COVID-19: a look back at the revolt that shook Serbia at the start of the month

As new epidemic outbreaks are occurring all around the world, slowly counteracting the effects of the propaganda deployed during the months of May-June by the ruling classes to present the COVID-19 pandemic as nothing more than a bad dream of winter and early spring, the international situation and particular national situations have seen some new interesting developments. With the rise in cases observed almost everywhere (notably in the U.S, but also in Canada, Spain, Germany, France, the Balkans, Israel, Iran, hong Kong, etc.) the generalized failure of the bourgeois States to control the pandemic and the criminal nature of the global economic recovery is making itself more and more manifest. The incoherences in the management orchestrated by the governments and the contradictory discourse of their leaders are more and more apparent to the masses. Economic recovery, which is accompanied by the impoverishment of many workers, has led to a resurgence of class struggles. We have seen it here in Quebec, but elsewhere too. For example, in France, working-class protests were held recently to denounce layoffs and closures – notably at Airbus, Hop!, Nokia, Smart and Sanofi. In this country already shaken before the pandemic by powerful proletarian protests, we also recently saw healthcare personnel take to the streets en masse to demand better working conditions.

The weight of the pandemic (that the capitalist governments have shown to be incapable of controlling) and its economic consequences are weighing heavier and heavier on the shoulder of the masses. There seems to be no end in sight for proletarians as everything indicates the pandemic will continue to worsen. Therefore, tension will continue to accumulate in society as we advance through the present phase of the crisis (that of economic recovery) until a boiling point is reached; then, there will be spontaneous and violent explosions directed at the bourgeois States in various places of the world. Already, brief outbursts of anger have happened in certain countries during the past period (we are not referring here to the reactionary anti-lockdown protests that happened in the U.S and elsewhere). For example, riots broke out in Chile during the month of March in response to the authorities’ inability to provide means of subsistence to the poor at the start of the lockdown.

And now, more important uprisings of a different nature have started to emerge. Notably, at the start of the month of July, a revolt explicitly directed against the catastrophic management of the pandemic by the authorities broke out in Serbia. If the class character and precise nature of this uprising were more or less ambiguous, it nevertheless showed a growing frustration in the masses and a sort of “exhaustion” of the bourgeoisie in a country where the epidemic saw a strong resurgence recently. Let us not forget: the present phase of the crisis is that of economic recovery and of the struggle between national bourgeoisies to appropriate each others’ markets. As such, it is also the phase of the second wave and of spontaneous popular revolts. The uprising in Serbia, despite its bastardized form, specific to the national contradictions of the country, is symptomatic of the general situation developing all around the world.

At the beginning of the month, the resurgence of the epidemc and the incoherent actions of Aleksandar Vučić’s regime provoke a wave of protests in Serbia

While the bourgeois media of Quebec mostly ignored the situation, violent protests occurred at the start of the month in many cities of Serbia – including the capital, Belgrade –, following the worsening of the epidemic and in response to the inconsistent and criminal actions of Aleksandar Vučić’s corrupt government. Specifically, what sparked things off is the government’s decision to once again ban gatherings of more than 5 people and impose another curfew on the population, a decision that came right after the government itself caused the epidemic to worsen by hastily lifting lockdown measures. Indeed, after having imposed in mid-March an extremely strict lockdown (characterized notably by the imposition of a curfew), restrictions on gatherings and economic activities were quickly lifted. By the end of April, interior commerce, hairdressing salons and gyms were reopened. On May 6th the state of emergency ended. And starting from early June, restrictions on gatherings were entirely lifted. Large public events (notably large sporting events gathering thousands like the tennis tournament Adria Tour) were authorized, which likely contributed to the spread of the virus in the population. Many accused the Serbian Progressive Party – which rose to power in 2012 and holds an absolute majority of seats in the National Assembly since 2014 – of having acted this way to allow elections to be held on June 21st, elections which were indeed held and were denounced as fraudulent, notably, by the numerous opposition parties who boycotted it. The population’s fears were partially confirmed when epidemiologist Pedrag Kon (a member of the government team in charge of fighting the virus), less than twenty-four hours after the election ended announced, as if by coincidence, that the situation of the epidemic in Belgrade had once again become worrying. Worse even, the government started to blame the population’s “lack of discipline” despite being entirely responsible for the situation and despite showing a real lack of discipline of its own. In fact, following the celebrations surrounding the electoral “victory” of the party where almost no precautions were taken by the people present, many high-ranking political officials and their guests were found to have contracted COVID-19!

