For anybody who has been following Balkan news in the past few months, you couldn’t have missed the protests going on in Belgrade. Popularized with the phrase “1 od 5 miliona” (“one of five million”), the protesters have taken to the streets for the past three months, protesting Serbia’s sitting president Aleksandar Vučić and his policies. Last Sunday, the protesters were in front of Vučić’s residence in the capital and another group broke into the state-run television network on Saturday.
In 2017, Vučić won the presidential elections by a large margin. His critics have claimed that he has since then employed state-owned resources, such as media and law enforcement, to combat his political opponents in Serbia.
The protestors are currently demanding greater freedom of press and fair elections. They claim that Vučić and other political leaders are achieving their political status through corruption and abuse of power. They are also accusing Vučić of going down the path of Putin’s Russia and Erdogans’s Turkey, countries led by a strong-man persona who is leading an authoritarian government trying their best to keep up a democratic façade. Their fear is Vučić is aiming to do the same, and if nothing changes fast, it will be too late.
In response to the protesters, Vučić has reaffirmed that he is not fearful of them. He stated that there will be no more violence, dismissing the demands of the protesters. The Associated Press cited Vučić in saying “Serbia is a democratic country, a country of law and order and Serbia will know how to respond.” For now, the protests seem to be continuing, with rallies planned for next weekend again.
Serbia is not the only place where people have taken to the streets. Inspired by Belgrade, Albanians and Montenegrins are showing their dissatisfaction with their own political leadership. Last Saturday, when protesters in Belgrade stormed the state-owned radio television station, protesters in Tirana, Albania, were throwing stones and clashing with the police in front of their parliament building.
In Podgorica as well, the “Odupri Se” protests are proving to be the largest in Montenegrin history. One of the main organizing members of the protests, Dzemal Perovic called for a liberation of the country from “those who privatised our country.”
The dissatisfaction of the population of these cities might be seen as signs of instability by onlookers. However, this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.
Protests and demonstrations don’t mean risk and unrest per definition. Consider the example of the recent Climate March in the Netherlands. A tremendous number of Dutch citizens from all ages and walks of life showed that they truly believe the climate is important and they support laws and regulations to reduce carbon emissions and a shift to renewables. Protests like this one have helped forcing the government to take more green measures, which in turn present new opportunities for businesses to innovate.
Since the late 1990, when Milosevic was ousted, protests against sitting political leadership have scarcely happened, and when they did, usually not on this scale or continuing for so long. The population, for almost 20 years, seemed to have been “accepting” what the political elite were doing, and being mostly quiet, not willing to speak up en masse. We have only seen similar protests in Serbia in 2017 (also aimed against Vučić, but focused on the electoral outcome).
But it seems that the sentiment is shifting in the Western Balkans. Especially the younger generations are showing their opposition to sitting political leadership, left over from socialist and nationalist eras in the previous century. They are being vocal about their wish for a more modern, integrated and progressive society. The pressure of the protestors could influence social change, which will in turn have the capacity to change the cultural and political landscape. This change could move in a number of ways, but with the new generation focussing on internationalization and progressive ideas, we should be optimistic about the positive influence that this can have for the chances of business and economic development in general.
If the protesters manage to exert enough influence, they could enforce some impactful changes that could make doing business for foreign and domestic firms a lot easier. Furthermore, as Eastern-European identity is moving more towards a Western-European association, the cultural differences in everyday life and business are reducing. This makes cooperation with the region easier and more fluent. Foreign businesses will have fewer obstacles when opening new branches in the Western Balkans, and working together with expats from the region will become easier and more accessible.
With the economic growth of the past few years, the increase in production in all sectors and exports, and now citizens raising their voices, the Western Balkans is moving more and more towards integration into the European family. Economically, culturally and possibly now, politically as well. We do want to make clear that we don’t believe violence is the answer when looking for change, and condemn the violent elements of the protest. But the current protests in Serbia, Albania and Montenegro are surely interesting developments and we should all keep a close eye on what is happening there.
Source of picture: BetaPhoto / Emil Vas