Thousands of Serbs demonstrated on Friday for a fourth consecutive night, rallying against President Aleksander Vucic and his government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic.
Protesters – challenging the ban on mass gatherings amid an outbreak of viral infections – attempted to storm the Serbian parliament in central Belgrade, throwing bottles, stones and flares at the police guarding the building in the shape of a dome and removing its metal fences.
The police first used their shields to repel the protesters and prevent them from entering the building.
But after repeated attacks, they fired tear gas to disperse the crowd, then ended up fighting with demonstrators.
Several people were arrested and many journalists were injured, mainly during attacks on demonstrators.
This week’s protests were initially motivated by frustration over economic smothering measures to contain the pandemic, but they quickly evolved into anti-government rallies with participants demanding the resignation of Vucic.
Earlier on Friday, Vucic said he was not worried about losing political power amid the protests, considered the most intense since the overthrow of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. He instead expressed his fear of demonstrators spreading the virus.
“It is so irresponsible to call people to come together and demonstrate when we face the most horrible number of coronavirus infections,” Vucic told reporters during a state visit to France.
“I pray people, please keep our health safe. No one is going to take power by force. Power is taken in elections. You can protest as much as you want when the epidemic is over, ”he said.
Prime Minister Ana Brnabic on Friday announced the highest number of daily deaths, 18, since the start of the pandemic in the Balkan country. She said 386 new confirmed cases had been recorded in the past 24 hours. This brings the total to over 17,300 confirmed cases and 352 deaths since March.
She said that “hospitals are full of sick people” and urged people “to respect the measures in place” to limit the spread of the virus.
Critics say government decisions to allow resumption of football games, religious holidays, parties and private gatherings in May and that legislative elections will be held on June 21 are behind the new wave of d ‘infections. Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) largely won the vote.
During his nearly three years in power, Vucic consolidated an enormous amount of power in the presidency, a role that was previously only ceremonial.
The unrest on Friday came after a peaceful demonstration on Thursday – although there was also violence earlier this week.
The protests started on Tuesday when the president announced that Belgrade would be placed under a new three-day lockout following a second wave of confirmed coronavirus infections.
They continued even though Vucic suspended plans to apply the lock. Instead, his government has banned gatherings of more than 10 people in the capital.
Serbian officials denounced the protests as an attempt to overthrow the government and weaken Vucic’s position in the European Union-mediated negotiations on Kosovo, a former province whose declaration of independence by Belgrade does not recognize 2008.