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A little big stories – Virus of dangerous divisions (VIDEO)

The ignited atmosphere came from the top.

As in stadiums where all you hear is hooligans shouting, torches were burning and loudspeakers were blaring. This time from the roofs of buildings.

Resident of a settlement in Zemun: We were surrounded by fire and smoke. At one point you couldn’t even see buildings, nothing.

It was the 42nd day of the state of emergency.

Resident of a settlement in Zemun: As soon as the curfew started, people started appearing on the roofs.

Supporters of the regime responded to the noise action by lighting torches and chanting against opposition leaders, which started in the middle of the state of emergency and meant an expression of rebellion by citizens throughout Serbia.

Resident of a settlement in Zemun: It’s well known how that affects us - with fearfulness.

Resident of a settlement in Zemun: I called the police. Nothing happened, no one came.

Some recalled the whistles and protests from the 90’s. Others associated everything with the unpunished suspension of the rule of law in the case of the appearance of people in phantoms and the demolition of Belgrade's Savamala.

Sasa Djordjevic, BCSP: When Savamala happened, everything was done in secrecy, conspiratorially, this is now happening publicly, nothing is hidden.

Professor of the Faculty of Philosophy Oliver Tošković: It’s one of those “divide it, then rule it” situations.

Resident of a settlement in Zemun: This kind of repression and demonstration of force cannot go unnoticed.

Protector of Citizens Zoran Pasalic: If police refuse to react, we will react with all legal means.

What caused the dangerous virus of division, and whether there is a cure for it, is what these Insajder’s Little Big Stories are trying to find out.

 

 

A VIRUS OF DANGEROUS DIVISIONS

In Serbia, the days of the state of emergency, introduced due to the coronavirus pandemic, had three key moments for almost two months: at 3 PM - a press conference of the Crisis Staff medical team, at 5 PM and later at 6 PM the beginning of the curfew, and at 8 PM - applause as a tribute to medical workers.

Dušan Spasojević, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences: It is a kind of a public showing of support, and on the other hand a kind of a showing of solidarity in trouble, that we are all somehow together, and it’s an act that unites us all

Oliver Tošković, professor at the Faculty of Philosophy: In fact, it shows us how that applause diminishes all those stories about people being irresponsible and ignorant.

It quickly turned out that the unification in Serbia was not brought by the trouble, which this time is literally global. The COVID-19 pandemic stopped the world, but not the division.

Dušan Spasojević, assistant professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences: Serbia entered this pandemic polarized, it came out even more polarized.

The state of emergency, which was introduced on March 15th due to coronavirus, in Serbia also meant the postponement of the election campaign. Previously, the denial of the danger of coronavirus coincided with the phase of collecting signatures for the electoral lists, for the elections to be announced on April 4th, just two days before the first infected patient was registered in our country.

Whether and to what extent all those election actions, including rallies, contributed to the spread of the epidemic, is still up for debate, but even that, after the first shock, became a topic that was discussed, mostly on social networks. Fear of the virus was not the only one.

Many citizens complained about the initial lack of protective equipment, feared shortages, the way the school year would end, their jobs and their future. Sending contradictory messages, and even overemphasized criticism of the citizens themselves, raised tensions.

Oliver Tošković, professor at the Faculty of Philosophy: 40,000 people were openly insulted when they came back from abroad. People were being insulted on a daily basis, called hypocrites. Also, when you listen to, say, Dr. Kon who says that they, as professionals, were asking for emergency measures, not a state of emergency, and the state actually added an additional package that suited them, suited the ruling party, to use for their own personal interests.

The opposition was not the only one to criticize the government's behaviour and claim that the campaign for the ruling party did not stop. The question of the constitutionality of the introduction of the state of emergency, the grounds and punishment of people who were detained for violating certain measures was raised, also one activist was arrested, as well as one journalist.

Oliver Tošković, professor at the Faculty of Philosophy: What happened to Ana Lalić, what happened to Jovana from Zrenjanin, they arrested a helpless girl. The spread of fear is one of the instruments used by rulers of any authoritarian regime.

During all that time, most citizens complied with the prescribed measures. That only made what did not apply to everyone more noticeable.

Sasa Djordjevic, BCSP: There was some discretionary authority of someone who would decide who would be able to move freely without any restrictions during all these 50 days of the state of emergency.

Over time, the number of patients grew, and so did some other tensions. Given that the press conferences of the Health Crisis Staff were broadcasted live on television, the journalists' questions were an opportunity to address some other relevant issues that were not related only to the epidemic. The response to that followed through the condemnations that were uttered by the representatives of the tabloids and the media close to the authorities, at the expense of some differently opinionated colleagues, whilst openly supporting the government.

