Featured image credit: Zoran Drekalović
Thousands of people gathered in the centre of Belgrade, outside the National Assembly building, on July 7th to express their discontent with President Aleksandar Vučić’s announcement of another curfew for the residents of Belgrade due to an increase in coronavirus infections.
The power of social media was extremely visible during the July protests in Belgrade, Serbia. Videos of the police beating protesters and spraying tear gas soon became viral.
Just two weeks before the new curfew, both parliamentary and local elections had been held in Serbia. Having been postponed in March due to the pandemic, they eventually took place on the 21st of June, when President Vučić removed the state of emergency that had been declared on the 15th of March. The ending of the state of emergency came on the 6th of May – on Djurdjevdan (St George’s Day). Many measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus were lifted, allowing large public gatherings to occur, including a football match with 16.000 fans. This disparity between the July curfew and the pre-election relaxation infuriated the public. Even though Vučić called off the curfew on July 8th, the protests continued.
One of the protesters on July 7th was Milan Grubetić, who came to protest in marches that continued for days. When Grubetić arrived in Belgrade from Kostolac on the 11th of July, he was hit in the head near the National Assembly. To this day, he doesn’t know his attacker, despite the fact there were cameras.
“There are four visible cameras on the steps of the National Assembly. Yet, no one could see who had hit me on the head. That’s horrifying for me,” Grubetić told Politika News.
Besides Grubetić, more than 100 citizens were detained by the police, with at least 28 known cases of assault of media workers. More than a 100 policemen were also injured. Consequently, the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights and the A11 initiative offered free legal aid to citizens who were arrested and abused by police forces.
“What police did to people that night was completely unprovoked. For a moment, there was one group that tried to set the flag of the Serbian Progressive Party on fire. But they couldn’t, so they tore it down and then left. The ones that were beaten after that, they weren’t guilty of anything”, Grubetić told us, asserting that he will participate in another protest if he sees it could destabilise the authorities.
The narrative from the authorities and government crisis team for dealing with COVID-19 has been much different to what we have heard from protesters like Grubetić. They claim the protests led to an increase in the number of people infected by the virus, not the elections nor the football games.
The Prime minister of Serbia Ana Brnabić has also claimed that protesters threw tear gas on police and not the other way around. In addition, the General Police Director, Vladimir Rebić, claimed that law enforcement reacted only “when their lives were in danger”.
Despite Rebić’s claims, one of the video clips taken during the demonstrations shows a different story: three people sitting on a bench, drinking, are beaten up by police.
There have also been reports of so-called ‘fake’ protesters – hooligans infiltrating the protests – sent by the authorities to cause trouble and therefore discredit the movement. In response to this, anti-government protesters came out to sit down on the street.
Serbians across Serbia and Serbs across the world have come out in support of the Belgrade protests, including protesters in Vienna, Berlin and New York.