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Whistles And Passports: Serbia's Young Protesters Take On 'The System'

  • Alan Crosby
  • Iva Martinovic

Young Serbs took to the streets in raucous -- and remarkably persistent -- protests following this month's presidential vote.

About 30,000 Serbs move abroad each year. Filip Uzelac doesn’t want to be one of them.

But the organizational-sciences student is so worried that his fate lies outside Serbia that he has been a nightly fixture at the protests sparked by the overwhelming -- and expected -- victory of Aleksandar Vucic as president in the country's April 2 election.

"I am not sure if there is going to be any change with these protests. I can only hope that something is going to happen now," he said on April 12 as his girlfriend and thousands of others demonstrated in the streets of Belgrade for a 10th consecutive night. "We have our passports in our pockets."

Victory handed the 46-year-old Vucic and his Progressive Party, which has a majority in parliament, control over the entire legislative and governing process.

Some critics have warned that could push the Balkan country back into the autocracy symbolized by former leader Slobodan Milosevic during his decade in power.

Once an ultranationalist, Vucic has risen to prominence since reinventing himself as a reformer who is committed to Serbia's drive toward European Union membership.

He has craftily strengthened his party's position through the ballot box, calling and winning two early parliamentary elections since 2014. While he once opposed integration with the 28-country bloc, he now pledges to prepare the nation of 7.3 million people for EU accession by 2019.

But the protesters allege that Vucic -- who won 55 percent of the vote and outright victory in the first round of the election -- and his Serbian Progressive Party are corrupt and stole the election.

Like many others who voted for the first time in a presidential election, history student Marko Stricevic says he was hoping for a change in leadership.

Instead, he wryly adds, as protesters bang pots and blast whistles in front of the government building in central Belgrade, he’s the one who may have to change.

"I would gladly stay, but the system in Serbia isn’t working in the public interest," Stricevic says. "It’s a service only for those in power and for foreign and domestic corporations. The lives of ordinary people can’t improve because they are forced to work for miserable salaries, or to leave the country."

Once an ultranationalist, Vucic has risen to prominence since reinventing himself as a reformer who is committed to Serbia's drive toward European Union membership.
Once an ultranationalist, Vucic has risen to prominence since reinventing himself as a reformer who is committed to Serbia's drive toward European Union membership.

Under Vucic’s stewardship over the past two years, Serbia’s economic growth has accelerated to an expected 3 percent this year.

But that still lags behind all of its neighbors except Macedonia, which has no government and is mired in a two-year political crisis, and is below the 3.2 percent forecast for the Western Balkans as a whole, according to the World Bank’s updated economic outlook, published on April 6.

And while the unemployment rate fell to 13 percent in January 2017 from 21.3 percent in the same month of 2014, the youth jobless rate remains stubbornly high at 31.2 percent.

Dim prospects and anger over perceptions of massive public-sector corruption continue to fuel the protests, which were expected to continue after a brief hiatus over the Easter weekend.

The protesters have called for the government, along with top officials from public broadcasters RTS and RTV, the Central Electoral Commission, and the regulatory Authority for Electronic Media, to step down for alleged election irregularities and improper usage of the media during the campaign.

"I’m dissatisfied with the lies, the theft, with the fact that I’m ashamed, because I don’t want to go abroad," says Ana Koteski, a worker from Belgrade who appears to be one of the older protesters at the age of 28. "People are really dissatisfied and it’s reaching a critical mass. It can’t go on like this."

The protesters allege that Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party stole the election.
The protesters allege that Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party stole the election.

Vucic, who has dismissed allegations of improprieties during the campaign, says the demonstrations are "an expression of Serbia's democratic strength" and that it’s normal for some people to be unhappy with the results of an election.

"It’s a democratic process. Nobody has intervened. We’ve allowed them to protest," he said on April 6, just after the start of the demonstrations.

"When you have all your rights to protest against someone without any kind of disturbance and interruption, that is a sign of democracy. I’m very proud of that," Vucic added.

Music student Angelina Zivanovic doesn’t see it that way.

She’s been out on the streets every day protesting because it’s important to show politicians that "we are here, that we are alive."

While she’s had thoughts about moving abroad for the prospect of a better future, she says she will likely stay home because moving "isn’t a solution to the problem."

That kind of maturity and sense of purpose belies the age and naivete of Serbia's younger voters -- many of those out on the streets protesting were first-time voters on April 2 -- according to Srbijanka Turajlic, a retired professor.

The protests are a "long-awaited response to the blasphemous campaign led by Aleksandar Vucic last month, which was an insult to the intelligence," she told the Beta news agency in an interview.

While Uzelac was only a toddler when Milosevic was in power, he notes that previous student protests against the former strongman, whose information minister was Vucic, were similar in demands but failed to effect real change.

This time, he remains optimistic that there will be meaningful movement by the politicians that run the country toward the protesters' demands.

But he quickly adds that he and his girlfriend are hedging their bets, passports in hand.

"There were great expectations from the protests in the '90s against the Milosevic regime. They brought changes in some minor things, but not in the overall outcome," he says. "We will stay in Serbia until we graduate. If it doesn’t get better, we’re out of here."

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