Pro-government rally held in Serbia amid growing discontent after mass shootings

BELGRADE, Serbia — Tens of thousands of people gathered in the Serbian capital on Friday for a massive rally in support of President Aleksandar Vučić, who is facing an unprecedented rebellion against his autocratic rule amid a crisis over two mass shootings that have shocked the nation.

Addressing the rain-soaked crowd, Vučić blamed the opposition for calling for his resignation for mishandling the crisis and creating divisions within the country. 18 people lost their lives in the shooting at the beginning of May.

Referring to the large-scale anti-government protests that have taken place in recent weeks, Vucic accused opposition politicians of “trying to abuse the tragedy.”

“Politicians will go down in the history of dishonor for mishandling the greatest tragedy in our nation’s history,” he said. “Those politicians deserve nothing but contempt.”

But Vucic continued to invite the opposition to dialogue about their demands.

“All along, they had only one desire to overthrow me and the government of Serbia,” he said. “Those politicians didn’t even care about the children.”

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Vučić reiterated that he would step down as head of his Progressive Party of Serbia on Saturday and announced plans to create a new nationwide movement involving politicians, prominent intellectuals, artists and others.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. We will defend Serbia together.

Friday’s march was somewhat overshadowed by the new crisis in Serbia’s former province of Kosovo, where Serbs clashed with Kosovo police on Friday, and Vučić ordered Serbian troops to be “on high alert”. Vučić also said he had ordered the “urgent” movement of Serbian troops to the border with Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.

In response to Vučić’s call, which he called “the biggest demonstration in Serbia’s history”, his supporters, many of whom wore T-shirts identical to his image, bussed to Belgrade from all over the Balkan country, as well as from neighboring Kosovo and Bosnia.

According to organizers, hundreds of thousands of people attended the gathering in front of the Serbian National Assembly in rain and thunderstorms, which forced many to seek shelter.

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Employees of state-owned companies and institutions were asked to take a day off work to participate in a rally in front of the parliament building. Some warned them they could lose their jobs if they didn’t show up for the buses that started arriving hours before the rally began.

Serbian officials say the demonstration is a message of “unity and hope” for Serbia.

In three large anti-government demonstrations in the capital earlier this month, demonstrators demanded the ouster of Vucic and the resignation of two senior security officials. They also demanded the revocation of the broadcast licenses of two pro-Vucic television stations, which promote violence and often host convicted war criminals and other criminals.

Opposition protesters blame Vučić for creating an atmosphere of hopelessness and division in the country, which they say indirectly led to the May 3 and May 4 mass shootings that left 18 dead and 20 wounded, many of them schoolchildren, who were 13 was shot by a man. his year-old schoolmate.

Vucic has vehemently denied responsibility for the shootings, calling the organizers of the opposition protests “vultures” and “hyenas” who want to use the tragedies to seize power by force and without elections.

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Analysts believe that Vučić, who has held firm power in the country for more than a decade, is trying to overshadow the opposition protests by organizing the mass meeting.

“Vučić has a problem for the first time,” said political analyst Zoran Gavrilovic. “The problem is not so much the opposition, but the awakened Serbian society.”

Vučić, a former pro-Russian ultranationalist who now says he wants to take the country into the European Union, has claimed that “foreign secret services” are behind the opposition protests. He said he got the tip from “sister” spy agencies “from the east” – believed to mean Russia.

Similar large rallies were held in Serbia in the early 1990s, when Slobodan Milosevic gave a powerful speech calling for the violent breakup of Yugoslavia and rallying the masses to the wars that followed.

AP reporter Jovana Gec contributed.