Protesters also accused the government of having minimized the gravity of the situation and deliberately hidden from the populace the real number of infections and deaths. Indeed, a report published on June 22nd by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), a network of non-governmental organizations, revealed that the real number deaths in the country between March 19th and June 1st was more than double the official number put forward by the authorities (632 deaths instead of 244, on a population of slightly more than 7 million people). The report also revealed that the number of COVID-19 cases detected between June 17th and June 20th was at least 300 per day; a much more important number than what the authorities would publicly admit (who reported a maximum of 97 cases in one day over the same period). A few days after its publication, the report was attacked by president Vučić, who insisted in the media that the data it contained was not “authentic”. These events obviously fueled the anger of the Serbia masses. And this anger should be a source of inspiration for proletarians of every country. In many places around the world (including Quebec and Canada), we saw the spread of absurd and reactionary theories asserting that world governments had intentionally inflated the numbers to justify a lockdown. In Serbia, protested blamed the authorities for doing the opposite. And this grievance made by the Serbian masses, unlike the theories mentionned above, is in accord with the reality of the country. Moreover, it contains an aspect which can be generalized to all the capitalist States. In fact, whether in Serbia or elsewhere, the ruling classes never exaggerated the threat of the virus: on the contrary, one way or another, they have always strongly minimized it to serve their economic and political interests. This is how they justify their plans for economic recovery in the middle of a murderous pandemic for instance, or how they tried to hide the breakdown of their healthcare systems and the failure of the half-measures they put forward to supposedly protect the population.

In Serbia, when it became clear that the epidemic was not under control and that the government had manipulated the people, revolt broke out. The announcement of a new curfew on July 7th was the last straw. On the same day, thousands of protesters spontaneously gathered in front of the National Assembly building in Belgrade. In the early evening, clashes with riot police began. A large group of protesters stormed the building protected by the security forces and managed to enter it. Fighting took place inside for many minutes before the police eventually evicted the protesters. Nevertheless, violent clashes continued in the streets throughout the rest of the evening and night, with protesters throwing improvised projectiles at police officers, who responded with tear gas and batons. The repression of the demonstration, like the one that would be unleashed in the following days, was particularly brutal. The police used rubber bullets, sound grenades, attack dogs, and even deployed cavalry and armored vehicles. Particularly shocking images of the actions of the security forces (including the beating of three young people sitting quietly on a bench) were widely circulated and denounced, both domestically and internationally.

The next day, July 8th , the demonstrators once again stormed the National Assembly and attacked the police forces protecting the building. On the same day, demonstrations also spread to several other cities in the country. In Novi Sad, thousands of protesters gathered and took to the streets. Protesters delivered a speech demanding the departure of those responsible for managing the epidemic and other members of the government. They also demanded, among other things, that more medical personnel be hired and that the budget allocated to the Serbian Orthodox Church be redirected to hospitals. In the city, the offices of the Serbian Progressive Party were vandalized and the city hall was attacked with Molotov cocktails. Similar demonstrations also took place in Nis (where rocks were thrown at the headquarters of the Serbian Progressive Party), Kragujevac (where the town hall was also attacked and projectiles were exchanged with the police) and Smederevo. On July 9th , facing public pressure, the government finally backed down on the idea of imposing a curfew again, but decided to limit the opening hours of certain businesses and to maintain the ban on gatherings of more than 10 people – which amounted to a ban on demonstrations. However, the movement did not stop and even once again spread to new cities. Demonstrations took place in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Nis, Pancevo, Kragujevac, Smederevo, Krusevac, Cacak and Kraljevo. However, the protests were much quieter that day. Indeed, a large number of demonstrators had adopted the motto of sitting on the ground to demonstrate their pacifism and limit violence. That said, clashes resumed the next day in Belgrade when demonstrators attacked the National Assembly again. During these new confrontations, more than 70 people were arrested by the police. Finally, on July 11th , new peaceful demonstrations took place in several cities across the country.

Unsurprisingly, President Aleksandar Vučić strongly denounced the protesters from the outset, stating that they were under the influence of “not only a criminal factor, but also a foreign factor”. He was implying that the protests were organized from outside to destabilize the country. On that note, Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin said that the clashes were nothing less than an attempt to provoke civil war in the country, adding that the “enemies of Serbia” were happy with what was happening. The president also called the protests “the worst political violence in recent years” and even “acts of terrorism”, stating that the acts of violence were organized and committed by “pro-fascist” far-right groups. This version of events was echoed by several leftist activists who were quick to denounce the violence, equating it entirely with the actions of reactionary groups. However, while it is true that militants from extreme right-wing organizations did take part in the demonstrations, the idea that the violence was organized entirely by these groups seems to be greatly exaggerated. In fact, elements with multiple, contradictory political allegiances, ranging from social-democratic politicians to extreme right-wing nationalists and even activists of left-wing “citizen” organizations (such as the anti-eviction organization The Roof or the organization Don’t let Belgrade drown), participated in the movement. But the protests seemed to mostly attract people with no particular affiliations: students, artists, families and people from the masses who had come to express a form of general popular discontent. This perfectly legitimate discontent had nothing to do with nationalist or far-right concerns. In order to get an idea of the state of mind of the protesters, it is useful to pause for a moment to consider the statements made by some of them during the events. On the first night of demonstrations, for example, one protester told a journalist from N1 TV: “Tear gas, rubber bullets and batons against young unarmed people! Dad, this protest is for you who died when there was no ventilator! […] There was no ventilator at the Zemun hospital when they were talking about giving ventilators as gifts to others. “A 53-year-old protester, Jelina Jankovic, told the media: “Our government is only trying to protect its interests, people are collateral damage. Another 52-year-old protester, Danijela Ognejenovic, said, “We are tired of COVID-19 numbers being manipulated. People are very angry”.

