Thousands of Serbians in Belgrade protested new coronavirus lockdown measures announced by the government following a spike in new virus cases on Tuesday, Euronews reported.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić had announced Tuesday that coronavirus quarantine measures would be reintroduced this week following an “alarming” wave of new cases in the country. At least 299 new coronavirus cases were confirmed within 24 hours in Serbia on Tuesday and 13 people had died, the country’s health ministry said.
The lockdown announcement prompted citizens to gather in the Serbian capital on Tuesday night to protest the quarantine in front of the National Assembly building, where parliament meets. Riot police clashed with protesters, who attempted to storm the parliament building and gained partial entry at one point. Police fired tear gas at demonstrators, who fought back by “throwing projectiles including flares, stones, bottles, and eggs at authorities,” according to the report.
“[T]housands of angry Belgraders shout[ed] ‘Vučić, kill yourself,'” as police “pushe[d] students and women with batons and shields in front of the entrance to the [National] Assembly” where “thousands gathered,” Serbian cable TV network and news outlet Nova S reported.
Demonstrators were reportedly outraged that the president was reimposing quarantine measures, as Vučić has been blamed for easing original restrictions too early, directly causing the “alarming” and “critical” spike in cases he described in Tuesday’s new lockdown announcement.
“Our good president lifted the state of emergency because of the election, and now he wants to impose it again,” one protester told the Associated Press (AP).
“We are here today because our government is trying, for the second time, to put us in [our] homes, to impose quarantine, for which it is only its [the government’s] responsibility because they made all the mistakes that led to the increase of the patients of the coronavirus,” one protester told Nova S.
On Wednesday, police in the capital said “23 people were detained in the clashes that lasted for more than six hours” on Tuesday, AP reported. Serbian Police chief Vladimir Rebic told state-run Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) that “authorities are working to identify more people who took part in the rioting that left 43 police officers and 17 demonstrators injured.”
According to Rebic, the police showed “maximum restraint” and reacted “only when it was absolutely necessary.” This contrasts with local news footage appearing to show excessive use of force by security forces on Tuesday, including video of riot police beating unarmed men while they sat on a park bench.
Late Tuesday night, Nova S lambasted Serbian public broadcaster RTS for failing to cover Tuesday night’s protests, instead airing “Police Story 2,” a movie starring the Chinese action star Jackie Chan, a Chinese Communist Party loyalist who came under fire recently for criticizing his native Hong Kong’s own pro-democracy protests as “sad and depressing.”
“Hello, RTS, you have … thousand[s] [of] people protesting 50 meters from you, so to speak, UNDER THE WINDOW! … And pretend to be dead! We ALL pay you to inform, not to deceive the citizens! The reality that is currently under your nose cannot be ignored forever!” one person wrote online of RTS’s lack of protest coverage, Nova S reported.
On Wednesday, Nova S explained that the “world media’s” coverage of Tuesday’s protests belies “bigger problems” within Serbia’s ruling party that contributed to citizens’ expression of “rage” toward the government:
[T]he Serbian strategy for the fight against the [corona]virus was shaped by Chinese experts who were sent to Belgrade by the Chinese government [a Serbian ally] last spring; their recommendation was to apply strict [virus containment] measures, but the country has begun to open up in recent weeks.
[L]ast week, Aleksandar Vučić’s [ruling Serbian Progressive] party won the majority in the parliamentary elections, which were boycotted by the majority of the opposition, and … some accuse Vučić of lifting the quarantine measures too early for the elections to take place and that much of the anger [over] security measures tailored to the political situation… [A] week ago [Vučić] rejected the requests for complete quarantine.
German newspaper Zeit said on Wednesday that the protests were a response to the “autocratic” president Vučić’s manipulation of lockdown restrictions to “maintain power.”
By Wednesday, President Vučić had reportedly backtracked on his plans to reinstate a coronavirus lockdown, the AP noted. Vučić said that, although he still supports another lockdown, “most probably, there will be no curfew [reinstated].” Continuing, the president said that the government will now decide on “new measures” that “could include shortened hours for night clubs and penalties for those not wearing masks.”
According to the AP, the president claimed “foreign secret services were behind the Tuesday night protests by ‘right-wing and pro-fascist demonstrators.’ He did not identify the alleged spy agencies and strongly defended the police action against accusations of brutality.”
“We will never allow the destabilization of Serbia from within and abroad,” Vučić said, insisting that Tuesday’s protests had “nothing to do with the coronavirus.”