View from the Central European Street

Massive protests might not be enough to reform Serbia and Romania

21 May 2019

As Serbia and Romania rankings are deteriorating in international reports, people are taking to the streets to defend democratic values and the rule of law; however, political opposition in both countries remains too weak and fragmented to take the advantage of massive social movements.

Only last year did Serbia drop 10 points in Reporters Without Borders media report. Also, the most recent Freedom House report says that Serbia is a partly free country. In the meantime, the European Commission report on Romania from November 2018 was the most pessimistic when it comes to rule of law issues from 11 years.

As the citizens are taking the streets to fight for their institutions, the opposition in both countries is too weak to follow.

On November 23rd, 2018, Borko Stefanović, a Serbian opposition politician was attacked and beaten up by the unknown persons in the town of Kruševac located in southern Serbia. Stefanović visited Kruševac in order to take part in a Serbian Left party meeting, but the meeting finished before it even started for Stefanović, as he was attacked by unknown persons with metal bars. Stefanović received serious head injuries, and two other activists had their teeth knocked out.

The Serbian internet reacted immediately after this event, and pictures of injured Stefanovic released by Serbian Left made the news for days to come. The attack was widely commented by the opposition with the Alliance for Serbia calling it “the dirtiest witch hunt which Aleksandar Vučić’s regime wages daily against political opponents”. This event has triggered a massive movement of citizens of different political views, age, gender, professions to show that their patience has run out.

Street Demonstrations in Serbia

Current protests, however, aren’t anything new, Serbs have been taking the streets in mass since 2014. This was the case with “Nedavimo Beograd”, “Savamala” related to a controversial, state-backed, urban project Belgrade Waterfront, where institutions were accused of covering up criminal activities, then “Against the dictatorship” in 2016 when Alexander Vučić became president.

The same team reacted with new gatherings in December 2018, and although they are formal organisers, they insist the protests are leaderless, or that everyone is a leader.

According to Serbian media, the 11th mass protest organized in Belgrade February 16 could bring even 80.000 people to the streets only in Serbian capital.

The protesters were marching peacefully, 34 opposition organisations were distributing the so-called “Agreement with the nation”, in which the opposition declared a joint fight for free media and fair and free elections. In case conditions for these to won’t be fulfilled, they declared to boycott the elections. It’s been also promised that the government would consist not only of party members but experts whose tasks were described in the “Agreement”.

The paper was distributed to the people in two copies in the form of a legal agreement, where space for citizens signatures were left vacant. Whoever decided to sign it, was asked to leave one copy for the organisers, and to take the other one home, as a material proof for agreement and a reminder that the fight for democracy needs a joint effort. This activity became a new norm as the protests in Serbia continue every Saturday, and it seems that people have mixed feelings about their possible outcome.

Just after the first gathering organised at the beginning of December 2018, Serbian President, Alexandar Vučić told media that he is not planning to fulfil any of the protesters’ demands.

One of Five million

“Even if there were 5 million on the streets” – he said. The protesters rapidly picked up his answer and created a hashtag “1 from 5 million” under which protests across the country are being organised.

According to Boris Varga, a prominent Serbian publicist specialising in political science, current protest can be seen as the fourth wave of standing against the Serbian Progressive Party since 2012.

“Killing democratic institutions is unifying the mass, but it will be very hard to consolidate such a mass. Serbia stood against the autocrat (Vučić), but it doesn’t mean it’s ready to choose a democrat. It can go even in the opposite direction” Varga says.

Meanwhile, people are taking the streets and demand the end of political violence, basic press freedom, and information about the murderer of Kosovo Serb politician, Oliver Ivanović, who was executed one year ago in front of his office in North Mitrovica, and to this day there is no information about the perpetrators.

Oliver Ivanović

Serbian Political Scene

The anti-government protesters call Serbian president Alexandar Vučić to end with anti-democratic practices. Vučić used to support Slobodan Milosević’s regime, but later embraced pro-European path of Serbia, by setting Serbia on a course to join the European Union as the main strategy.

He is also trying to keep close ties with Russia and China. Many in Serbia accuse Vučić of destroying the always fragile free media environment, of authoritarian rule based on fear, of dismantling government institutions and the rule of law. On the other hand, Vučić and his Progressive (SNS) party enjoy 53,3% support according to the latest CESID (election watchdog) poll.

Today, the social structure of the protest represents a rich mix of Serbian society: far right activists standing next to liberals aren’t anything uncommon to watch at the marches.

The well–known opposition leaders are also present on the streets, like centre right Vuk Jeremić, democrat Dragan Dilas, and far right Boško Obradović. Their parties consolidated into a bigger, opposition movement called the Alliance for Serbia. Despite the fact that the leaders of the movement have decided to oppose Aleksandar Vučić, the differences between their parties don’t let this opposition to consolidate.

The Bone of Contention

The Alliance has also poor chances to get support from the West, as one of their core postulates is to preserve Kosovo within Serbia in accordance with the UN resolution 1244, while Vučić, on the other hand, keeps promising to solve the Kosovo issue without explaining details, but as he said many times “once and for good” so that the next generations won’t need to deal with this frozen conflict.

