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Serbs hand over weapons and question culture of violence after two shootings

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  • By Guy Delauney
  • BBC News, Balkans correspondent

Image source, Getty Images


Thousands of unregistered guns returned after back-to-back mass shootings in Serbia

Shock and horror might have been Serbs’ first reaction to two mass shootings in as many days earlier this month. But outrage quickly followed.

Tens of thousands of people took part in two protests in the capital, Belgrade, as well as smaller gatherings in other cities across the country.

They marched under the banner “Serbia against violence” and called for an end to what they see as a culture of violence that led to the shootings at a school in Belgrade and, the next day, around Mladenovac, in south of the Serbian capital.

More protests will follow – and the government appears shaken. High-ranking figures downplayed the numbers involved and also drew up plans for their own “solidarity” rally.

But there is one issue that protesters and authorities seem to agree on: gun control.

“There is no pro-gun lobby in Serbia,” says Bojan Elek, deputy director of the Security Policy Center in Belgrade and an expert on gun issues in the country.

“There is a national gun owners association, but nothing like what they do in the United States with the National Rifle Association (NRA).”

Following the shootings, President Aleksandar Vucic quickly announced what he called a “general disarmament” of the country. He declared a one-month amnesty for illegally held weapons, with a warning of harsh consequences for anyone holding weapons without a license.

The president also has legally owned weapons in his sights. Mr. Vucic announced a moratorium on new weapons permits and a review of current weapons permits.

This all seems like a big undertaking in a country where the number of weapons in circulation is apparently alarming. In 2018, the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey ranked Serbia third in the world for the number of privately owned guns, with 39 guns per 100 inhabitants.

One can imagine the public and political reaction to such a disarmament program in the country that tops the list, the United States. In Serbia, says Bojan Elek, the situation is different.

The amnesty was generally accepted positively, he said, and by the second day of the amnesty, more arms and ammunition had been handed over than in the previous three amnesties combined.

“The number of illegal weapons is clearly decreasing – even some weapons from the Second World War have been returned. But we don’t have a credible figure on their number to begin with, so it’s difficult to say how many are left. “.

Given the government’s rapid action to reduce the number of guns in circulation and the lack of widespread objections to its proposals, the question is: why are tens of thousands of people still motivated to descend on the street to protest?

Political analyst Bosko Jaksic acknowledges that the arms amnesty is not the bone of contention.

“The only thing Vucic quickly organized was gun control. It’s well organized and it works. So why should protesters ask for such a measure when it already exists?”

Instead, protesters are looking beyond the guns and toward what they see as the root causes of the shootings.

Specific demands include the resignation of two senior government officials and the revocation of the licenses of two pro-government broadcasters. But overall, protesters say they are very concerned about a culture of violence both rhetorical and physical that they say has grown since the Serbian Progressive Party came to power in 2012.

“We are surrounded by violence – in the public domain, in political communication, in Parliament and on television,” says Belgrade resident Aleks. “The culture of civilized conversation is completely lost.”

Another protester, Milos, feels much the same way.

“These tragic events are the culmination of the violent methods – not necessarily physical – that they practice in the media,” he says.

Video caption,

Watch thousands gather for anti-gun march in Belgrade after mass shootings

None of these protesters believe Serbia is likely to emulate the levels of gun violence seen in the United States.

“This discourse mainly comes from government officials who blame ‘Western values’,” says Aleks. “What we see has nothing to do with Western values, but with the values ​​imposed on us by our own government.”

Bojan Elek takes a slightly broader view.

“There is certainly some fear about imitating the United States,” he says. “But the government is exploiting this fear and trying to introduce problematic measures, such as lowering the age of criminal responsibility to 12 and allowing police to enter homes without a court order.”

The demonstrators’ demands have not yet been met. But pro-government broadcaster Pink TV announced the cancellation of a controversial reality show that has long been criticized for its tacit endorsement of verbal and sometimes physical violence.

Meanwhile, President Vucic downplayed the protests, accusing opposition parties of using a national tragedy for their own gain. That didn’t stop him, however, from announcing his own rally at the end of the month, with a special Progressive Party meeting the following day.

“President Vucic has shown that he is afraid of the streets, of gatherings of people in Belgrade and other cities,” says Bosko Jaksic.

“These meetings are polarizing. Why not just go on TV instead of paying millions to transport and feed the people you bring to Belgrade? It is a manifestation of glory rather than solidarity, which does not unify but further divides Serbia.”

And perhaps this is what will bring more people to the streets of Belgrade in the days and weeks to come.

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