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Serbian anti-government protests

09 January 2019 Dijedon Imeri

Thousands of protesters have been gathering the past four Saturdays in Belgrade, demanding, among other things, the resignation of the Minister of the Interior and an end to political violence.

  • Ongoing protests in Serbia are driven by deep-seated resentment over perceived growing authoritarianism.
  • Protests are likely to remain peaceful, but will put pressure on the government to call snap elections.
  • Despite growing disillusionment among much of the electorate, a snap election in the six-month outlook is unlikely to produce a change in government.

On 29 December 2018, civil society groups and opposition activists held a fourth consecutive anti-government rally in Belgrade. The protests, which began on 8 December and were initially triggered by an assault on an opposition politician by unknown men, have been sustained by more deep-seated resentment against the incumbent administration and what is viewed as growing authoritarianism in the country.

Growing pressure on government

The protests were originally triggered by an attack on 23 November against Borko Stefanović, the founder of Serbian Left (Levica Srbije), a small opposition party. Unknown men using wooden sticks attacked and bloodied Stefanović and his colleagues in the Serbian town of Kruševac. The assailants were allegedly arrested following the incident, but opposition figures claim that the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska Napredna Stranka: SNS) is behind the attack. The subsequent demonstrations have drawn tens of thousands of supporters, representing a panoply of demands and causes. In addition to an end to political violence, protesters have been demanding the resignation of Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanović, fairer elections, and equal representation in Serbian media, accusing the ruling SNS party of controlling the media landscape.

Although SNS enjoys a comfortable parliamentary majority, the sheer size of the demonstrations has put significant pressure on the incumbent administration. President Alexander Vučić, the leader of SNS and de-facto ruler of Serbia, initially stated he would not give in to protester demands, but backtracked on 25 December in a televised interview, saying he would listen to them. He also added that if necessary, he would call snap elections to get around any impasse. The latter option represents Vučić's traditional way of silencing the opposition, with snap elections having become a frequent phenomenon in Serbia in recent years. Vučić has been able to use snap elections as a weapon because SNS has remained unchallenged by the weak opposition.

However, although the protests have steadily grown in numbers, there is no clear organization or leadership in sight. Currently there is no united opposition front that is able to fully harness the potential of a mass protest movement. Opposition parties remain ideologically divided and weak compared to SNS. Moreover, although some of the demands of the protesters are concrete, others remain vague. Without a clear focus and organization, protesters are unlikely to produce any material change. If the outcome of these protests is a snap election, the opposition remains unprepared.

Outlook and implications

The recent developments have significantly increased the risk of a snap election in the six-month outlook. Although the protests represent growing disillusionment among a big portion of Serbia's middle class, the lack of organized opposition makes it unlikely that snap elections would produce a radically different outcome from the current situation. A strong support base, a sympathetic media landscape, and relatively strong support from the West due to the pro-EU stance of Vučić, which has served to legitimize his government, makes it likely that SNS would reconfirm its primacy in Serbian politics following an election. The main indicator to watch that would signal a growing challenge to Vučić and the SNS is the emergence of an organized political opposition, either through a coalition of existing opposition parties, or the emergence of a new political movement out of the recent protests. Both options remain currently unlikely. However, leaving protester concerns unaddressed increases the risk of protests such as these becoming a recurrent phenomenon in the future, increasing also the risk of them turning violent as parliamentary challenge to Vučić's hold on power remains elusive.

Posted 09 January 2019 by Dijedon Imeri, Senior Analyst, Country Risk, Economics & Country Risk, IHS Markit

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