In addition to being a response to the catastrophic management of the pandemic by the Serbian authorities, the protests also expressed a more general exasperation with the regime of Aleksandar Vučić, a regime perceived as corrupt and autocratic by the masses in the country. It should be noted that a wave of demonstrations against the corruption and anti-democratic actions of the Serbian Progressive Party took place in 2018 and 2019. As such, anti-Vučić sentiment was already widespread before the beginning of the current health crisis. The denunciation of government corruption and despotism was thus intertwined with the denunciation of the fraudulent elections of June 21st and the frustration of the people over the authorities’ mismanagement of the epidemic. All of this merged into a heterogeneous (and somewhat incoherent) movement, creating a particularly explosive cocktail.

Moreover, the ingredients had long been in place for the anger of the popular masses to erupt vigorously in this country, which has long been the victim of the machinations of the imperialists and their local lackeys. In the 1990s, the long process of disintegration of ex-Yugoslavia orchestrated by the imperialists (a process marked by regional wars, UN sanctions and finally the devastating NATO bombing campaign in 1999) completely devastated the country’s economy. Although some growth followed in the early 2000s, the financial crisis of 2008 did further serious damage. Since then, the economic situation has stagnated (the country’s GDP going from $52.19 billion in 2008 to $50.6 billion in 2018). The country’s domination by foreign capital, especially that of the imperialist powers of the European Union (which the Serbian state is currently seeking to join), keeps Serbia in a spiral of debt and poverty. Between 2014 and 2016, under pressure from the imperialists and especially the IMF, the government of the Serbian Progressive Party (of which Aleksandar Vučić was prime minister at the time) subjected the Serbian proletariat to a brutal program of fiscal adjustment (including hiring and wage freezes, pension cuts, privatizations, etc.). Since then, everything related to the living conditions of the masses (the healthcare system, salaries, workers’ rights, “social security”, etc.) has continued to deteriorate. In 2019, Serbia had an unemployment rate of 10.3%. All these elements make the country a fertile breeding ground for mass revolt. Today, many rightly perceive Aleksandar Vučić as a lackey of foreign powers. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the “enemies of Serbia”, contrary to what the Minister of Defense said, were not particularly pleased with what happened in the country at the beginning of July. The real enemies, i.e. the imperialist powers (those who organized, among other things, the 1999 bombing campaign that killed thousands of people, devastated the country’s infrastructure and caused an estimated $50-100 billion in damage), were indeed quick to condemn the riots. For example, Sem Fabrici, the European Union ambassador to Serbia, said he was concerned about the violence of the protesters: “We saw people gathering spontaneously at first, but after a peaceful rally, the event became violent and we are worried about what happened”. The U.S. Embassy in Belgrade said, “We condemn all forms of violence, including what appear to be coordinated attacks against the police. “It is probably no coincidence that we have heard little about these demonstrations in the media here. The Canadian imperialist bourgeoisie, which has good relations with the current Serbian government and holds significant investments in the country, had no reason to support this revolt, just like its US and European imperialist partners.

In spite of the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is an international phenomenon and that the inability of the ruling classes to respond rationally to it is a generalized failure throughout the planet, it is within the national framework that the popular masses’ response is developed and organized. This means that, from one country to another, this response will take different forms (and often bastard forms) according to national particularities and according to the concrete development of the class struggle in each of these countries. Nevertheless, popular uprisings will highlight aspects of capitalist management common to all bourgeois States. For example, in Serbia, the masses were confronted with the fact that the government hastily lifeted lockdown measures in the country to serve the interests of the imperialistically subjugated Serbian ruling class, which exacerbated the epidemic. However, Serbia’s deconfinement was part of a broader movement of economic recovery affecting the entire planet. Here in Quebec, the bourgeoisie put an end to the lockdown measures while the epidemic was not under control, in order to allow capitalists to accumulate profit anew. The Quebec government is also acting in a completely inconsistent manner and blaming the masses for the spread of the virus. That said, in Serbia, the prospect of elections seems to have pushed the authorities to speed up the deconfinement process, which has not necessarily been the case elsewhere. That is why these elections were seen by the Serbian masses as having played an important role in the incoherent management of the epidemic by the authorities and why their denunciation was at the center of the revolt that took place. Be that as it may, the anger of the Serbian people, like that of proletarians everywhere else facing the ravages of the pandemic and the actions of the ruling classes, is perfectly legitimate. Other explosions are to be expected elsewhere in the world in the coming weeks and months. Already, in the last two weeks, a protest movement has also begun to develop in Israel against the economic consequences of the management of the epidemic by Netanyahu’s government. The uprisings will be everywhere different. But everywhere, the masses will be right to revolt against the anarchy and chaos caused by capitalism!