Pro-government rally planned in Serbia amid growing discontent after mass shootings
Belgrade, Serbia — Tens of thousands of people converged on the Serbian capital on Friday for a large rally in support of President Aleksandar Vucic, who faces an unprecedented uprising against his autocratic rule amid the crisis sparked by two mass shootings that stunned the nation.
The event was somewhat overshadowed by a new crisis in the former Serbian province of Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs clashed with Kosovo police on Friday and Vucic ordered Serbian troops to be placed in a “state higher alert”. Vucic also said he ordered an “urgent” movement of Serbian troops to the border with Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.
Responding to Vucic’s call for what he called ‘the biggest rally in Serbia’s history’, his supporters, many wearing identical T-shirts with his likeness, were bused to Belgrade from all over the Balkan country as well as neighboring Kosovo and Bosnia.
People working in businesses and public institutions have been asked to take the day off to attend the rally outside the parliament building. Some said they were warned they could lose their jobs if they did not show up on the buses which started arriving hours before the rally was to start.
Serbian officials said the rally promotes “unity and hope” for Serbia.
At three major anti-government demonstrations earlier this month in the capital, protesters demanded Vucic’s ouster as well as the resignation of two senior security officials. They also demanded the withdrawal of broadcasting licenses from two pro-Vucic television stations which promote violence and often host convicted war criminals and other crime figures.
Opposition protesters blame Vucic for creating an atmosphere of desperation and division in the country which they say indirectly led to the May 3-4 mass shootings that left 18 dead and 20 injured, including many school children shot by a 13-year-old classmate.
Vucic has vehemently denied responsibility for the shooting, calling opposition protest organizers “vultures” and “hyenas” who want to use the tragedies to try to come to power by force and without an election.
“They are not against violence, they want my head,” he said.
Analysts believe that by organizing the mass rally, Vucic, who has ruled the country for more than a decade with a firm grip on power, is trying to eclipse the opposition protests with the number of participants.
“For the first time, Vucic has a problem,” said political analyst Zoran Gavrilovic. “His problem is not so much the opposition, but the Serbian society which has woken up.”
During the rally, Vucic is expected to announce that he is stepping down as head of his Serbian Progressive Party and forming “a movement” that will unite all “patriotic forces” in the country. He could also call for new parliamentary elections for September – which is unlikely to be accepted by the opposition under current conditions where he has complete control over all pillars of power, including the mainstream media.
Vucic, a former pro-Russian ultranationalist who now says he wants to bring the country into the European Union, has alleged that “foreign intelligence services” are behind the opposition protests. He said he had received the information from “sister” spy agencies “in the East” – supposedly meaning Russia.
Many people fear violence could erupt at Friday’s rally, which could then serve as a pretext for a crackdown on future opposition protests, including the one planned in Belgrade on Saturday.
Similar large rallies took place in Serbia in the early 1990s when strongman Slobodan Milosevic delivered fiery speeches announcing the violent breakup of Yugoslavia and rallying the masses for the wars that followed.