Tens of thousands of protesters rallied in the Serbian capital for a fourth week, calling for the resignation of President Aleksandar Vucic following two mass shootings in and near Belgrade earlier this month.
Saturday’s rally came as Vucic stepped down as head of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) amid plans to build a broader political movement that he hopes will “unite a larger number of those who want to fight for patriotic victory Serbia”.
Vucic’s government is under pressure after a series of shootings that have killed 18 people and wounded several others.
In the first attack, on May 3, a teenager killed nine students and a security guard in Belgrade. This is the first school mass shooting in Serbia.
A day later a 21-year-old man killed eight people outside the city.
The anti-government protesters, many of whom carried flowers and pictures of the slain children on Saturday, angered SNS executives over what they say is a culture of violence encouraged by the government and the media outlets they own. controlled.
Held under the banner “Serbia against violence” and organized by opposition parties, the protests culminated in some of the largest rallies in the country since mass demonstrations brought down former President Slobodan Milosevic more than two years ago. decades ago.
Crowds on Saturday braved heavy rain and wind in Belgrade as they filled the streets around a compound housing state broadcaster RTS.
“I’m here because I’m fed up with lies and corruption,” said Dusan Valent, a protester. “Nothing will change here until people realize that it is possible and that we have a choice,” the 40-year-old told AFP news agency.
The protesters want the government to revoke the broadcasting licenses of television channels that promote violent content and ban pro-government newspapers that incite tension by targeting political dissidents.
They also called for Interior Minister Bratislav Gasic and the director of Serbia’s security agency, Aleksandar Vulin, to resign.
“If they don’t fulfill it [the demands] we will not leave here,” said Milica Tomic, a Belgrade resident. “We’ll be here as needed, every day, every week, whenever.”
Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from Belgrade, said protesters blamed the government for encouraging a “culture of violence”.
“They also say that the government is not doing enough to tackle corruption and that it is drifting in an authoritarian direction,” he added.
Meanwhile, Vucic accused the opposition of abusing the shooting tragedies for political purposes.
Earlier on Saturday, he stepped down from the SNS helm and named his close ally, Milos Vucevic, who is currently the defense minister, as his successor.
The president, who won a new term in office last year by a landslide, said his new national movement would be formed in June to include other parties, experts and prominent individuals and promote unity.
“A slightly different approach is needed to unite the greater number of those who want to fight for the victory of patriotic Serbia … a successful Serbia that will focus on its citizens, for a country that does not look for reasons for division, but for unity and togetherness,” he said at an SNS congress.
Vucic added that he would remain as head of state and continue to be a member of the party.
“I will never leave this party. I am proud to have led the best party all these years,” he told cheering delegates.
Analysts said the move was a bid to reunify amid mounting public pressure.
The president on Friday also organized a rally of his own supporters as a show of force against opposition-led protests. Tens of thousands of people were brought in from all over Serbia, neighboring Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and North Macedonia for the demonstration.
“Those who have rallied for the past few weeks are, for the most part, good, decent and normal people who want the best for Serbia,” Vucic said at the gathering on Friday.
“What I don’t appreciate is politicians who would make history with shame by abusing the greatest tragedy of our people,” he said, referring to the shootings.
Opposition parties and rights watchdogs have long accused Vucic and the SNS of autocracy, stifling media freedoms, violence against political opponents, corruption and ties to organized crime.
Vucic and his allies have denied the accusations.
The 53-year-old became SNS president in 2012, replacing Tomislav Nikolic, who had held the post since 2008 when the party was formed as an offshoot of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party.
He first served as deputy prime minister and prime minister and then was elected president in 2017 and 2022. His second and final term ends in 2027.
Together with its allies, the SNS holds a majority of 164 seats in the 250-member parliament.
A nationalist firebrand during the wars of the 1990s, Vucic later embraced pro-European policies, declaring Serbia’s membership of the European Union as its strategic goal. He also maintains close ties with Russia and China.