Dušan Spasojević, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences: Since the last presidential elections, the situation is actually very tense, and it’s all now culminating because of the state of emergency, because people are on lockdown, because they are scared, because they don’t have what they need, or think that some measures introduced are not good enough

Sladjana Stjepovic Erac, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: After that applause for medical workers this noise would start, banging on pots, whistles, some kind of a protest

Through social networks, the movement "Don’t let Belgrade d(r)own" and the Civic Front invited citizens to express their dissatisfaction by making noise at 8:05 PM.

Lazar Jovicic, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: The first night I didn't really know what it was about, I thought - people went completely crazy… that evening I realized what’s going on, so I joined the next day

Milica Potkonjak, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: After the applause, the whole area would start making the noise, and so would we

Sladjana Stjepovic Erac, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: A way of saying “I do not agree with what is being talked about, with what is being said and what is not being said, I do not agree with what is happening”.

Andrea Stefanović, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: We are dissatisfied… freedom of the media, society in general, the system in which we live

Lazar Jovicic, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: It bothers me that there is no freedom of the media.

Oliver Tošković, professor at the Faculty of Philosophy: The very banging on the pots is a signal. It can have various purposes, you can just let it out, you have the impression that you have done something that is not negligible.

Sladjana Stjepovic Erac, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: Everyone has their own props for that protest, to show that they don’t agree with someone’s existence, way of thinking

Andrea Stefanović, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: I have a pot, it’s not so bad, my child has a small pot from one of those kitchens for children, my husband has a lid and a spoon… so, we have the whole ensemble

Lazar Jovicic, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: My prop is a whistle.

Sladjana Stjepovic Erac, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: We have already experienced  all that 25 years ago, and the fact that we are experiencing it all over again, and that I pushed my daughter in the car at those demonstrations back then thinking we will never have to do this again, we will never have to use those pots and whistles again, just to find my child today unfortunately having to do that same thing

Dušan Spasojević, assistant professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences: The key difference is that in the 90’s those pots were a kind of an addition to what was already happening on the streets. The similarities are, of course, in the mechanisms, in the spirit, which political circle they’re coming from

Ana Brnabić, Prime Minister of Serbia: I understood that as the worst type of political abuse, it did not arise spontaneously, and it was not organized spontaneously, and they decided to do it right after the applause for medical workers and now, thanks to them, there is no applause for medical workers anymore.

Aleksandar Vučić, President of Serbia: I see that they don’t care about medical workers, I accept that as a political act, and that’s perfectly fine with me.

Oliver Tošković, professor at the Faculty of Philosophy: Applause for medical workers doesn’t necessarily mean that you are against noise. 05:16 If you make noise, it doesn't mean that you're against medical workers, either. + 05:40 However, in a way, the government managed to make it look like that.

Coincidentally or not, only a day after the beginning of the noise making at 20:05, the government started announcing a significant reduction of measures. Two days later, on April 28th, the Assembly of Serbia gathered for the first time since the state of emergency, which, as expected, confirmed the introduction of the state of emergency and all decrees passed by the Government without Parliament during the state of emergency.

The noise also entered the parliamentary benches. As a form of discussion, but also as a topic. The president also referred to it.

Aleksandar Vučić, President of Serbia: As you know, I am a political veteran. I already experienced the pots and all of that a long time ago, and I have no problem with it.

RTS journalist: So, you look at it only as a political protest?

Aleksandar Vučić, President of Serbia: It is partly political, and yes, you are right, in some small part they are saying: "Hey, Vučić, you locked us up, let us out."

However, the next day, on the second day of the assembly session, the MP of the ruling party, Vladimir Đukanović, announced an evening counter-protest.

Vladimir Đukanović, SNS: Tonight at exactly half past 8, from my balcony, thank God, it will be a great honour for me to do something that opposes them, and I invite people to do something similar as a reaction to their nonsense.

What was said, was done.

Following this video, similar scenes from different cities in Serbia will soon appear on social networks.

Many did not expect that something like this would happen, but some citizens were told that some kind of a happening was being prepared.

Andrea Stefanović, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: That evening, the president was a guest on RTS, and we were told that a support party for him was about to happen from our building. We went to the roof of our building, a sound system was already installed, there are these stairs that take you to the roof, and there is a door with bars, so someone let them through. Then we went down to the superintendent of the building, who said that no one asked him anything.

Calls to the communal police did not prevent the announced events.

Andrea Stefanović, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: The communal police answered and said that it was not a violation of curfew because they will not be going out, they will simply be on the roof. She knew what it was about - “ma'am, call the police at half past 8 when it all starts, until then I can't help you in any way”.

Sladjana Stjepovic Erac, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: That day at 6 o'clock when I was getting home so as not to violate the curfew, that is, the ban on movement, I heard a neighbour from my floor saying “you know, they called from the town council and said that we are the worst building because of the people banging on the pots”. So, someone is checking, someone knows where the noise is coming from, from which window, from which apartment, someone is reporting it to someone”.

