Facing growing opposition, Serbia’s right wing Vučić government whips up nationalism

Aleksandar Vučić,

During the month of May, two mass shootings took place in Serbia within two days. The first shooting was at a school in Belgrade, carried out by a 13 year old, who killed his school friends and teachers. The second was committed by a 23 year old, who killed groups of young people enjoying a warm evening in a village. Mass shootings are rare in Serbia. The school shooting in May was the first and hopefully last such occurrence.

The massacres shook the nation. A few days later huge protests, called “Serbia against violence”, took place in Belgrade. These were directed against the government, which is largely seen as responsible for the violence.

Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, leads a government riddled with corruption and thuggery. His party, SNS (Serbian Progressive Party), serves as an organised network of his loyal bullies that often terrorise the local populations. Vučić has been in power since 2014, either as prime minister or president. The elections are corrupt, for sure, but Vučić does have some support, mainly in the rural areas, and largely because of his control of the media.

Serbia today is a society with many complexities, contradictions and confusions that stem from the breakup of Yugoslavia and the wars that followed. Most people are still in denial of the crimes committed in their name. The regime rests on nationalism, a sense of victimhood, and reactionary ideas. During the wars, Vučić was on the side of ultra-nationalists and notorious for his utterance that “100 Muslims [will be killed] for one Serb”. The illegal possessions of firearms, which were brought back from the wars, are rife. That violence is present in all parts of society and affecting even the minds of very young people, is not really surprising.

All former sides in the war see themselves only as victims. The Serbian sense of victimhood is elevated by the fact that the West powers sided with “the enemy”. As the western imperialist interests are undeniable, it serves as “the proof” of Serbian innocence. Likewise, any acknowledgment of Serbian crimes is automatically taken as siding with the Nato and Western imperialism. This “fog of Nato” has also clouded the minds of many on the Left.

Breakup of Yugoslavia 

There is no a shadow of a doubt that the Western imperialism had an interest in the breakup of Yugoslavia for economic and geo-strategic reasons. This is a region rich with natural resources, which were outside their reach during Tito’s Yugoslavia, when all resources and industry were firmly in the possession of the planned economy and the state. Even though the first privatisations took place under former Serbian leader, Slobodan Milošević, immediately after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the restoration of capitalism, Milošević is still seen by many Serbians as the last ‘defender’ of Serbian sovereignty against Western capital. There is an element of truth in this, and in the widespread belief in Serbia that this was the reason for Western demonisation of Serbs during the 1990s. Milošević created the first Serbian oligarchs but the door was still closed to the Western capital.

After the fall of Milošević, pro-Western governments in Serbia shut down or sold off most of the manufacturing. This opened the door to the “free market”, and the mad scramble for resources began. People who protested against Milošević, only to find themselves living in a Western-dominated, neo-colony, felt utterly betrayed. This sense of betrayal was, at the time, completely understandable, however it lasts to this day and has since morphed into an overall sense of defeatism and cynicism.

Mass protests of workers and others against Milošević at the turn of the millennium showed that by this time it was clear to most people that they had nothing in common with his regime. Those protests were hijacked by the pro-Western, capitalist opposition. This was the only opposition that existed. There was no socialist party that could offer a lead to the mass of Serbian working class people. But instead of concluding that it was necessary to build such a force, most of the Serbian left succumbed to cynicism towards all protests that have since taken place.

The latest protests are no different. They have erupted after the shooting massacres, and, so far, there have been eight protests in as many weeks. The opposition parties, which are made up of some of the same people who were the opposition to Milošević, and who were in the pro-Western governments after Milošević’s downfall, quickly adopted the role of the “organisers” of the protests. Despite the big numbers of people on the protests (one demonstration saw half a million; in a country of seven million people, this is huge), most of the Left ignored them.

