The question shouldn’t be about whether the protests can endure throughout the summer, but rather should be posed differently: will the parties organising the protests and the citizens participating in them learn to embrace minor victories, seizing every opportunity for success, irrespective of the magnitude of the outcome?
Following the national tragedy of the events of May, a series of political protests emerged in Serbia demanding that the ruling Progressives (SNS) take responsibility and make necessary changes in security, media and the overall public sphere in order to prevent future acts of violence. The mass protests against SNS policies and its (now former) leader Aleksandar Vučić are not new, given that similar protests took place sporadically between 2016 and 2021. What’s new is that the “Serbia against violence” protests are the first to be officially organised by the parliamentary opposition. There are many contesting issues regarding the means and ends of the protests, strategies, vision etc. However, the question that has been on the minds of the opposition, and in the hopes of the ruling parties, is whether the protests can survive the summer holidays, sunny days, and the rain of government money for children and to boost their parents’ salaries and grandparents’ pensions?
This question tells us something about the way we perceive civic culture in Serbia. The strongest motivating factor behind the protests is undoubtably the horrific acts of violence seen in Belgrade, Mladenovac and Smederevo that shook Serbian society to its core. They showed that emotional upheaval is a stronger motivator than any rational cause. However, what lies beneath this emotional earthquake are layers of social injustice.
The resounding victory of Aleksandar Vučić in the 2017 presidential election, despite notable protest activities and the emergence of new leaders and political movements, serves as an essential lesson from the past that demands careful consideration when navigating the current protest movements
These layers are horizontal, spread across different groups: ranging from social and economic inequalities; protests against clientelism and “party employment”; culture, education and environmental issues; and LGBTQ+ rights, to the overall decline of patriotism. With different degrees of media visibility, all these groups march together every week under the banner “against violence”. It is this atomic group structure of the protests that sets the course for the outcome of political demands.
It is not a question of whether the protests can survive the summer. We have the similar example of the 2016 protests against the Belgrade Waterfront project that were prompted by the aggressive demolition carried out in the Savamala neighbourhood and peaked during July and August of that year. Despite the significant turnout for the protests and the emergence of new leaders (Saša Janković) and new political movements (PSG, NdmBgd), Aleksandar Vučić still won the 2017 presidential election by a landslide. The question needs to be worded differently: will the parties organising the protests, and the citizens participating in them, learn to accept minor victories, winning whenever they can, regardless of the scale of the victory achieved? If opposition parties adopt the old Fabian strategy of not making a full-frontal assault on the opponent, the accumulation of small efforts can deliver favourable results over the long term. More importantly, small-scale gains will develop patience and trust among Serbian citizens: two virtues that are foundational to democratic political culture.