Serbia’s president claims foreign intelligence influence in anti-government protests

Serbia’s president claims foreign intelligence influence in anti-government protests
By Ivana Jovanovic July 8, 2020

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said that the late night protests in Belgrade on July 7 were politically influenced not only by criminal elements but also by foreign powers, specifically by their intelligence services, in his statement to the nation on July 8. 

The protests were triggered by Vucic’s announcement that restrictions on movement will be re-imposed as Serbia struggles to cope with a growing number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases. 

However, the president claimed the involvement of foreign powers who want to weaken Serbia’s international position shortly before his two-day trip to Paris to meet French President Emmanuel Macron. His cabinet announced that on the second day of the visit (July 10), he will participate in a video conference hosted by Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to symbolically restart the Belgrade-Pristina negotiation process. Prime Minister of Kosovo Avdullah Hoti as well as the High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell will take part in the event too.

Thousands of citizens went to downtown Belgrade to protest against Vucic’s announcement that a new curfew will be introduced on the afternoon of Friday, July 10 until the morning of Monday, July 13 in response to the steadily increasing numbers of new coronavirus infections in the country. 

Vucic had canceled the state of emergency and lifted all measures on May 6, likely aiming to secure a larger number of voters in the June 21 parliamentary and local elections as well as to get the economy moving again. This led to a massive re-opening of bars, restaurants, clubs, public gatherings, proms, weddings, football matches and tennis tournaments, without any preventive measures. Simply said, life went back to normal. For their part, citizens didn’t take any personal responsibility and behaved as if the virus wasn’t present anymore, claiming that everything was permitted. 

However, infections continued to spread, hospitals started getting packed and the health system faced worse difficulties than during the first couple of months of the pandemic. The very day after the elections, the government started announcing new measures as spikes occurred in a few towns. According to the latest information from Vucic, July 8 was one of the two worst days when it comes to the number of new cases — 357 people tested positive in the last 24 hours and 11 died. The number of positive tests is some way below the real number of infected people as many stopped going to get tested since COVID hospitals are overcrowded and the most dangerous place to be right now. The tests have a high percentage of false negative results so people with identical symptoms often get different test results. Not everybody with symptoms is being tested either and many (mainly teenagers and young adults) don’t experience any symptoms and but still carry the infection. 

However, the decision to start lockdown again irritated numerous citizens who feared they could lose their jobs, so thousands decided to protest against it. 

The rally started as a peaceful gathering with participants wearing face masks and maintaining social distance. It turned violent when a group of far-right politicians joined and broke into the building of the national parliament. People that were already angry with the government because it kept them locked up for two months and then just opened everything back up as if nothing had happened got madder because they saw the attempt to impose a new curfew as hypocrisy and fake care, and thus found it reasonable to protest and risk getting infected. 

As the police weren’t really prepared for a massive protest and as the protest wasn’t an organised gathering, the situation got out of control quickly. Police used force — beat the demonstrators and teargassed them as they tried to keep them out of the parliament. After almost eight hours of clashes, Belgrade’s streets were empty of people but strewn with debris. 

According to Vucic, those behind the violence were extremists and their protest wasn’t against the lockdown measures but against migrants, a deal with Kosovo, 5G networks and government itself. 

“Last night, even though some tried to justify it with the story about coronavirus, we witnessed an aggressive political protest not long after the protests had started. Illegal, not announced to the police,” Vucic said in his statement to the nation. He added that even if there are no doubts that, at the beginning, some gathered believing they were there because of the coronavirus and frustration because of the potential tightening of measures, which is understandable, individuals with far-right orientation, from pro-fascist organisations, attacked the Serbian parliament and entered its building. 

“That political rally was well organised. Part of our security services failed. We saw later that there were influences from not only criminal elements but also international ones, aka, foreign intelligence services. Those are internal tasks that our [security] service will have to work on in a significantly more serious way than it was doing until yesterday.”

He didn’t specify what foreign countries could have had their spies at the protest but added that there were also people from ex-Yugoslavia that are known for their criminal acts who took part in riots and attacks on the Serbian police.

This statement, together with a video of a Russian female “tourist” talking to a television reporter during the protests, opened questions over which countries Vucic suspected. 

The woman approached the N1 TV crew and started complaining that a cop with a dog hit her on the cheek with a nightstick. She called him a “betrayer” and said there was no reason for anyone to defend him from the people that were stoning him. The journalist (who reported phenomenally despite all the tear gas) asked her why she was there. 

“Because I’m defending justice! I’m protesting, yes. Because what’s going on is not fair or humane, and they say that they have European laws. There is no Europe here, this is dictatorship. I went through all that in Russia. I know what a dictator is … He behaves like a real dictator. I mean, Vucic,” she responded in decent Serbian with a strong Russian accent. 

The journalist asked her to explain her reference to Russia and she said that in the 1990s the country went through dictatorship under former president Boris Yeltsin.

“This is completely the same thing! They are building these shopping malls that will stand later like skeletons, monuments to that culture… all the same is now going on here. I recognise everything that was happening to us in the 1990s,” the Russian protester against the Serbian president said. 

It’s not clear whether this video, combined with Vucic’s words, inspired a reporter from pro-regime private television station Pink TV to ask the president on July 8: 

“From where did Russian and Montenegrin citizens come to yesterday’s protest?”

The same reporter usually asks questions that officials like and want to talk about — in fact, people usually think they are pre-ordered questions. 

Vucic initially didn’t answer this question but someone from behind him repeated it so he said:

“Yes, I did already say that we have some proof of certain things from the region but I am waiting for the final report from our [intelligence] services.”

The reporter from national Prva TV had a similar question but he asked Vucic for a comment about the press release published by the Belgrade based think tank Center for Euro Atlantic Studies (CEAS) in response to the protests, which states that the protests aim to weaken Serbia’s position and that the Russian stamp is recognisable. 

In its July 8 press release, CEAS claims out that in the main leaders of the violent demonstrations on July 7, the public has had the opportunity to witness “pro-Russian public figures who use any means to delegitimise Serbia’s attempts to reach a compromise on a new status for Kosovo through a comprehensive multidimensional agreement, which would take into consideration the arguments of the Republic of Serbia on the one hand, and keep it on the European path on the other”. 

“That is why the timing of the protests was chosen to be just a couple of days before the important meetings that the state leadership has regarding the Pristina dialogue,” the think tank adds. 

It also criticises the international media for reporting mainly about the brutality of the Serbian police and not about why a peaceful protest by people worried about their livelihoods turned into violent demonstrations and clashes between police and protesters.

“I have no doubts that those who worked on all these last night had the intention to weaken the position of Serbia. We have, for now, proof about the entanglement of officials from some regional services and about everything else we can talk later, when our services conduct detailed analyses. I can only speak about things for which I have proof,” the president said. 

“You are talking about police brutality. I will repeat, it wasn’t the police, like someone was walking on the promenade and police started to beat them. That police suffered hits and stones for hours, then [protesters] entered the facility, their duty is to protect that facility,” Vucic said.

Vucic was due to meet the Russian ambassador to Serbia Aleksandar Botsan Harchenko on July 8, his cabinet announced day before. However, the meeting was canceled the morning after the protests on July 7.