BELGRADE, Serbia — Thousands of people gathered in Serbia’s capital on Friday for a rally in support of President Aleksandar Vucic, who is facing unprecedented protests against his autocratic rule in a crisis that sparked two shootings that shocked the country.
The incident was overshadowed by a new crisis in the former Serbian province of Kosovo, where Serbs clashed with Kosovo police on Friday and Vucic ordered Serbian troops to be “vigilant”. Vucic also said he had ordered an “immediate” deployment of Serbian troops to the border with Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.
Responding to Vucic’s call for what he called “the biggest rally in Serbia’s history,” his supporters, many wearing T-shirts bearing his image, traveled by bus to Belgrade from across the Balkans and from neighboring Kosovo and Bosnia. .
The organizers said that “hundreds of thousands” of people attended the meeting in front of the Serbian Parliament amid rain and a storm that forced many people to seek shelter.
Employees of companies and government agencies were told to take a day off to attend a meeting held in front of the parliament. Others said they were warned that they could be fired if they did not come on the buses that started arriving hours before the meeting.
Serbian officials said the meeting promotes “unity and hope” in Serbia.
In three major anti-government protests that took place earlier this month in the capital, protesters demanded the removal of Vucic and the resignation of two security officials. They have also called for the cancellation of licenses for pro-Vucic television stations that promote violence and often feature war criminals and other criminals.
Opposition activists accuse Vucic of creating hopelessness and division in the country that they say led to the shootings of May 3 and May 4 that left 18 people dead and 20 injured, most of them schoolchildren who were killed and 13- My school friend of the year.
Vucic has strongly denied responsibility for the shooting, calling protest organizers “vultures” and “hyphaes” who want to use the tragedy to try to rule by force and without election.
“They don’t fight with violence, they want my head,” he said.
Analysts believe that by creating a public meeting, Vucic, who has ruled the country for more than ten years with strong power, is trying to cover up the opposition protests and the number of people participating.
Political analyst Zoran Gavrilovic said: “For the first time, Vucic has a problem.” The problem is not so much the opposition, but the Serbian people who have woken up.
At the meeting, Vucic is expected to announce that he is leaving the Serbian Progressive Party and forming a “group” that will unite “patriotic forces” in the country. He can also call for new parliamentary elections in September – something unacceptable to be accepted by the opposition under the current situation when he has full control over all the pillars of power, including the media.
Vucic, a former pro-Russia ultranationalist who now says he wants to take the country to the European Union, says “foreign intelligence agents” are behind the protests. He also claimed to have received tips from “female” spy agencies from the east ” – which he assumed meant Russia.
There are widespread fears that violence could break out at Friday’s meeting which could be used as a pretext for future opposition demonstrations, including the one expected in Belgrade on Saturday.
Similar mass rallies were held in Serbia in the early 1990s when strongman Slobodan Milosevic gave fiery speeches that declared the end of Yugoslavia’s violence and mobilized people for the wars that followed.