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Tuesday 19 March 2019

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What's Behind Months Of Protests In Serbia?
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For 14 weeks, opposition protests have been held against the presidency of Aleksandar Vucic while politicians mostly stayed in the background.

That changed over the weekend when radical right-wing leader Bosko Obradovic led a charge of several dozen people into the headquarters of national state broadcaster (RTS), prompting many to ask whether the demonstrations demanding that Vucic ease his tight control over state media and hold fair elections are being hijacked by politicians.

Obradovic’s Dveri is one of more than 20 parties from across the political spectrum that formed an alliance to back the protests, which were triggered when a gang of thugs beat up opposition politician Borko Stefanovic in November.

That incident followed many months of critics accusing Vucic of smothering unsympathetic media and curbing democratic freedoms, accusations that Vucic has dismissed.

The movement has since adopted the slogan "one of 5 million," in a jab at Vucic, who said after the early rallies that he would not bow to a single demand by protesters "even if there were 5 million of you."

"Most protesters appear to be participating not because of one or the other party or leader, but rather despite them," Florian Bieber, a professor of Southeast European studies at the University of Graz in Austria, told RFE/RL on March 18.

"This is a big worry.... Obdradovic has been using the protests to get more visibility than his party has support. This weekend presents a serious problem, as his role is not only a challenge to the more peaceful protests, but also his message shifts attention from democracy to nationalism."

Populist Wave

Dveri has ridden a populist wave sweeping much of Europe, pushing anti-European Union, anti-lesbian-bisexual-gay-transgender (LGBT) positions, as well as calling for a reexamination of the role of Nazi collaborators during World War II.

In 2016, the party gained entrance to parliament after pairing with the conservative Democratic Party of Serbia to gain 5.02 percent of the vote, just over the threshold for representation in the legislature.

Until the March 16 storming of RTS, the first time state television’s building had been broken into since an October 2000 uprising that eventually led to the ouster of former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic, Vucic had largely ignored the protests.

Antigovernment Protesters Invade Serbian State TV Station
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But Obradovic's move, accompanied by former Belgrade Mayor Dragan Djilas and one supporter who inexplicably was carrying a chainsaw, appears to have emboldened Vucic, a former ultranationalist and onetime member of Milosevic's cabinet.

"Serbia will not allow threats of violence by anyone. Anyone who thinks that they can get political results by hooliganism, violence, attacks on people, physical attacks on people, they are mistaken," Vucic said at a press conference on March 17, the day after the RTS invasion.

"I don't want to talk to fascist leaders like Bosko Obradovic. I don't want to talk. As you can see, I don't even want to talk now when my life is in danger, because I don't care and I am not afraid at all," he added.

Serbian President Vows To Defend Order Amid Ongoing Opposition Protests
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As Vucic spoke, skirmishes with riot police were reported outside of the presidential building, with police firing tear gas against demonstrators who vowed to form a human chain around the building to prevent him from leaving.

The move by police capped the first weekend in more than three months of protests where authorities used force against demonstrators.

The rise of someone like Obradovic in the demonstrations highlights the weakness of leadership and lack of a coherent program among established parties, according to Vuk Vuksanovic, a Balkan political analyst from Belgrade.

"The shift in these two days was about the coalition trying to take over the protests that have been ongoing for the past three months, but which were civic in nature, and make them more political and reenergize the protests as they were fading," he said.

"Their main goal at this moment in time is to stay afloat so that they may have a shot at Vucic in the future.... As a coalition, they are too weak."

Azerbaijani journalist Anar Mammadov (file photo)

BAKU -- A court in Azerbaijan has handed a suspended prison sentence to independent journalist Anar Mammadov.

The Baku Court for Serious Crimes on March 18 found the editor of the Criminal.az website guilty of making public calls against the state, abuse of professional duties, and forgery.

Mammadov was sentenced him to 5 1/2 years in prison with a two-year probation period, during which the journalist cannot change his place of residence or leave the country.

The Prosecutor-General’s Office last year began investigating Mammadov, accusing him of distributing false information regarding an attack against the mayor of the country’s second largest city, Ganca, as well as a massive power outage following an explosion at a thermal power station in the city of Mingacevir.

Mammadov has insisted that his website was just reposting articles by other sources and agencies.

Rights groups and Western governments have criticized Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his government for fabricating criminal cases to stifle dissent and media freedom for years.

Aliyev, who has ruled the oil-producing former Soviet republic of almost 10 million people with an iron fist since shortly before his long-ruling father's death in 2003, has shrugged off the criticism.

On March 16, Aliyev signed a decree to pardon a total of 431 people, including jailed rights activists and political opponents considered to be political prisoners by international rights organizations.

On March 17, a spokesperson for the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, called the amnesty "a welcome step."

The spokesperson added that the EU "expects that further similar steps will follow in future in line with Azerbaijan's international commitments."

Amnesty International called the release of "wrongfully imprisoned activists" in Azerbaijan "a step in the right direction," but added that "more is needed to transform the climate of fear and repression" in the country.

The London-based watchdog said in a statement on March 18 that those released included long-term prisoners of conscience jailed "solely for the exercise of their right to freedom of expression."

It cited local human rights groups as saying that the mass pardon included 51 prisoners who were jailed on politically motivated charges.

At least 74 more unjustly jailed activists, journalists, and opposition politicians remain behind bars, the statement added.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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