Vučić was first elected as the “patriotic” opposition to the post-Milošević, pro-Western governments. He quickly proved himself an autocratic leader at home, but a servant to foreign powers, including Western powers. He has nevertheless managed to balance this with keeping friendly relations with Russia and China. This meant that Serbian economic resources have been open to Chinese exploitation, as well as Western. Ironically this has served to keep an anti-Western pretence by Vučić. Significantly, Vučić has not been in favour of joining NATO and has not made sanctions against Russia, as the West has been demanding since the start of the Ukrainian war. This has been sufficient to allow many people to remain ambivalent about Vučić’s regime, even though they find it repulsive in other respects. Their justified fear is that the pro-Western opposition would do everything to appease Western imperialism, including Serbia joining NATO, introducing sanctions against Russia and completely turning towards the EU. But in a country that was bombed by Nato just over two decades ago, and that has always had close cultural ties with Russia, this is never going to be popular or likely to win a decisive number of votes. Today, less than half of all Serbians want to join the EU.

The EU does not want to let Serbia join either. It has given consecutive Serbian governments one ultimatum after another, and is never satisfied even when its demands have been met. One of the biggest obstacles has been the status of Kosovo. But the fact that Serbia is not in the EU does not stop the EU imposing policies, like austerity and privatisations, or banks from leading EU countries treating Serbia as their backyard. UK capitalism has dug in its claws too, especially in exploiting Serbia’s mineral wealth.


Kosovo is still a highly contentious issue. It has been, on and off, for many decades, if not centuries. It is a complicated situation that is certainly not going to be helped by the presence of Western imperialism. Serbian governments have also used Kosovo as bait every time they needed a deflection from disastrous policies closer to home. Vučić does it with unmistaken regularity. As the recent protests against him grew in Belgrade and most other bigger towns in Serbia, it so happened that there were clashes in Kosovo when elected Albanian officials tried to take office in Serbian-controlled areas. The reason Albanians were elected in the first place was because Vučić had instructed Kosovo Serbs to boycott the elections. The date for the takeover must have been known in advance but nothing was done to prevent the clashes.

It is obvious that Vučić treats Kosovo Serbs as pawns when he needs to strengthen his grip on power. This is obvious to a number Kosovo Serbs themselves. It is said that they fear the regime in Belgrade more than they fear Albanians. In fact, many of them say they just want to live peacefully with their neighbours.

The national question in Kosovo, like Northern Ireland or the Palestine/Israel conflict, will never be fully resolved under capitalism. In the Balkans, there are endless debates about “historical rights” concerning different ethnic groups in a particular territory. Not only that all ethnic groups have their own “correct” version of history, but that they all miss the point that even if their version was correct, things change over time. In Kosovo, there are Albanians and Serbs who have lived there long enough to call it home. Both sides have reactionary nationalist forces that have been guilty of crimes against each other, and not just recently. The early 20th century Serbian socialist, Dimitrije Tucović, wrote about Serbian terror against Albanians. At that time, Serbia was a newly formed state, recently liberated from five centuries long occupation by the Ottoman Empire. Like other Balkan nations in a similar situation, it strived to grab as much territory for itself. The fact that there are many Serbian medieval monasteries in Kosovo and that Kosovo was the scene for a major battle in 14th century between the medieval Serbian kingdom and the encroaching Ottomans, serves to maintain the myth of Kosovo as “the heart of Serbia”. This myth had been used to try to justify many Serbian atrocities toward Albanians since 19th century.

Kosovo Albanians, especially the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) which operated in the war of 1999, also committed crimes against the Kosovo Serbs. They also welcomed with open arms Nato powers that came in their “rescue”. Nato and Western imperialism certainly did not have the well-being of ordinary Albanians at heart. They saw an opportunity to grab the mineral resources of Kosovo (and Serbia), which they duly did after the war.

Capitalist Serbia, or capitalist Kosovo, both under the yoke of imperialism, are not a solution for either Serbs or Albanians. Working people do not hate each other; they want to live in peace. It is the capitalist, expansionist and imperialist interests that stand in the way and manipulate minds. People have to be able to decide for themselves how and where they want to live. A socialist Balkan Federation, a historical idea, still offers a satisfactory solution to all Balkan peoples, who are many but living in many mixed areas that are result of migrations over centuries.

