BELGRADE (Reuters) – For two nights, a cacophony of tin pans, drums, whistles, and horns has reverberated through much of Serbia as citizens, stuck at home under curfew, vent their anger at the government and its tough containment measures to curb the new coronavirus.
Serbia, which has reported 8,497 confirmed cases and 173 deaths from COVID-19, introduced stringent measures last month, including a state of emergency, closure of borders, daily curfew from 1600 GMT, and total lockdowns all weekend, including all four days of the Easter holiday.
The government has started to lift restrictions as the rate of infections slows, but said that a lockdown during the Labour Day holiday on May 1, a important celebration in Serbia, should remain in place.
The banging is due to continue on Wednesday evening, and recalls similar popular protests from 1996 to 1997 when Serbians rebelled against election fraud and the former strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
At the balcony of his apartment in Belgrade’s Vracar neighbourhood, Dragan Djilas, the head of the opposition Alliance for Serbia, and a former leader of the student protests of the 1990s, used a wooden spoon to bang a pot.
“This energy (from the 1990s) has re-emerged as the people cannot endure any longer … these lockdowns, these 80-hour incarcerations,” Djilas told Reuters.
The protests also express many people’s discontent with the policies of President Aleksandar Vucic, a former nationalist firebrand and former information minister under Milosevic who later adopted pro-European values, and with his Serbian Progressive Party.
Many in Serbia accuse Vucic and the ruling coalition of autocracy, oppression against political opponents, stifling of media freedoms, corruption, cronyism, and ties with organised crime. Both Vucic, in power since 2012, and his allies deny such accusations.
Most of Serbia’s opposition parties, which are frequently divided and bickering, have boycotted parliament. They have said they will not take part in elections initially set for April and postponed until later in the year.
Bojan Klacar, the executive director of the Belgrade-based pollster CESID said the protest could damage the Serbian president and his allies, but added that a divided opposition was unable to tap into its energy. He added that heavy-handed handling of the crisis did not dent popularity of Vucic among his supporters.
From his window in a concrete, Communist-era building in the Novi Beograd neighbourhood, Dobrica Veselinovic, a prominent activist of the Ne Davimo Beograd (Do Not Drown Belgrade) rights group, played Bella Ciao, a song of Italian antifascist fighters during the World War II.
He also projected a banner reading “noise against dictatorship” and “raise your voice every evening from 2005” (1805 GMT) onto the wall of a nearby building.
“The most important thing is that people (who disagree with the government) realize that they are not alone…. We invited people to raise their voice against what is happening in society,” Veselinovic said.
(This story corrects number of fatalities in paragraph 2 to 173 from 1,678)
(Additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)