Tens of thousands gathered in the Serbian capital on Friday for a major rally in support of President Aleksandar Vucic, who is facing an unprecedented uprising against his autocratic rule amid the crisis sparked by two mass shootings that stunned the nation .
The event was somewhat overshadowed by a new crisis in the former Serbian province of Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs clashed with Kosovo police on Friday and Vucic ordered Serbian troops to be placed in a “state of maximum alert”. Vucic also said he ordered an “urgent” movement of Serbian troops to the border with Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.
Responding to Vucic’s call for what he called “the largest rally in Serbian history,” his supporters, many wearing identical T-shirts with his portrait, were bussed into Belgrade from across the Balkan country and from neighboring Kosovo and Bosnia.
Those working in companies and state institutions were told to take a day off work to attend the demonstration in front of the parliament building. Some said they were warned they could lose their jobs if they didn’t show up on the buses that started arriving hours before the rally started.
Serbian officials said the rally promotes “unity and hope” for Serbia.
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During three major anti-government protests held earlier this month in the capital, protesters called for Vucic to be ousted and for the resignation of two top security officials. They also called for the withdrawal of broadcasting licenses for two pro-Vucic television stations that promote violence and often host convicted war criminals and other crime figures.
Opposition protesters blame Vucic for creating an atmosphere of despair and division in the country which they say indirectly led to the May 3 and 4 mass shootings that killed 18 people and injured 20. many of them schoolchildren who were killed by a 13-year-old schoolmate.
Vucic vehemently denied any responsibility for the shootings, calling the organizers of the opposition protests “vultures” and “hyenas” who want to exploit the tragedies to try to take power by force and without elections.
“I’m not against violence, they want my head,” he said.
Analysts believe that by staging the mass demonstration, Vucic, who has ruled the country for more than a decade with a firm grip on power, is trying to overshadow opposition protests by sheer numbers of attendees.
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“For the first time, Vucic has a problem,” said political analyst Zoran Gavrilovic. “His problem is not so much the opposition, but the awakened Serbian society”.
During the demonstration, Vucic is expected to announce that he will leave the helm of his Serbian Progressive Party and form “a movement” that will unite all the “patriotic forces” of the country. He could also call new parliamentary elections for September, which is unlikely to be accepted by the opposition in the current conditions in which he has full control over all pillars of power, including the mainstream media.
Vucic, a former pro-Russian ultranationalist who now says he wants to bring the country into the European Union, said “foreign intelligence services” were behind the opposition protests. He said he received the tip from “sisterly” spy agencies “from the east” – thought to refer to Russia.
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There are widespread fears that violence could erupt during Friday’s demonstration which could then be used as a pretext for a crackdown on future opposition protests, including one scheduled for Saturday in Belgrade.
Similar large demonstrations took place in Serbia in the early 1990s, as strongman Slobodan Milosevic gave fiery speeches announcing the violent breakup of Yugoslavia and rallied the masses for the wars that followed.