Violent Yellow Vest-Style Rallies Stared Down by Serb Leader

(Bloomberg) -- As Emmanuel Macron grapples with renewed violence in Yellow Vest protests in France, a president on the other side of Europe is throwing down the gauntlet against demonstrators in a show of force that may boost his popularity.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic deployed police to break up a protest at state broadcaster RTS in Belgrade Saturday, continuing his defiance against almost four months of anti-government demonstrations by civic groups who say he’s undermining democracy.

After ignoring the protesters’ calls to step down and for more coverage of the opposition on state media, Vucic denounced the demonstrators on Monday, calling them "people who make catastrophic mistakes as a result of anger, frustration and a lack of a political program." He also rejected any changes to his government without new elections.

“You are dead wrong if you think that you can achieve political results through physical attacks,” Vucic told reporters in the poor European Union-aspirant country a day earlier.

The French protests were triggered by a planned increase in gasoline taxes but have morphed into a mixed bag of demands. In Serbia, the demonstrations erupted over the beating of an opposition activist. They’ve never grown to more than about 20,000 participants, far less than the scores of thousands of demonstrators who took part at the height of the Yellow Vest protests in France, a country with a population nine times as large.

Authoritarian Accusations

But as both countries’ leaders face calls to resign, Vucic has struck a stark contrast to Macron, who raised public spending and introduced a two-month public debate after the demonstrations began in November.

While Macron’s concessions have helped his popularity climb back above 30 percent, Vucic has brushed off protesters’ accusations of authoritarian practices and suppressing independent media. He’s been given leeway for several reasons, including enjoying the support of more than half of Serbs and the participation of far-right radicals, who are souring the public’s perception of the mostly peaceful rallies.

“The incident on Saturday rather helped Vucic in the end of the day,” Florian Bieber, professor of Southeast European History and Politics at the University of Graz, said by phone.

Chain Saw

The rallies are organized by The Alliance for Serbia, a group of parties and a union that combine pro-EU figures as well as nationalists who prefer closer ties with Russia. Thousands of people were in Saturday’s march, which erupted into violence when dozens of right-wing activists stormed the state broadcaster demanding more air time for the opposition. The station aired scuffles with police, including a protester brandishing a chain saw.

Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic called for the prosecution of the alliance’s top two leaders on Sunday. The ministry’s press service declined to immediately provide any numbers about police deployment.

On Tuesday, Vucic said he may give presidential pardons to some of the 17 detained over the weekend violence. But he criticized protest organizers for allegedly inciting high-school students to enter RTS’s premises.

High Support

Vucic came to power in the biggest former Yugoslav republic in 2012 after reinventing himself as pro-EU reformer, replacing more liberal groups amid outrage over corruption and botched asset sales. He previously served, as a right-wing nationalist, under late strongman Slobodan Milosevic until both were swept from power in popular revolt in 2000.

Now Vucic’s approval rating has been high, varying from 50 percent to 55 percent in monthly surveys by Ipsos Strategic Marketing. Around 20 percent of Serbians are unhappy with his rule, “which is enough to get the protests started, but not enough to get a good election result,” according to Ipsos Managing Director Srdjan Bogosavljevic.

“For three years, more people say that Serbia is going in the right direction than those who think it’s on a wrong path,” Bogosavljevic said. “It’s not a time when you can expect change just by shouting down the government.”

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