Kosovo proclaimed independence from Serbia in 2008. Since 2013, both countries have been leading an EU supported dialogue in Brussels under the hospice of Federica Mogherini’s office, which should have normalised relations between Belgrade and Pristina. This did not happen, and according to many experts, the current situation is even worse than before the EU led dialogue started.

Since November last year, Pristina decided to impose 100% tax on products from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to react to a very aggressive campaign Serbia has been leading against Kosovo on the international arena. Kosovo is one of the most important business partners to Serbia, Belgrade could lose even 0,7% of GDP if taxes are kept until the end of June 2019.

This aggressive fight is ongoing while behind the scenes many speculate about potential territory swap between Serbia and Kosovo which could be a part of the solution. Also, this idea by many experts is seen as destructive and dangerous for the entire region, especially for Bosnia and Herzegovina. This fact doesn’t prevent many Western observers seeing Vučić as a stabilising factor in Serbia with a capacity of solving Kosovo issue.

The EU and the US want to see Kosovo issue solved; therefore, a scenario proposed by the Alliance for Serbia – keeping the current situation – is unacceptable for Brussels and Washington.

Foreign Support

“The Alliance is against the Brussels Agreement and this is the reason why Western support for them is impossible. They (the West) still see in Vučić part of the solution, and they will keep supporting him as long as he promises a normalisation with Pristina,” says Varga and adds that there is a possibility that the Alliance will be supported by Moscow, which doesn’t want the Kosovo problem to be solved.

“In contrast to previous protests – in 1996 and 2000 – against Milošević, the opposition doesn’t enjoy Western support, so it will be hard for them to fight Vučić; however, nothing is impossible,” Varga concludes.

He also says that despite the fact that the Alliance is taking part in organising the protests, they are not the “faces” who promote it. Instead, the mass movement got support from many public persons, artists, professors, elites and popular actors as well.

Sergey Trifunovic and Nikola Kojo are among them. During one of the gatherings in Belgrade Kojo informed crowds that if the protest doesn’t bring a positive change, he is going to leave Serbia; on the other hand, Trifunovic accused Vucic and his government of spreading corruption, criminal activities and fear among the citizens. He concluded that “Serbia is lacking basic elements of democratic rules.”

Media Coverage

As the protests continue, the organisers came up with more demands: a regular coverage of protests and opposition activities through the Serbian public broadcaster RTS channels, an investigation into Oliver Ivanovic’s murder, punishment for Borko Stefanovic’s perpetrators, the resignation of Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic and an investigation into a murder attempt of Milan Jovanovic, a journalist from the local Zig Info portal whose house was torched on December 12th, 2018. The protests since December have spread into 46 Serbian towns including Northern Mitrovica and Gracanica in Kosovo, towns with Serbian majority, rarely seen joining anti-government protests organised in Belgrade in recent years.

According to Boris Varga, Serbs stood united against Vučić’s degradation of democracy and country institutions.

“This is what Milošević was doing, and what Vučić continues doing. Milošević avoided creating democratic institutions, Vučić is trying to destroy what has been created after Milošević”. Varga says that free media, the judiciary, the institution of Ombudsman and Commissioner for Information are among the most vulnerable.

In his opinion, Serbs are also frustrated because of the very poor economic condition of the country.

“Fake picture of the economic situation presented in state-controlled media. Serbia is a poor country, many people want to leave the country; they see no perspectives here.” Varga also says that frustration with the education level, scandals with fake diplomas among high-level politicians are adding fuel to the fire.

Romania – Citizens Sorry for Their Government

Romanian Presidency of the EU

While Serbia is dealing with its nightmares, another country just across the border seems to be facing similar obstacles. Romania has been facing massive protests since 2017, and similar to Serbian, Romanian citizens have been taking the streets to oppose Social Democrat’s government policies.

The most recent one took place on January 11th, 2019, during Romania’s ceremony of opening a six-month presidency of the European Union Council. The crowd chanted: “EU sorry for this government”, “Stop Corruption” in order to oppose controversial justice-related policies.

The protest is the next wave of what started in 2017 and continued in 2018, when a popular chief prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi has been dismissed. Crowds occupied the streets for days, which resulted in brutal police interventions and riots. As a result, more than 400 people were wounded, hundreds of citizens filled complaints against Gendarmerie. According to experts, this was the biggest protest in Romania in the last 25 years.

“The situation now is calm and normal, no street protests, but with many people dissatisfied about governments decisions to change justice laws and with some of its economic changes in tax law.” Says Marian Chiriac, publicist at BIRN Romania.

He says that the protest in Romania were never organised in a structured and formal way.

“There was never a leading organisation or a group of leaders behind them. People took the street following media reports and alerts on social media.” He explains.

According to him the main aim of the protests was to stop the government changing justice laws and to support anti-corruption drive.

“And of course the last part is the resignation of the current government”, Chiriac says.

Protests in Romania, 22 January 2017

Against Corruption 

While Romanian citizens were taking the streets to oppose ease in anti-corruption fight, the government took heavy critics from Brussels too. According to the European Commission’s report from November 2018 the rule of law situation in Romania became less promising since the country joined the EU in 2007.

