Thousands of Serbs protested Friday for the fourth consecutive year against President Aleksander Vucic and how his government dealt with the coronavirus pandemic.
Protesters who opposed a mass gathering ban despite an increase in viral infections attempted to storm the Serbian parliament in central Belgrade by throwing bottles, stones, and torches at the police, who guarded the dome building and removed its metal fences.
The police first used their shields to push the protesters back and prevent them from entering the building.
But after repeated attacks, they fired tear gas to disperse the crowd and then fought with demonstrators.
Several people were arrested and many reporters injured, mainly in the demonstrators̵
This week’s demonstrations were initially fueled by frustration over economically suffocating measures to contain the pandemic, but soon turned into anti-government rallies where participants called for Vucic to resign.
Vucic said earlier on Friday that he was not concerned about the loss of political power during the protests, which were considered the most intense since the ex-Serbian strong man Slobodan Milosevic was overthrown in 2000. Instead, he expressed fear of the spread of the virus by the demonstrators.
“It is so irresponsible to ask people to gather and demonstrate when we face the worst number of coronavirus infections,” Vucic told reporters during a state visit to France.
“I ask people, please, let’s protect our health. Nobody will take power by force. Election will take power. You can protest as much as you want when the epidemic is over,” he said.
Prime Minister Ana Brnabic announced on Friday at 18 the highest daily number of deaths since the pandemic started in the Balkans. She said 386 new confirmed cases have been registered in the past 24 hours. That’s more than 17,300 confirmed cases and 352 deaths since March.
She said “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 resume football games, religious festivals, parties and private gatherings in May and the parliamentary elections to be held on June 21 are responsible for renewed infections. Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) largely won the vote.
During his almost three-year tenure, Vucic has consolidated tremendous presidency power, a role that was previously only ceremonial.
The riots on Friday came after a peaceful protest on Thursday – although there was violence earlier this week.
The protests began on Tuesday when the president announced that Belgrade would be put under a new three-day ban after a second wave of confirmed coronavirus infections.
They continued despite Vucic’s plans to enforce the suspension being suspended. 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-led negotiations on Kosovo, a former province whose independence declaration Belgrade did not recognize in 2008.
Al Jazeera and news agencies