When pandemics fuel aborted revolutions: Serbia’s hot summer and what comes next

When pandemics fuel aborted revolutions: Serbia’s hot summer and what comes next

“Do whatever you want, you don’t bother us at all.” — President Aleksandr Vucic speaking about the July protests.

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly made the summer of 2020 memorable. However, it was a particularly interesting season for investors and analysts whose attention was directed towards Eastern Europe. If asked to list the most significant developments, many would cite the ongoing systemic struggle in Belarus against longstanding leader Aleksandr Lukashenko. Others might point to the constitutional crisis and wave of protests that have taken place in Bulgaria. But only a few would mention Serbia as well.

Behind this omission lies the story of a revolution that has experienced its umpteenth abortion. The latest attempt to halt President Aleksandr Vucic’s apparently irresistible steer towards a demokratura did not remain an internal affair. On the contrary, a number of foreign powers have jumped into the arena and taken a position.

Understanding the reasons behind the surge of popular protests is only the first step. Their failure influences Serbia’s relations with the EU, Russia and the US. Thus, it could mark a milestone in the country’s path in the shadow of a global pandemic.

Simmering discontent

To understand the events of July 2020, one has to grasp the complexity of the political situation in Serbia. The current political system emerged in the early 2000s after the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic. The so-called Bulldozer Revolution was one of the first “modular” revolutions. The ‘Colour Revolutions’ that spread across Eastern Europe in the first decade of the 21st century were all modelled on the Serbian example. Yet, the way ahead has not been straightforward for Belgrade since then. Relations with the EU can best be described as a waltz: lots of pirouettes, but no steps forward. In the meantime, political stability has come at a high cost. Democracy has been sliding slowly but steadily towards a hybrid regime, or an authoritarianism of sorts. At the centre of this process has been president and former prime minister Aleksandr Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party.

Against this backdrop, in December 2018 civil society started to ferment in Serbia, once again anticipating a wider regional trend. Protesters rallied swiftly under the motto “1 od 5 miliona”, or “1 of 5 Million” in English. The catchphrase came from one of Vucic’s mocking dismissals of early demonstrations, when he said protesters’ demands for his resignation as well as free and fair elections would not be satisfied “even if 5 million of you come out.” The slogan fostered the longest continuous protests since the last Serbian revolution. From February 2020 onwards, this popular movement even managed to coalesce with institutionalised opposition forces. Boycotting the upcoming June elections became their common rallying cry.

Enter the pandemic

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the country was registered on March 6. In the event, COVID-19 was almost a lifesaver for Vucic. His power seemed seriously threatened, but the virus served as an excuse to call all protests off. Serbia’s government went in hard to curb the contagion early on. Vucic declared a state of emergency on March 15, then imposed a nighttime curfew (from 8 pm to 5 am). Some argued that the declaration was unconstitutional as the cabinet had not consulted Parliament. Even more controversially, a provision barred people aged 65 and older from leaving their homes or they would face fines of up to €1,275. Despite a recent hike, the average pension for Serbian citizens is a meagre €233.

Meanwhile, the government did little to support the livelihoods of those affected by these measures. For instance, Serbians have known nothing like the generous furlough seen in EU countries. Technically, furloughs “are temporary, unpaid leaves of absence that several businesses have bestowed on employees due to financial hardships.” However, during the COVID pandemic many states have decided to grant furloughed workers up to 80% of their salary. By contrast, Serbia allowed entrepreneurs to fire 10% of their workforce while still having access to €700 million in state aid. Businesses could also postpone all tax payments due during the state of emergency. As compensation, Vucic merely decreed a very meagre €100 grant for all adult citizens.

An undemocratic lack of transparency

Given that Serbia consistently ranks as one of the least developed countries in Europe, these policies were insufficient. Therefore, it was no surprise that the government’s unsober and muddled management of the healthcare crisis eventually broke the camel’s back. For instance, pulmonologist Branimir Nestorović referred to COVID as “the funniest virus in human history that exists only on Facebook” on national television. Despite subsequent denials, Vucic displayed satisfaction with such reductionist comments.

The situation deteriorated to the point that in April the government limited access to all information concerning the virus. However, the blockade did not work particularly well. In June, leaked governmental data showed that COVID-related deaths were 61% higher than previously stated in press releases. The number of daily new cases was three times higher. Nevertheless – and strangely enough – restrictions were lifted before the elections, allowing people to gather for campaign rallies and vote. In July, over 350 physicians signed an open letter demanding accountability for the “surge in infections and deaths” that followed. Some of them have since been sacked under various pretexts.

Election time

In March, Deutsche Welle published a heated opinion column in Serbian. It accused Vucic of downplaying the virus in order to get past the 50% validity threshold at the then-looming parliamentary elections. As it had promised in February, the opposition boycotted the contest and Vucic won in a landslide. Accusations of fraudulent behaviour, irregularities and lack of oversight abounded. The combination of a failing, partisan management of the pandemic and a stolen election must have seemed unbearable to Serbia’s citizens. On July 7, the people of Belgrade took to the streets in their tens of thousands. Residents of other cities followed suit on July 8–9.

However, this time the police responded violently and disproportionately to popular unrest. Meanwhile, Vucic’s sharp tongue was on full display. First he accused the protesters of the “worst” acts of “political violence of the last few years”. Then, he called them “terrorists,” “fascists,” “conspiracy theorists,” “flat-Earthers” and a few more epithets. He also talked of “foreign services” behind  the riots and blamed Russia and Croatia.


The protests subsided in early August, possibly due to the lack of any serious international support and the increasingly stringent anti-contagion restrictions. Yet, it is difficult to predict where Serbia is headed. One thing that is clear is that the economic situation is growing worse. COVID will impact trade and saddle a backward economy such as Serbia’s with an irrecuperable lack of competitiveness. The economic measures enacted by the government have not cut through and have left the working class almost unsupported. Anything could be possible if the negative results from the second half of 2020 snowball in 2021Q1. At that point, recession and potential devaluation of Serbia’s currency could fuel enough political instability to make it difficult for Vucic to stay in power.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Fabio Telarico

Fabio A. Telarico was born in Naples, Southern Italy. He is fluent in Italian, English and Bulgarian. Between 2015 and 2017 he won several prizes in nation-wide literary contests. Since 2018 he has been publishing on websites and magazines about the culture, society and politics of South Eastern Europe and the former USSR. He also participates regularly to international conferences on the same topic.