Protesters took to the streets of Belgrade to demand that the Serbian government enact measures to “protect the population” from the smog and pollution affecting the Western Balkan nation.
Many of the protesters on January 17 wore surgical masks as they demonstrated in the center of the capital.
Serbian cities, along with many in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and North Macedonia, have been covered in dense smog above the levels normally seen in some of the world’s most polluted cities -- Delhi, Calcutta, Lahore, and Beijing.
"We are outraged with the way the government has been dealing with the problem," organizers from the "Don't Strangle Belgrade" group said.
"We are all breathing the same air...it doesn't matter if you are a member of the [ruling] Progressive Party...or you are one of the people gathered here, so let's do something to fix this," Reuters quoted protest leader Radomir Lazovic as saying.
Experts have pointed to Serbia's heavy use of aging coal-fired plants for electricity generation as a key cause of the air-quality crisis. Natural-gas prices remain prohibitive for much of the population.
Many critics attacked a January 16 government statement -- which told kindergartens and primary schools to monitor the situation and shut down at their own discretion -- as a late and half-hearted measure.
However, the government appeared to downplay the crisis.
"The situation is not worse than in the past. It is worst in some cities due to the weather and fog, because there was no snow and Kosava," Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said, referring to a strong eastern wind that often lasts several days and clears away some of the smog, which has been infrequent this winter.
President Aleksandar Vucic vowed on January 17 that the government would take long-term measures to deal with the pollution but said the effects would not be felt for another six or seven years at the earliest.
The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, an international watchdog, said that as many as 175 per 100,000 deaths in Serbia are directly linked to pollution, ranking the European country as the ninth-worst in the world, just better than No. 8, Somalia, but worse than 10th-ranked India.
Skopje in North Macedonia; Sarajevo and Tuzla in Bosnia; and Podgorica in Montenegro have all been hit by a wave of high air pollution levels, according to the AirVisual World Air Quality Index.