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FANvoices | Coronavirus in Serbia

Coronavirus in Serbia – From Bad to Better to much Worse

Ivan Vejvoda, Club Alpbach Belgrad

Serbia currently finds itself in a difficult situation. Amidst a resurgence in the number of cases of COVID-19 the healthcare system is stretched thin. Official numbers in recent days state that there are more than 300 new cases per day. In Belgrade, the capital, hospital beds are full and new patients need to be transported to other towns in order to be treated.

At the same time, large heterogeneous civic protests are underway. Citizens are on the streets in large numbers expressing their dissatisfaction with the way the pandemic was handled by the government and with the eight-year rule of the dominant Serbian Progressive Party. Their time in power has been marred with a plethora of affairs that have rarely resulted in even the lightest of consequences for those involved. The protests have been the most violent in the past twenty years with some of the more radical protesters throwing rocks and pyrotechnics at the police and the police shooting hundreds of canisters of tear gas and utilising excessive physical violence against protesters.

So, how did it all come to this?

Everything is Fine, Until it’s Not

As the COVID-19 pandemic started to rampage through Europe at the end of February the response of states were varied. At first, Serbian officials took a rather cavalier approach to the situation. During a press conference on 26 February, before the first registered case of the disease in the country, experts from the government’s Crisis Centre underplayed the seriousness of the threat posed by the virus. One even went as far as to say that this was the “most laughable virus in the history of humanity”. The only measure instituted at the time was to impose an upper limit of 100 people for indoor public gatherings.

After a little more than two weeks the tune had drastically changed. On 15 March, with a total of 48 officially confirmed cases, a state of emergency was declared in the country. The state of emergency was of questionable legality as the National Assembly was bypassed, under the excuse that it could not meet because of the pandemic. The Serbian constitution stipulates that it is the National Assembly which declares a state of emergency, unless it cannot convene, which legal experts believe that it could have done during the pandemic.

Very soon measures were ramped up and the government’s previous casual demeanour turned into one of the utmost seriousness. Schools, bars, restaurants and gyms were closed and public transportation was suspended, both city and intercity. A countrywide curfew was declared from 8 p.m., soon moved up to 5 p.m., until 5 a.m. Even though the curfew was, at first, the same during weekends and holidays mobility was quickly prohibited for their entire duration. Persons over the age of 65 were entirely forbidden from leaving their abodes, except to go buy groceries once a week from 4 until 7 a.m. and later for a half hour walk, during curfew hours, three times a week. This list of measures is not exhaustive but enough to illustrate that at that time Serbia had some of the most stringent anti-pandemic conditions in the entire world.

Unsurprisingly, citizens pushed back and, after applauding all medical workers at 8 p.m., as a sign of protest they took out their pots and pans at 8:05 and banged on them from their windows and balconies. The response of the government was to send their supporters out in full force on the rooftops of large apartment buildings with flares and robust loud-speakers bursting with anti-opposition slogans.

Victory is in sight

As April drew to a close the government signalled that the measures implemented so far were showing positive results. The May Day holidays, four days including the weekend, were the last protracted period of curfew and the National Assembly convened on 6 May to revoke the state of emergency.

Soon measures started to be eased all around. Public transportation was re-established and schools, bars, restaurants and gyms were reopened with certain measures of social distancing. This even extended as far as to hold large sports events like a large tennis tournament and a football match in Belgrade with over 25.000 attendees.

The number of officially registered daily cases after the end of the lockdown was mostly below 100, hitting a low point of 18 on 1 June. There was another important event that still needed to be held: elections! Parliamentary and local elections in Serbia were originally scheduled for 26 April, but postponed because of the state of emergency; they were then set to be held on 21 June.

The topic of elections in Serbia is quite an extensive one. To quickly summarise, the ruling Serbian Progressive Party holds absolute dominance on the Serbian political scene and during their eight years reign they have consolidated power to an extreme extent. They exert control over all branches of government and the majority of media. A lot of major opposition parties were set to boycott the upcoming elections, citing unfair and unjust electoral conditions. The EU participated in a dialogue between the two sides in order to improve conditions but they did not make significant headway.

As elections were drawing near the ruling party touted their success in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, stating that the battle has been won due to their handling of the situation. On Election Day the ruling party won 75% of the seats in the National Assembly, their best result so far, but a shadow of dubious regularity was cast over the electoral process.

