Protesters stormed Serbia's parliament Tuesday night, after the president's sudden announcement of a return to strict coronavirus curfews sparked fiery anti-government demonstrations.
Thousands began gathering Tuesday evening outside the parliament building in the capital, Belgrade, chanting "Resign!" and "Serbia has risen", after President Aleksandar Vučić announced on television that he was reimposing harsh lockdown measures on Friday night in response to an "alarming" spike in cases. The new restrictions include a round-the-clock weekend curfew and a ban on gatherings of more than five people.
News of the curfew triggered widespread outrage, fueling concerns that the government has misrepresented the severity of the outbreak and manipulated its public health response for political ends. Serbia went from having one of Europe's strictest lockdowns to completely reopening in the run-up to last month's elections, in which Vučić's party won a resounding victory.
Following the elections, reports revealed that Serbian authorities had been underreporting the number of infections to the public, and the number of new cases has spiked to about 300 a day. Tuesday was Serbia's deadliest day yet, with 13 deaths reported.
"Nobody can endure these numbers. We don't want to kill our doctors," Vučić said when announcing the new restrictions.
But, on Wednesday, he signaled a possible backtracking on the curfew following the night of violent clashes. Vučić said that while he had been thinking about imposing a new lockdown, "we would have no chances of surviving economically, and we need to live with this, and we need to take all precautionary measures, but we need to keep on working".
Meanwhile, Predrag Kon, the government's chief epidemiologist, told a Serbian news channel that the curfew was still under discussion.
Majda Ruge, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News that the reimposition of a curfew was seen by many as a "slap in the face" from the politicians who had created the crisis through their mishandling of the response.
"It's an accumulated anger against the regime of President Vucic, whose party has amassed absolute power without any accountability," she said, singling out the deliberate early lifting of coronavirus restrictions ahead of the June 21 elections as a vivid example of its mismanagement.
"The government allowed football games with thousands of people attending, relaxed protective measures in public, organized post-election parties without necessary protection — following which, key government figures tested positive — and ignored and underreported health emergencies in some of the regions."
That anger erupted on Tuesday night as a group of protesters briefly stormed the parliament building, before they were forced out by police using tear gas. Clashes continued for hours afterwards, with protesters — drawn from the left and far-right — throwing flares, stones and bottles, and police taking a hardline response, kicking and beating people with truncheons.
Police Director Vladimir Rebic said 43 police officers and 17 demonstrators were injured during the protests, in which five police cars were torched and three police horses injured. At least 23 people were detained during the protests, he said.
Meanwhile, rights advocates, including the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic, called on Serbian authorities to investigate apparent cases of police brutality in response to the protests, after a number of violent arrests were captured on video.
"The Serbian authorities must carry out effective investigations to establish responsibility and punish the officers responsible," she said.
Luka Mihajlovic, legal assistant at the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, told VICE News that the protests were "the most violent, on both sides, seen in Serbia for a long time".
"There were acts of violence by protesters and there were more radical acts of violence by police in response," said Mihajlovic, whose organization has filed complaints over alleged police abuses caught on camera on Tuesday night.
He said that Tuesday’s announcement of the curfew had fuelled the sense among many Serbians that they had been "manipulated" by the government in its coronavirus response.
"One day, you're living a completely normal life, and everyone is telling you it’s OK, then a guy comes on the TV at 6PM and tells you: 'This weekend, nothing works, we’re all in our homes, and if you go out you’re going to get fined,'" he said. "People think they have been misled a number of times in terms of the severity of the situation."
Several Serbian opposition parties have urged their supporters to protest again on Wednesday.