BELGRADE – Police fired tear gas to disperse rock-throwing protesters in Serbia’s capital on Wednesday as violence erupted for the second day in a row during demonstrations against the president’s handling of the country’s coronavirus outbreak.
President Aleksandar Vucic backtracked on his plans to reinstate a coronavirus lockdown in Belgrade this week, but it didn’t stop people from firing flares and throwing stones while trying to storm the downtown parliament building.
A number of people were injured during clashes in front of the parliament that started peacefully but soon turned violent, fueling tensions in the Balkan country, which is battling a surge in virus infection cases.
Police on horses and in armored vehicles intervened in the city center to push back the demonstrators, setting up cordons and blocking the crowd from returning to the square outside the parliament building.
Tear gas was fired in several spots. Some protesters overturned garbage containers and set them on fire while trying to stop the police officers pushing them away.
The scene was reminiscent of the era of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, when clashes often erupted at anti-government protests. Special police units were brought in as clashes continued late into the evening in parts of the city center.
Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin said the latest protests amounted to an attempt to “humiliate and destroy the Serbian state.”
“Fascists and bullies want to take power without elections,” Vulin told pro-government TV channel Pink.
The clashes Wednesday came a day after protesters fought running battles with police in the capital and tried to enter the country’s parliament after Vucic announced that a weekend curfew would be reintroduced two months after it was first lifted.
Clashes were also reported in the northern Serbian town of Novi Sad.
Opponents blame the autocratic Vucic for contributing to the spike in deaths and new cases after he lifted the previous lockdown measures. They say he did that to cement his grip on power after Serbia’s June 21 parliamentary election. He has denied those claims.
Mass gatherings at soccer and tennis matches and night clubs were allowed despite warnings by experts that it could lead to a spike in coronavirus cases, something that is currently taking place in Serbia.
Under apparent pressure from the protesters, the president backtracked Wednesday on his new lockdown plans that were to take effect during the coming weekend, claiming the measure cannot be implemented without proclaiming a nationwide state of emergency.
Vucic said that although he still supports the lockdown, “most probably, there will be no curfew."
He said the government will decide on new measures that could include shortened hours for night clubs and penalties for those not wearing masks.
Vucic described the protests in Belgrade as “political” and linked them to the upcoming resumption of the European Union-mediated talks on normalizing ties with the former province of Kosovo, which is opposed by nationalists.
“We will never allow the destabilization of Serbia from within and abroad,” Vucic said, adding that the protests had “nothing to do with the coronavirus.″