Socialist consciousness is low though, despite, or because of, Stalinist regimes that ruled in almost all Balkan countries. It is low in the countries of former Yugoslavia too, that includes Serbia and Kosovo. Yugoslavia was outside of and somewhat different to the Eastern bloc countries. It was created through its own revolution, led by the Yugoslav Communist Party during the Second World War. It was a popular regime for a period, with genuine freedoms and some genuine attempts at workers’ democracy. But ultimately it was not able to resist a rising ruling bureaucracy, and later nationalist politics. Yugoslavia fell simultaneously with the Eastern Block.

However, as workers in Serbia are treated as slave labour, as Western and Chinese mining operations destroy nature, pollute the environment and push people off their land, and as domestic agriculture, together with the rest of the economy, is deliberately destroyed in favour of the foreign capital or products, this has led to numerous struggles springing up: workers’ strikes, farmers’ protests, or formations of ecological, anti-mining organisations that are resisting on the ground.


There have been many strikes in the recent years; at the Fiat car factory and Goša factory, and involving postal workers, to name just a few, all with moderate results. But the most recent strike of workers in an Italian owned shoe factory, Falc East, who are organised in the trade union, Sloga (‘Unity’), achieved a resounding victory. After only two weeks of strike action, the management met almost all the demands, including a 10% pay rise. Falc East is owned by the Italian company Falc, that makes shoes for many European luxury brands e.g. Prada, Gucci and Barberry. Falc had bought a former-Yugoslav shoe factory. Such “foreign investors” receive huge Serbian government subsidies for each worker they employ, while paying the same workers the minimum wage. In words of one worker, the shoes she makes are sold for much more than her monthly salary.

It appears that the workers used a “leverage” method by putting pressure not just on the local management but also the management of the mother company in Italy, and the brands in whose interest was to have the supply unbroken. The demands were somewhat modest but the victory will serve as a precedent and inspiration to all exploited workers.

The environmental organisations, often formed by local people directly threatened by mining companies, have, so far, had some success and are determined to fight on. One of the most prominent struggles is against the British company Rio Tinto that in its quest for lithium is bullying and bribing local population to leave their land. There was a huge protest in Belgrade in December 2021 when became public that the Serbian government had signed a deal with Rio Tinto. After this protest, the government was forced to pretend to have broken the deal. There are numerous other campaigns, most notably against the Canadian mining company, Dundee, that has its eyes on gold, which would destroy a whole mountain with a unique eco-system, and pollute water in the local area. People from a town in eastern Serbia that has high cancer rates from polluted air and water, are fighting against Chinese mining operations.

All of these organisations are taking part in anti-Vučić protests. But none of them have political demands beyond saving the environment and land, and perhaps getting rid of this regime. But it is significant that their demands – that people should be able to determine how resources are managed, that they should be free to live on their land if they wish so, that eco-systems and clean water are more important than capitalist profits – are really only able to be met in a democratically run socialist society. This will need to be learned through struggle. With their comments that “systemic violence is also committed by mining companies; when people lose their forests and water; when people are bullied, threatened, prosecuted when defend against company interests etc.“, these campaigns are directly, if unconsciously, pointing to the inherent violence of the capitalist system.

Serbia is at a cross roads, again. After eight weeks protests are somewhat receding. The reason is that the opposition has not got a strategy or indeed a mass appeal. Promising a “civilised” society after Vučić might sound good but “civilised capitalism” is an illusion. Still, a huge majority of working people see the need for change and it is only through struggle and experience that socialist consciousness and a force will be developed. For that reason, these anti-government protests have a progressive role, despite the “organisers”. The anger of working class people must be channelled toward fighting for a democratic socialist society, where workers and small farmers can make decisions about how the society and economy should be run.


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July 2023