Andrea Stefanović, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: If five of us from the same floor make noise with the pots, and this sixth one just stands and complains, that is really rude. We talk between each other about who is a progressive and who is not a progressive in the building.

Milica Potkonjak, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: The curfew started, it was still day, people started appearing on the roofs

Sladjana Stjepovic Erac, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: A bunch of vehicles coming and suddenly I see ten people in each, seven people going to one building, then another, like they are deploying them.

After the applause at 8 PM and the noise action at 8:05, there was a short silence.

Milica Potkonjak, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: Around half past 8, a terrible noise and fire suddenly started, literally at the same time

Sladjana Stjepovic Erac, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: Torches burning around you, unbearable shouting

Andrea Stefanović, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: My child started crying, my dog started shaking

Milica Potkonjak, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: The whole area was in smoke… it was really awful

Andrea Stefanović, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: It lasted for about 10, 15 minutes, but the intensity of it was so ... strong. So, when the torches burned out, they started to leave slowly, the vehicles were coming to pick them up.

Lazar Jovicic, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: A couple of neighbours were throwing things at them while they were going out.

Sladjana Stjepovic Erac, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: The tenants were shouting “you better not let me come down to you”, and they “you better not let me come up”.

Andrea Stefanović, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: We waited for the police to come because a lot of us called them - "yes, we’ll come, we will send a vehicle to see what’s going on, as soon as we have a free one"

Citizens from other parts of Belgrade, but also from Serbia, witnessed similar scenes that night.

The president denied that it was an action organized by his party, associating the action with a certain organization - the Youth Association. The videos and photos that flooded social networks proved, on the other hand, that members of his party organized and participated in the action.

Lazar Jovicic, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: In the end, it turned out that they were Serbian Progressive Party activists

The tenants, on whose roofs torches were being lighted, thought with fear about the next day.

Milica Potkonjak, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: We were not sure whether it would happen again or not, we literally didn’t know what to do

Andrea Stefanović, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: But after that, we saw on some network that they started announcing that their action will be held every night, like a traveling circus, and so we knew that they won’t be coming to our building again.

But the chain reaction continued. This time as a response to their response, the next evening at 8:05 - the noise was even louder.

Andrea Stefanović, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: The following night, the banging on the pots was never stronger.

Lazar Jovicic, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: Because people saw that everything they did was not, to say, according to any rules

Andrea Stefanović, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: Maybe even those who did not make noise in the previous evenings, now are

Sladjana Stjepovic Erac, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: You simply can't do that to people. This is a workers' settlement. The middle class lives here, people live here

Dušan Spasojević, assistant professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences: Everyone has the right to go out to the balcony and express their political stand. The limit of what is acceptable is when 20 people who do not live in the building come, go out to the roof, light torches and disturb the whole neighbourhood.

Sladjana Stjepovic Erac, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: I feel anger, and injustice.

Lazar Jovicic, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: We started to hate each other because of that, and I don't like it at all, I don't think it's ever been like this

Oliver Tošković, professor at the Faculty of Philosophy: There is no chance that this is a characteristic of the people. Of course, people confront each other, they argue, stand up for one thing or another, but they are not essentially divided until they are divided by the one who rules them.

In order to point out the double standards, part of the opposition decided to intentionally violate the curfew and protest on the steps of the Assembly of Serbia.

Even that event did not pass without a response of the supporters of the government.

Oliver Tošković, professor at the Faculty of Philosophy: These divisions did not arise due to the state of emergency, they are instigated by the authorities, this state of emergency is simply an instrument to emphasize them, and since the elections are coming, not only will they emphasize them even more, but I think that we are about to witness an even more extreme campaign than it was supposed to be.

What happened next, many assessed as extreme and inadmissible behaviour as well. The leader of the Party of Freedom and Justice, Dragan Djilas, also cried because of the tears of his own children.

Dragan Djilas: Right from here, on the corner of the building, "Djilas, thief" was playing on the sound system from a balcony for ten minutes, which my children had to listen, who live about 30 meters away from here. And they cried, trembling with fear!

A large number of citizens and public figures protested on social networks against what happened. The noise at 8:05 was even louder the following day, and despite the curfew, a certain number of Djilas' political comrades, as well as a certain number of citizens, gathered at that location. The police did not intervene at that place, but several citizens who participated in that action were later punished for moving during the curfew.

Members and supporters of the ruling party, as well as the media close to them, expressed the view that children must not be the subject of political confrontations, by reminding them of situations in which their officials, including the president, were exposed to such attacks.

However, starting from the next day, there were no torchlights anymore. They were replaced by playing the song "March on the Drina".