According to Chiriac the tensions, similarly to Serbia could erupt next time the government makes decisions without the citizen’s support, but real changes are unlikely to happen due to the weakness and polarization of opposition.

“Politically speaking, the ruling coalition is too strong (while there is no united, clear opposition) and any change could happen only after next parliamentary elections (in late 2020 or early 2021),” Chirac says.

He says that current troubles come from the fact that after Romania joined the EU, the country took important steps to fight corruption and reform justice system, which resulted in arresting high-profile politicians and businessmen.

“(…) A new, younger, educated, results-oriented class of justice officials (judges, prosecutors etc) has appeared, and they really tried to have effective results in fighting corruption,” Chiriac explained.

The riots aroused after Social Democrats came into power in 2016 and started to create pressure on newly refreshed justice institutions. Beside the couple of ideas that could be useful, many were seen as controversial, with trying to reduce the National Anticorruption Agency power.

“Kovesi dismissal was mainly a government force demonstrations as anyway her mandate would have expired by the end of last year,” Chiriac noticed.

Chief prosecutor of Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate

He says that Kovesi was seen as an anti-Social-Democrat, as most of the cases she’s been opening was against people from the ruling party or those close to it.

“The ruling party then decided to put an end to it. The current situation is that there is a political pressure over the justice system to slow-down the anti-graft fight at a high level. There is no effective opposition against this (opposition comes only from the street and the EU) while the justice system itself is now almost blocked,” Chiriac explained.

“No clear leadership, no clear programme of action” he concluded.

This cul-de-sac perception is often prevailing among dissidents across Central Europe. Yet, over the last years in all Central European countries civic and political movements have been only increasing their public activity. More and more often, they put effective pressure on the governments as well as the opposition.

Poland is the New Black

In November 2016, massive Black Monday protests broke the news of a new civil society movement in Poland. The country, traditionally regarded as Catholic conservative saw hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on the streets to demand the liberalisation of laws on abortion. Those who weren’t marching put on black to work and school in solidarity with the country-wide organised demonstrations.

Black protest of initiative Save the Women 2016

The right-wing government had to back down but interestingly the main opposition was unable to integrate the dissent into its main narrative. Only three years later a new liberal-left party led by Robert Biedroń was able to stand firmly on that ground and as the only one embrace the core message of the civil movement started at the beginning of the parliamentary term.

Also, the widely reported protests in defense of the justice system and the constitution kept up the pace since 2017 without official participation of parties, though politicians often appeared in the crowds. The protests, making headlines of all regional and international press pushed decision makers to a corner and the decision to implement new laws was delayed and went to the parliamentary process twice before finally adopted.

Yet, the loud opposition to the governmental policies also emboldened action from the European Commission which hastened a case for the European Court of Justice. In October 2018, the court’s injunction suspending the most controversial of Polish laws was perceived by protesters as a major victory and empowered the potential of the civil society.

Hungarian Beleaguered Streets

The good prospects of Polish civil society were by then contrasted with the situation in Hungary, where Victor Orbán’s government has dominated the political space so much that nearly for more than two terms he remained indifferent to regular protests taking place mostly in the country’s capital – Budapest. The simple reason for his confidence was that the opposition forces were usually scattered and unable to convincingly embrace the concerns raised by the protesters.

“Slave Law” protest in Hungary

Since assuming office in 2010 he only once met with opposition strong enough to reverse his policies. In 2014 the government had to backstep on the plans to introduce taxation on Internet usage. By December last year, the previous time Hungary saw mass popular protests were against the fraud of the previous socialist government.

But the situation has abruptly changed when just before Christmas with adopting new labour law regulations that were met with fierce opposition from politicians, labour unions and civil society activists. The so-called “slave law” brought outrage far beyond the capital and continued for the last three months. More importantly, they were coordinated between otherwise scattered groups. Time will show what political change would they be able to generate in effect.

Slovakia Wound to the Heart

Very often a breakthrough comes painfully unannounced. In neighbouring Slovakia, the only eurozone country of the region and often portrayed as the only white sheep of the CEE illiberal herd, this was the murder of a young investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiance.

Sticker bearing a photo of slain journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée

The professional assassination and obscure contacts between governmental elites and shadowy businessmen led to massive protests across the country followed by a series of dismissals from the prime minister office to the chief of police. It indeed came unexpectedly as the protest and civil society potential were often lamented upon.

The Spring to Come

Thirty years after the democratic revolution that wiped out Communism and Moscow’s domination over the countries of CEE, there are signs of new democratic spring across the region.

Back in 1989, there was a favourable global context that empowered many of those changes. Today, many doubt in the favourable global political climate but for many Europeans the dynamics of civil and political movements in CEE could be a refreshing inspiration.


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. 

Natalia Żaba

Originally from Wroclaw, Poland, Natalia Żaba has spent a decade in the Western Balkan region, first as a student, then as a reporter and media programme manager at the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. She covers politics and regional affairs for Al Jazeera Balkans amongst numerous other regional outlets.


Weekly updates with our latest articles and the editorial commentary.