Report: Serbia Using Chinese Equipment to Repress Anti-Lockdown Protests

The Serbian capital Belgrade has been hit by clashes, with protesters outraged over the government's handling of the pandemic and the return of a round-the-clock weekend lockdown
AFP Oliver BUNIC

Serbian police are suppressing anti-lockdown protests with “anti-terror squads” that Chinese special police trained late last year, Deutsche Welle (DW) reported on Wednesday.

The revelation comes four days after China made its first European arms deal with Serbia on Saturday.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić announced on Tuesday that a coronavirus lockdown would be reimposed nationwide due to an upsurge in the number of new virus cases in recent days. This prompted thousands of outraged citizens – who blame the government for causing the spike in cases after easing an original lockdown too early – to protest the new restrictions on Tuesday night in the capital, Belgrade, where demonstrators stormed the parliament building. In response, Serbian riot police used a heavy hand to repress rioters, spraying crowds with tear gas and beating protesters with batons. The riots continued on Wednesday night in Belgrade and other Serbian cities, despite the president backtracking on his plans to implement a new lockdown earlier on Wednesday.

“Protesters … pelted the security forces with rocks, flares, and empty bottles in Belgrade. Some of them threw gas canisters back at the police. As the crowd grew in size, riot police pushed the protesters away from the parliament building where the Wednesday rally started. Large groups of riots police, including vehicles belonging to special anti-terror squads, patrolled the city,” DW reported on Wednesday.

Serbia’s “special anti-terror squads” made international headlines in late November 2019, when the units were joined by Chinese security forces in a joint training exercise outside of Belgrade.

“Chinese special police took part in their first joint training drills in Europe joining Serbia’s elite anti-terrorist unit and local police in an exercise at a Chinese-owned steel mill outside Belgrade,” Reuters reported. Serbian Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanović said at the time that “he planned more cooperation with Chinese law enforcement agencies,” adding that Serbia was “learning from a bigger and stronger” country.

Last fall, Serbian police began joint police patrols with Chinese police officers, who were deployed to Serbia to assist with a growing number of Chinese tourists and workers in the country, Euronews reported.

“Policemen [from China] … will be helping Serbian police officers in communicating with Chinese nationals and also with their communication with Serbia’s state bodies,” Stefanović told reporters in September 2019, indicating that the joint patrols would begin in October 2019. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing has invested billions of dollars in loans to “build railways, roads, and power plants, mainly with Chinese workers” across Serbia in recent years, according to the report.

Since at least August 2018, Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s signature “Safe City” surveillance system has been established in Belgrade. Formally announced by Serbia’s interior ministry in January 2019, the policing project calls for the installation of 2,000 “high-definition cameras, which use facial and license plate recognition software, in 800 locations across the Serbian capital over the next two years,” Foreign Policy reported in June 2019.

Serbian human rights organizations have criticized the surveillance system for violating citizens’ freedoms and civil rights, and specifically for its potential to deter freedom of expression in the form of peaceful protests. According to the report, Vučić previously faced large protests from opposition groups in the first half of 2019 and ordered surveillance drones to monitor the demonstrations in April of that year.

On July 4, Serbia unveiled military drones purchased from China for the first time. At a military airbase in Batajnica, outside Belgrade, on Saturday, Vučić revealed that Serbia had recently “received a shipment of Chinese-made reconnaissance drones and missiles,” the South China Morning Post reported on Wednesday. The sale represents China’s first arms deal with a European country.

“Six CH-92A drones and 18 FT-8C air-to-ground missiles were delivered to the Serbian Armed Forces to boost its reconnaissance capabilities,” Serbia’s defense ministry said in a statement.

“This is becoming a modern way of warfare. In that respect we were unable and we [previously] had no chance whatsoever to compete with more serious countries,” Vučić said of the arms sale on Saturday. “Now we are starting, and it is important that we have agreed technology transfer with the Chinese side so that our Pegasus can as well be slowly introduced into the system of the Serbian Armed Forces,” the president said, referring to Pegaz-011 drones developed by Serbia.

Although the exact value of the arms deal with China remains unknown, Vučić said the weapons were “not expensive” and that Serbia “would buy more,” according to the report.

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