On Saturday 4 December, thousands of protesters blocked roads and bridges across Serbia for the second weekend in a row. They were acting in the hope of derailing two controversial new laws that they claim will allow international mining giant Rio Tinto to extract huge profits from Serbia’s lithium deposits while devastating the local environment. The blockades, which took place all across the country, brought towns and cities to a standstill in what are undoubtedly the largest protests since the overthrow of the nationalist president, Slobodan Milošević, 21 years ago. On 8 December, the government backed down: its first significant concession to opponents in nine years.
Protests have become seemingly never-ending in Serbia since 2017 as it became increasingly clear that president Aleksandar Vučić was transforming the country into an illiberal democracy of the sort found in neighbouring Hungary. Previous waves of demonstrations have been largely dominated by the urban intelligentsia, who have tended to fixate upon arcane concepts such as democracy and judicial independence. This time, though, the entire political spectrum has united against the government by focusing on an issue that affects everybody: the environment. As one ultra-nationalist recently told me, “We all drink the same water”.
This was evident as I walked across the Gazela Bridge in Belgrade on Saturday 4 December towards the epicentre of the protest, on the E-75 motorway, next to the Sava Centre conference hall. Straddling the River Sava, the Gazela links the capital’s urban core to the grey, socialist-era tower blocks of New Belgrade and is one of the city’s busiest arteries.
Making my way through the crowds occupying the motorway, I could see protesters grouped in ideological and demographic clusters. There were students and retirees, countless men dressed in the archaic headwear once worn by pro-monarchist Chetnik guerrillas, and one protester carrying a sign claiming “there was no genocide in Srebrenica” (where about 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces in 1995). Summarising the spirit of the demonstrations, Savo Manojlović, a leading activist, tweeted on Friday 2 December: “Protests for all. Leftists bothered by right-wingers can put up a blockade at a different location. Believers who dislike atheists can do the same. Vaxxers and anti-vaxxers, too … on Saturday there will be only one Serbia: united and FREE. Divide yourselves later”.
As Manojlović hurried past me that afternoon, I noticed that those in attendance had heeded his call for unity. The atmosphere was lighthearted and jovial, without the faintest hint of partisan animosity. Over the course of two hours, the crowd regularly erupted into chants of “Rio Tinto, out of Serbia!” and homophobic taunts at president Vučić. Although the environment is at the centre of this particular wave of protests, a much deeper well of frustration with poor governance, widespread corruption and state dysfunction fuels political dissatisfaction in Serbia.
“They were driven by rage. They’re outraged because institutions don’t listen to them,” Manojlović said on TV on Sunday 5 December. “People are outraged because the institutions aren’t doing their jobs. If institutions don’t solve certain problems, then the street will solve them”.
What separates these protests from previous ones is that, this time, the movement had just two demands: The first was the scrapping of a newly proposed expropriation law that would force landowners to sell their properties to the state if it were deemed in the national interest. The second was the repeal of a recent change to referendum laws that removed the existing requirement of a 50 per cent minimum turnout for the result to be valid. A referendum on changes to Serbia’s existing constitution is currently scheduled for 16 January. However, the opposition refuses to take part in national-level votes as a way of drawing attention to the way the electoral system is stacked against it. The proposed referendum law suggests that Vučić has doubts whether he can clear the current 50 percent threshold.
This proved to be a dangerous miscalculation for the Serbian government. The governing coalition might hold 231 out of 250 seats in the National Assembly, but the last election was boycotted by most opposition parties and turnout was only 49 per cent. A survey by the Belgrade-based polling agency Demostat revealed that 14 per cent of the coalition’s own voters support the protests. Even the world tennis number one, Novak Djoković, perhaps the most popular public figure in Serbia, made a rare intervention into political discourse when he expressed his approval on Instagram. Ecology appears to be a winning proposition in Serbia: the divided and ineffectual opposition might have stumbled upon Vučić’s achilles heel.
Much of this is down to Manojlović and his colleagues at Kreni-Promeni, a Belgrade-based NGO that combines an online petition platform with real-world community activism. In just a few short weeks, the 35-year-old lawyer, who first came to public prominence last year, has managed to achieve more than any other opposition figure during Vučić’s long reign.
Year after year, activists launch new movements against Vučić that eventually lose steam after stumbling into incoherence. This is because they’re usually driven by hope rather than strategy. The Kreni-Promeni team, by contrast, stuck to a clear plan with achievable aims that focused on a non-partisan issue. Certain sections of the opposition have criticised them for a lack of ambition, but politics is a results-based business and their critics are yet to record a win.
“We always try to start changes that are somehow connected with some kind of either local or national or any kind of issue that is more structural,” says Marina Pavlić, the 38-year-old managing director of Kreni-Promeni. “It’s not like we’re doing it because we think it’s great. We do it because we think that if we do that, we can actually change something. We think about what real change is and how we can get there.”
By Thursday 9 December, public attention had already turned to the presidential election in April. A defeat for Vučić is unthinkable, but the last week has shown that he’s not invincible. It took nine years of protests and self-defeating squabbles between opposition parties for Serbs to finally oust Milošević, in October 2000. It isn’t clear whether these demonstrations mark the beginning of the end for Vučić, or merely the end of the beginning. But some progress, however small, is being made.