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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Growing protests in Serbia demand social changes after mass shootings

NATO soldiers stand guard in the town of Mitrovica, Kosovo, on Monday as Serbs protest against the installation of ethnic Albanian mayors, a decision that drew sharp condemnation from the United States.  (Armend Nimani)
By Andrew Higgins New York Times

Protests in Serbia over back-to-back mass shootings last month ballooned Saturday into the biggest street demonstrations in the capital, Belgrade, since demonstrators toppled Slobodan Milosevic as Serbia’s president in 2000.

Weekly “Serbia Against Violence” protests have been gathering momentum since early May when two massacres – one at a school in Belgrade, the second in nearby villages – killed 18 people and set off a wave of public revulsion at what critics of the country’s strongman leader, Aleksandar Vucic, denounce as a “culture of violence” promoted by the government and loyal media outlets.

Saturday’s protest, the fifth and biggest by far, increased pressure on Vucic to meet at least some of the protesters’ demands. Those demands include the dismissal of senior law enforcement officials and the withdrawal of broadcasting licenses from pro-government television stations notorious for airing violent reality shows and ignoring opposition politicians.

“Enough is enough,” Zoran Kesić, a satirist and television presenter, told protesters. “Enough with violence, enough with hatred and intimidation, enough with humiliation.”

The protests have grown into a wider, though so far peaceful, revolt against the increasingly authoritarian rule of Vucic, who has governed the Balkan nation, first as prime minister and then as president, for nearly a decade.

Vucic began his political career as a radical nationalist during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, but has sought in recent years to present himself as a pro-European leader eager for Serbia to revive its stalled efforts to join the European Union. He has balked at imposing sanctions on Russia over its war in Ukraine, but Serbia did vote at the United Nations to condemn Moscow.

Many protesters Saturday chanted for Vucic to resign, and one group released helium balloons carrying a banner with the message “Vucic Go Away” under a large picture of the president, which sailed off into the sky.

The president, who won re-election in a landslide last year, is determined to stay put, dismissing the protests as a “political stunt” by his opponents.

Unlike a huge protest involving soccer hooligans and arson in October 2000 that forced the resignation of Milosevic, under whom Vucic served as information minister, Saturday’s demonstration was peaceful, except for a few clashes between protesters and pro-government agitators.

Vucic has faced – and survived – large street protests in the past, but none as big as Saturday. Past protests, spearheaded by opposition parties and disrupted by violence provoked by government supporters, all fizzled.

But Ivan Ivanovic, a 48-year-old demonstrator, noted that the anti-violence protests, in contrast to earlier rounds of street demonstrations, were only growing in size.

“The motivation is very strong – in a sad way. This is not about the opposition. This is people who are fed up,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.