Tens of thousands of people gathered in the Serbian capital on Friday for a massive rally in support of President Aleksandar Vucic, who is facing an unprecedented uprising against his autocratic rule amid a crisis triggered by two mass shootings that have shocked the nation.
The event was overshadowed by a new crisis in the former Serb province of Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs clashed with Kosovo police on Friday and Vucic ordered Serb troops to be placed on “a state of high alert”. Vucic also said he had ordered an “urgent” movement of Serb troops to the border with Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.
Heeding Vucic’s call for what he called “the biggest demonstration in Serbia’s history”, his supporters, many wearing identical T-shirts bearing his portrait, were bussed to Belgrade from across the Balkan country, as well as neighboring Kosovo. and Bosnia.
Those working in state enterprises and institutions were instructed to take a day off work to attend the rally in front of the parliament building. Some said they were warned they could lose their jobs if they didn’t show up on buses that started arriving hours before the rally began.
Serbian officials said the demonstration promoted “unity and hope” for Serbia.
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At three major anti-government protests earlier this month in the capital, protesters demanded Vucic’s ouster, as well as the resignation of two senior security officials. They also demanded the withdrawal of broadcasting licenses from two pro-Vucic television stations that promote violence and often host convicted war criminals and other criminal figures.
Opposition protesters blame Vucic for creating an atmosphere of hopelessness and division in the country that they say indirectly led to the May 3-4 mass shootings that left 18 dead and 20 injured, many of them schoolchildren who were shot. by a 13-year old schoolmate.
Vucic vehemently denied any responsibility for the shootings, calling opposition protest organizers “vultures” and “hyenas” who want to use the tragedies to try to gain power by force and without elections.
“They are not against violence, they want my head,” he said.
Analysts believe that by holding the mass rally, Vucic, who has ruled the country for more than a decade with a firm grip on power, is trying to overshadow opposition protests with the large number of participants.
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“For the first time, Vucic has a problem,” said political analyst Zoran Gavrilovic. “His problem is not so much the opposition, but the Serbian society that has woken up.”
During the rally, Vucic is expected to announce that he is stepping down from his Serbian Progressive Party and forming “a movement” that will unite all of the country’s “patriotic forces”. He could also call a new parliamentary election for September – something that is unlikely to be accepted by the opposition in the current conditions in which he has complete control over all pillars of power, including the mainstream media.
Vucic, a former pro-Russian ultranationalist who now says he wants to bring the country into the European Union, claimed that “foreign intelligence services” were behind the opposition protests. He said he got the tip from “sister” spy agencies “from the east” – thought to mean Russia.
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There are widespread fears that violence could erupt during Friday’s demonstration, which could be used as a pretext for a crackdown on future opposition protests, including one scheduled for Saturday in Belgrade.
Similar large rallies were held in Serbia in the early 1990s, when strongman Slobodan Milosevic delivered fiery speeches that heralded the violent breakup of Yugoslavia and rallied the masses for the wars that followed.