For many Serbs, it was the last straw when President Aleksandar Vucic announced the resumption of a weekend curfew to fight the coronavirus pandemic and thousands took to the streets angrily.
Who are these protesters and what caused the outrage? And could the demonstrations that have turned to violence endanger Vucic’s rule, accuse the critic of growing authoritarianism?
Why are people protesting?
Serbia’s frustration over the roller coaster response to the coronavirus outbreak has grown frustrated.
After initially downplaying the dangers, the authorities switched from extremely tight lockdowns to a swift return to normal last month ahead of the national elections that cemented Vucic’s takeover.
Critics blame Vucic for the second wave of infections, which skyrocketed after the June 21 vote.
“Our government just cares about its own interests, people are just collateral damage,” said Jelina Jankovic, a protester.
Serbia has reported around 370 deaths, but many accuse authorities of falsifying the numbers, which the government denies.
Serbian protesters clash with police over lockdown (1:56)
On Tuesday, Vucic announced the return of a round-the-clock weekend curfew to combat the second surge.
“We relaxed too much, made a lot of mistakes and that is an individual fault for all of us,” he said.
Protesters outraged at the finger pointing poured into the center of the capital that same evening.
While the government was tracking the curfew, protests continued against a leader accused of trampling Serbia’s democratic institutions.
“The pressure cooker is now exploding,” said Bonn-based Serbian journalist Nemanja Rujevic, adding that the “clumsy” management of the health crisis exacerbated long-standing frustration with Vucic’s authoritarian rule.
Who is protesting?
The demonstrations were not led by any particular party, with groups stretching from left to far right.
There are young people and families as well as groups holding religious icons and flags of the former Serbian province of Kosovo.
On the first day of the protest on Tuesday, a far-right group at the head of the front broke into parliament and sparked clashes with the police, during which tear gas was fired.
Most nights start off peacefully, before gangs of protesters hurl stones, torches and fireworks at police officers.
On Thursday, some demonstrators sat in front of parliament to show that they came in peace. Many of them accuse the state of planting “provocateurs” in order to discredit them.
“I’m always in favor of peaceful demonstrations because violence creates violence and that’s why we didn’t come,” said 30-year-old Tijana Milojevic.
Analysts say these departments could influence the movement.
“If no political leadership is identified, the protests will likely die off as they could be hijacked by the far right, which could result in a loss of popular support or create multiple clashing factions,” said Bosko Tripkovic, a law professor at the university from Birmingham.
Is Vucic threatened?
Probably not. From Prime Minister to President, Vucic has steadily expanded his powers over the past eight years.
This went hand in hand with extensive control over the media, with many television channels and tabloids serving as propaganda posts, such as the US-based Freedom House, which no longer regards Serbia as a democracy.
The national broadcaster RTS ignored the first night of the protests and broadcast a Jackie Chan film.
“Previous protests in Serbia have shown that the government can tolerate several months of peaceful demonstrations by several thousand people – as long as it controls the media narrative,” said Rujevic.
The main opposition camp boycotted the June elections, which means Vucic’s party tightly controls parliament.
At the moment the crowd is not big enough to worry the president, said Florian Bieber, a Balkan expert from the University of Graz.
“Because the opposition is divided, it cannot pose a serious threat to the government,” said Bieber.
How did the state react?
Police brutality scenes captured on cameras have gone viral, including an incident on Tuesday where officers used batons to beat three men who were peacefully sitting on a bench.
However, the Serbian ombudsman has claimed that “no excessive force was used” to quell the protests.
Vucic has branded the protesters as “criminal hooligans” and made vague allegations of “foreign interference”.
Government-affiliated tabloids have sparked “Russian interference”.