Reacting with anger to the government’s decision to reimpose curfew measures after a resurgence of coronavirus infections, thousands in Serbia took to the streets of Belgrade and other cities beginning July 7 to protest against President Aleksandar Vucic.
The government had imposed severe constraints on people’s movements in March, including a total weekend curfew, weekday curfews from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., and the suspension of all public transportation. All those over 65 years old were banned from going outside for over a month.
But Vucic ended all these restrictions and declared the virus “defeated” in early May, to facilitate holding parliamentary elections. Most opposition parties had long ago said they would boycott any vote because of the government’s grip on the media.
He also dropped the government ban on public gatherings, leading to crowds of tens of thousands at sports matches, election rallies and other activities. Nightclubs and bars, as well as churches, were told they could operate at full capacity.
As predicted, Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party won in a landslide June 21, tightening his control over the government. Still, the election was marked by the lowest voter turnout — 48% to 49%— since the former Yugoslavia state was torn apart in the early 1990s.
Coronavirus infections soared, rising from under 40 a day in June to over 300 in July. Belgrade’s hospitals were swamped, and field hospitals are now under construction. Vucic closed the universities once again and re-imposed sharp restrictions on people’s movement, including a three-day curfew, sparking widespread outrage.
“We want authorities to stop lying to us and we want to know the entire truth about everything that has been happening in connection with the coronavirus epidemic,” Stefana Radjenovic told Reuters at one of the protests in Belgrade.
Vucic blamed “foreign intelligence agencies” for the anti-government protests and urged demonstrators to go home to avoid the risk of getting coronavirus. Concern for protesters’ health was not evident when government security forces brutally beat demonstrators with batons and fired tear gas at them.
Vucic backed off from shutting down campuses and from the three-day curfew. Instead he ordered more limited constraints, including restricting gatherings to no more than 10 people.
However protests continue, with demonstrators demanding the government resign. They are fed up not only by recent events, but also by the growing crisis for working people of the capitalist system. Unemployment was 12.7% before the current crisis hit, and leaders of the Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions say over 200,000 more workers face losing their jobs in coming months.