital is not violence. The police exist solely to protect these institutions; resisting them can never be inherently wrong. We reject any politics that seeks to describe attacking these structures as inherently illegitimate or fascist. In the case of the most recent unrest, it was the far right who were most prepared to engage and attack. We will never share their goals, nor should we fetishize their actions just because they are currently willing and able to confront the structures of power for their own aims.
There has been much talk of the state using fascists and hooligans to provoke violence. It is well known that in Serbia, the far right has deep ties to the state, police, and intelligence services. Vučić instrumentalized them heavily in his rise to power and throughout the 1990s. Were there agitators placed in the crowd to instigate police violence? Probably. Over the past few days, we’ve heard of numerous examples of some of the more prominent far-right groups (such as Levijatan) cooperating with police and even detaining and beating people on their behalf. All the more reason to fight them—they’re just another wing of the state.
If the past few days have taught us anything, it’s that we must not allow fascists to coopt direct action. In recent rebellions from Chile to the US, we’ve seen that directly confronting the state can achieve a great deal, and we’ve seen how much a movement can lose by allowing liberal respectability politics to dominate it. We know that most anarchists, anti-authoritarians, and radicals largely stayed home when they saw who was at the forefront of the action. We also know of friends and comrades who went to the demonstrations, actively agitating and confronting people at considerable risk to themselves.
The far right in Belgrade has many ties to the state and capital. Many fascists work as private security or own bars or other businesses. This created an unfavorable situation for many people to come out in force. But we’ve seen that there is an appetite for confrontation and that we need to create space in which we can prepare for further action.
Implications and Takeaways
From the very beginning, many messages of solidarity and support came in from others in the ex-Yugoslav region. Despite considerable differences, this has been the first large-scale unrest in the region after the revolts in Bosnia and Hercegovina in 2014. With protests ongoing in Slovenia, we can only hope to extend revolt throughout the Balkans.
The apparent consensus of the liberals and right-wingers that violence and direct action is solely the domain of fascists is the worst aspect of recent events in Belgrade. This is especially dangerous considering that the state inevitably proclaims any action that is a genuine threat to it to be “violent,” regardless of how violent it actually is, and that the more this discourse is accepted at face value, the more the state is free to employ violence against those it deems “violent.” This was obvious when Vučić proclaimed a failed attempt of peaceful protesters in Novi Sad to block a highway to be “pure terrorism.”
In addition to the ways that any act of disobedience and rejection of state authority can be liberating, another positive aspect of these events has been that the majority of protestors responded with disgust to the chauvinistic chants and actions by the minority of fascist demonstrators. This was something that many of the protesters had not confronted before in such a direct way.
At the same time, it would be a disaster for us if this disgust becomes associated with any “violent” action or with direct action as such. It is clear that this is the goal of both the ruling party and the opposition parties. The members of the regime were not able to hide their joy that the protests ultimately became toothless. Likewise, in the end, opposition politicians were allowed finally to attend the protests. When both factions of the state—those who currently hold the monopoly on violence and those who aspire to it—speak of the evils of violence, what they are really afraid of is that they will lose the ability to control us.
This is especially obvious in the attempt that opposition politicians made to establish control as soon as they were permitted to attend the protests. They immediately started telling people what to wear (the color white, only) and dictating whether they were allowed to stand or not.
We must not be fooled. We must
- Not allow liberals or authoritarians to equate direct action and property destruction with fascism.
- Realize that those who speak against “violence” really want to control us—the question of autonomy, of becoming ungovernable, is what really frightens them, not violence as such.
- Always fight fascism.
Let us conclude with the words that Marianne Ivšić, a surrealist poet from Belgrade who participated in the riots of May 1968 in Paris, wrote for an anonymous flyer at that time:
“In this moment, only the poetry of the street advances. The minimal program is an act of destruction: it is a political act par excellence. In it there is no control, no rules. Revolution can be only one of everyday life, if we want to fight against the fascination of power… The road to uprooting fascism and the death of God leads through CHAOS.”
Let us find each other! Autonomy and solidarity!