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Lessons in Color: What Serbia’s Protests Can Learn from North Macedonia

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Street protests in Serbia under the slogan Serbia protiv nasilja (“Serbia Against Violence”) entered its sixth month in a climate of uncertainty. The first demonstration took place on the 8thth of May, five days after a mass shooting in a primary school in Belgrade that left ten people dead and six injured – followed only a day later by another episode of armed violence in the villages of Dubona and Malo Orašje that left nine dead and more than ten injured. THEmeasures announced by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić following the tragic events fell far short of meeting the coordinated demands of a mosaic of opposition parties and popular groups. In response to the authorities’ lack of accountability, they have since taken to the streets to shout against the violence. Initially proclaimed non-partisan, without party symbols or speeches, the Belgrade rallies have gradually given way to an increased role of opposition leaders and are slowly preparing for the approach of the winter season.

As the year 2023 slowly comes to an end, the movement has managed to gather up to 27 demonstrations in Belgrade alone, but the waves of protests have spread to more than 40 municipalities and cities in Serbia since its launch. Only very few initial claims of the movement have been achieved, while the vast majority have been fired by the government – ​​including the replacement of the board of directors of Radio Television of Serbia (RTS), the revocation of the national broadcasting licenses of televisions that promote violence and the dismissal of both the Interior Minister and the head of the Security Intelligence Agency of Serbia.

There is no single model of success for controversial policies, but Serbia and the Western Balkans are well aware of episodes of social activism on the streets, from which many lessons can be learned.

A model for controversial politics

In the Western Balkans, social movements have waxed and waned over the past two decades, but few have left a lasting mark. Among the most recent examples, the 2016 Colored Revolution in North Macedonia is a classic example of a successful social movement that left a considerable imprint on the region’s politics. Organized in a context of deep political and social crisis triggered by the illiberal misdeeds of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his government, the Colored Revolution took center stage and introduced an innovative repertoire of actions that sparked a transversal national dynamic and international attention.

The Colored Revolution saw almost daily street protests across North Macedonia for three months, supported by relentless online activism. It had a significant intersectional and inter-ethnic character, succeeding in bringing together ethnic Macedonians and Albanians of all ages and creating cohesion between protesters advocating for different issues, from improving the economic situation to protecting LGBTIQ rights. However, the main indisputable grievance was the general perception of injustice and political impunity surrounding Gruevski and his VMRO-DPMNE-led government.

Through its demands, the movement aimed to overthrow the executive and bring those responsible involved in the 2015 wiretapping scandal justice, a common goal which greatly contributed to the cohesion of the demonstrators.

Seven years after the end of the protests, North Macedonia is suffering a political crisis of a different kind and the spirit of the Colored Revolution is completely diluted. However, lessons learned before, during and after the 2016 movement could provide insight into the results, shortcomings and prospects of the ongoing protests in Serbia.

Two sides of the same coin?

Certain features make the experience of the Colored Revolution comparable to that of today. Serbia protiv nasilja demonstrations, which can help to better explore the potential prospects of the movement. Both North Macedonia and Serbia have a long history of social activism, particularly prominent in recent years, when corruption, elite impunity and state capture were cross-cutting themes. The protests of 2016 and 2023, as well as many other rallies in between, are episodes from the same era, when citizens of the Western Balkans’ illiberal regimes took to the streets to express their grievances and outrage against the elite. In both cases, the social outpouring of frustration and anger was met with denial by unaccountable elites, who rejected the movement’s demands and organized counter-protests to delegitimize them. A key element of both movements is their cross-cutting and decentralized nature: although both emerged and retained their main support in Skopje and Belgrade, they quickly spread across the country and became a comprehensive cross-city movement with demands that find an echo far beyond borders. the capitals.

Similarities aside, the political and social architecture of Serbia in 2023 is arguably distinct. Despite the gradual politicization of the ongoing protests, notably thanks to the central participation of opposition figures, the role of opposition parties vis-à-vis the government in Belgrade remains weak and fragmented. The lack of unity between these parties, which currently hold a third of the seats in the Serbian parliament, reveals that a political alternative is not feasible in the short term without unity – and neither are opportunities for change. In North Macedonia, the very early presence of social democratic leader Zoran Zaev in the demonstrations allowed his SDSM party to embody the only alternative to Gruevski, acting as an agent of cohesion also among ethnic Albanian parties and even among protesters initially wary of SDSM.

At the national level, one could argue that the Macedonian state of 2016 was not politically captured to the same extent as Serbia today, and that civil society still had some leverage to make its voices heard. demands, or even satisfy them. In this regard, the involvement of the EU and the United States in the political crisis in North Macedonia played a decisive role in the context of the Colored Revolution, as they pushed for negotiations between the government and the opposition, ultimately paving the way for a government transition. Western partners considered the fall of Gruevski an affordable cost, unlike what they do today with Vučić. The Serbian president and his SNS party continue to welcome appeasement and praise from Brussels and Washington, which aims to keep Belgrade strategically close and prevent it from tilting further towards Russia – an approach for essential erroneous.

Election awakening

Following the announcement by President Vučić that Serbia will hold parliamentary elections on the 17thth of December, alongside local elections in more than 60 cities and municipalities and provincial elections in Vojvodina, the ten parties involved in the Serbia protiv nasilja confirmed events they will agree on a common coalition platform. This is a considerable step for Serbia’s opposition parties, many of which have already refused to run in the 2020 parliamentary elections and which have failed to break the institutional monopoly led by the SNS.

The stakes are now higher in their most institutionalized form, because Serbia protiv nasilja enters a stage that the Colored Revolution of North Macedonia never managed to achieve: that of introducing the movement into Parliament. How the anti-violence coalition handles its ongoing transition process to the party political arena and its outcome in December’s elections will have a direct impact on the future of the protests, which remains uncertain to this day. Its success will now depend heavily on how the multi-party bloc, which encompasses a mosaic of ideologies from across the spectrum, addresses issues of internal cohesion and power dynamics, while skillfully avoiding attacks and smear campaigns sponsored by government, and stimulating engagement. Western partners. And in doing so, it will write a new chapter in the contemporary history of protest movements in the Western Balkans – hopefully with great success.

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