The battle continued outside of the political arena, as well. The conflict between the citizens intensified and became less likable than the term "balcony war", which is how it’s being referred to now.

Oliver Tošković, professor at the Faculty of Philosophy: It’s one of those “divide it, then rule it” situations.

Zoran Pašalić, Protector of Citizens: Every society is divided. The thing that matters is the reaction of the divided. If these divisions escalate in this way, then it has really gained dangerous proportions.

Dušan Spasojević, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences: We are entering something that is on the verge of a physical conflict, and I think that in the last 20 years, this today is the closest we’ve come to it

Sasa Djordjevic, BCSP: That is why it is important now for the institutions to work in some way and determine whether there were any irregularities

Many citizens claimed that the institutions, especially those in charge of public order and peace, looked the other way. Many addressed the Protector of Citizens, and after the media reports on these events, he initiated the supervision of the work of the competent bodies, primarily the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Protector of Citizens Zoran Pašalić: We did not wait for anyone's initiative, we started the procedure ourselves, that’s exactly how the police act when there is a threat to public order and peace, safety of citizens or causing of general danger.

The Protector was also reminded of the means he should be using by 12 non-government organizations.

The Minister of Internal Affairs, Nebojsa Stefanovic, reacted to these events only once, and did that through his Twitter account.

"Police officers will intervene, regardless of all malicious comments, they will document every case and inform the competent prosecutor's offices and courts, which will decide on further actions," Stefanovic wrote on his Twitter account.

Police Director Vladimir Rebić spoke after 7 days, claiming that the police acted professionally.

"What was of crucial importance to the police is that they are in public areas," Rebic said. Apparently, the roofs were not chosen by chance.

Sasa Djordjevic, BCSP: They cannot be held accountable for disturbing public order and peace 15:37 because this roof is not a public place, but in a way a private property, and then automatically the penalties are less severe.

Rebić stated that the police submitted 113 requests for initiating misdemeanour proceedings against citizens who violated the provisions during the curfew. Coincidentally or not, almost the identical number on both grounds.

The Misdemeanour Courts, however, did not receive a single report even a week after these events. This information was confirmed to Insajder by the Misdemeanour Courts in all three cities where the most torchlights happened - Belgrade, Nis and Novi Sad.

On the other hand, Rebić admitted that it also happened that by the time the police arrived at the location, there were no citizens left for whom the complaints were filed.

Andrea Stefanović, a resident of a settlement in Zemun: They came literally when the last one came out of the building. As if they were waiting, as if they had been ordered not to take action.

In addition to the Protector of Citizens, the internal control of the Ministry of the Interior and the Communal Militia, the Prosecutor's Office and the Assembly Committee for Defence and Internal Affairs also have means of supervising the actions of the competent authorities. The head of that committee is Marija Obradović, MP and member of the Presidency of the Serbian Progressive Party. She did not deny that the "torchlights" were the action organized her party, but she considered them a necessary response.

Marija Obradović: You know that there are about 700 thousand of us in Serbia. They asked for a response. “Let's not hide in our houses like mice, and be silent and listen to the pots”. People, we had to respond, to say that we will not be silent.

Institutions should not remain silent either, because the answers that are expected from the authorities also concern the misuse of movement permits, since the police in different cities claimed that many participants in the "torchlight" action did not violate the movement ban because they had permits.

Zoran Pašalić, Protector of Citizens: All those in line, practically from the local self-governments, through the Ministry of Labour, to Ministry of Interior - they should be investigating that.

If there is no answer, everything will be even more similar to the case of the overnight demolition in Hercegovačka Street from four years ago, in which still undiscovered individuals with balaclavas took part.

Sasa Djordjevic, BCSP: Both examples are very bad because they indicate that institutions have been hijacked.

Oliver Tošković, professor at the Faculty of Philosophy: The same thing happened in the 90’s. There were traitors and the orthodox. The mechanism of ruling is actually similar. What’s different is that in the 90’s they were hungry, there were bombings, they went to war. This addition is not negligible, it makes a drastic difference between these two times.

The similarity is that almost the same people are in power. And when it comes to calming the tensions, not even the president is giving up on the division into "these" and "those”.

Aleksandar Vučić: If I can't influence the other ones, because these ones…if I can at least influence the other ones, which I believe are more reasonable and decent, that we simply don’t appeal to them in the same way

Oliver Tošković, professor at the Faculty of Philosophy: Those who have power are those who rule. It has to start with them. They are the ones who have the power to reduce divisions.

In the meantime, the state of emergency was lifted. The first opposition protest was held on the first day, but new divisions began as well, this time among the opposition. At the beginning of the phase of getting used to something that the world already calls "new normal", in Serbia a lot of things are happening the same way as before.

 

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