The dragon was only sleeping

The night of the election was one of great jubilation for the ruling party. At their headquarters in Belgrade the majority of the government and some members of other parties attended a large celebration with live music, lots of food and drinks and plenty of congratulatory hugs and kisses. Masks were few and far between and social distancing was non-existent.

The next day an investigative journalist organisation, BIRN, released information acquired from an official government database that was incongruous with publicly released figures. They found that the number of daily infections was more than three times what the public was presented and that nearly 400 more people had died from the virus until 1 June. To make matters worse a number of high-ranking officials were tested positive for COVID-19 after attending the electoral celebration in the coming days.

The official narrative also took a sudden U-turn. No more was the virus on the brink of defeat, on the contrary, it was now a larger threat than ever before! Several towns and cities had become hotspots for the virus, hospital capacities were at a breaking point with patients being treated in hallways and outside the buildings themselves and even official daily infection numbers skyrocketed.

Citizens, who were already agitated because of the previously severe measures, had lost all trust in the government and its Crisis Centre. Government officials put the blame for the sudden spread of the disease on irresponsible citizens and the straw that broke the camel’s back came on 7 July when Aleksandar Vučić, the president of both Serbia and the ruling party, announced that a curfew would once again need to be instituted. People were outraged at both being blamed for the worsening of the pandemic and the misinformation as well as the sudden change of narrative. The cause of the current troubling state of play was not the quick relaxation of restrictive measures, not the large sports events, not the elections that were rushed to be held, without serious protective measures being put in place. No, it was the irresponsible behaviour of the citizens. The fault was placed on the backs of many individuals and not on questionable government policy. Citizens took to the streets in protest.

Streets of rage

Large protests in Serbia have not been an uncommon occurrence in the past years. All stemmed from various affairs and scandals coming from the government and members of the ruling party. All have been peaceful, with little police presence, and all have had little effect on bringing the weight of responsibility upon those that sparked them. This time it was different, at least as far as their placidity was concerned.

On the first night of the protests, after the announcement of curfew reinstatement, thousands spontaneously gathered in front of the National Assembly building in Belgrade. The crowd was as heterogeneous as can be, united by their revolt against the government. Peaceful at first, quickly a group of more radical protesters escalated tensions by entering the Assembly building, but were expelled by the police. After a brief respite, stones and flares started to be thrown at the police, who put up with the abuse for quite some time, then all hell broke loose. Police reinforcements came, cavalry and police dogs. Teargas started to be fired, tens of canisters at a time. Clashes continued and the police started to be indiscriminate in their show of force and brutality, even towards the vast majority of people who were not violent towards them. The second day was even worse, an aggressive minority brought the ire of the police upon the entirety of the protesters.

The following days have been an ebb and flow between peaceful and violent protests, with the police also transitioning from a state of calm to violence. There is a grounded suspicion that the instigators of the more extreme elements among the protestors are actually provocateurs placed by the government. The protesters themselves do not have coherent demands and are only consolidated in their opposition to the regime.

The government, for their part, immediately backtracked on putting in place a curfew again. But they seem not to show much concern about the protests that have spread to other major cities. They call the protesters hooligans whose only goal is destruction, when the protests are violent. When that is not the case they call on the protesters to be responsible and disband because of the risk of the spread of COVID-19 infection.

Where do we go from here?

The state of democracy in Serbia has been going through a protracted period of a decline. This is evidenced by the recent troubling assessment in Freedom House’s Nations in Transit report, which states that Serbia has moved backward from being a semi-consolidated democracy into becoming a hybrid regime. There are many factors that contribute to this, one of the most prominent being a consolidation of power in the executive branch of government and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party. According to the Bertelsmann Transformation Index in the category of separation of power Serbia has taken a plunge since 2012, going from an 8 out of 10 to a 5.

The case of Serbia’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic cannot be decoupled from its backsliding in democratic standards. People are angry, yet at the same time institutional pathways for the expression of their concerns are few, and even when they exist their voices are often ignored. The situation around the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has only further agitated the people. Stringent measures and proclamations of victory that have lead to an even worse reality. On the other hand the protest will undoubtedly exacerbate the pandemic in Serbia, whose healthcare system is already at its very limit. Neither side seems to be backing down which leaves very little space for immediate optimism.

European Forum Alpbach 2020, Programme: