"Vucic, you thief, you stole the votes!" chant the crowds gathered before parliament in Belgrade. It is loud and colorful, with whistles and vuvuzelas alongside classic left-wing accoutrements such as the masks used by the "Anonymous" group and Che Guevara t-shirts. But there are also the colors of the national flag as well as traditional Serbian caps. Thousands have turned out for the event - mainly young people. The protests are concentrated in the Serbian capital, but they have also spread to other cities. They're being organized spontaneously, on Facebook. "I am so sick of this government. They have done such horrible things in such a short time," said 18-year-old Milena. "Where are our votes?"
Like many of the people here, last Sunday was the first time Milena had a say in who governs her country. Many young Serbs and liberals were bitterly disappointed. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic won by a huge margin with 55 percent of the votes. There won't even be a run-off. His closest rival was former ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, with just 16 percent. On election day, there were sporadic reports about vote buying, and the actions of supporters from Vucic's party who were making exact notes of who came to vote and who didn't. Vucic has so far responded to the demonstrations by saying that everyone is entitled to protest, as long as they do so peacefully.
The former radical nationalist has governed the Balkan country with an iron fist for five years. Abroad, he chooses to present himself as the cooperative reformer who can bring Serbia into the EU. Now, Vucic is shifting gears, from prime minister to the country's president, even though it is a more ceremonial position. But observers say they're not fooled: Vucic will remain Serbia's most powerful politician, and like Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan, install a puppet as his prime minister. The only question seems to be whether Vucic will follow in Erdogan's footsteps and attempt a constitutional reform to formally solidify his power.
Just like in the 1990s
"He is a dictator, an autocrat, a despot," said Nikola, 31. His friend Marko added: "This man is the biggest liar in the history of our people. As president, as prime minister… we don't even know what exactly he is, he has so many roles."
They don't believe what Vucic tells them about economic growth, jobs, and investment. The demonstrators keep moving through the government quarter, and stop in front of the public broadcaster RTS.
There's something symbolic about it. Many recall the street protests 20 years ago when the national broadcaster was used as a propaganda machine by dictator Slobodan Milosevic. In this election, too, all the broadcasters gave more airtime to Vucic than the 10 other candidates. The opposition was forced to rely on a kind of guerilla campaign on social media, but that left out more rural populations as well as older people.
Despite that, Dragica Vukovic, 70, is protesting. "I came because of my children. One of my kids lives in Vienna, and the other is barely making ends meet here. I don't want him to leave, too," she said.
She alludes to one of the reasons why many young people are here to vent their frustration. Last year alone, some 40,000 mainly young, well-educated people left the country, because they don't see a future for themselves here. To get a job in Serbia today, it's common to have to pay bribes, or to at least be a member of the "right" party. And even then, it's a long list. The ruling Progressive Party has 600,000 members - more than 10 percent of all people of legal age. Not even the Communist party in the former Yugoslavia managed a rate like that.
The demonstrators light torches and blow their whistles as they move past the building housing the pro-government tabloid, "Informer." The popular newspaper was quick to dismiss the crowds as a few hundred youths, under the influence of alcohol and organized by the opposition. And, reiterating a commonly heard theory in the Balkans, it said the protests were funded by American billionaire George Soros. "The protests in Serbia are a provocation orchestrated from abroad," said Sergei Zheleznyak, a Russian member of parliament from Vladimir Putin's United Russia party. "It's a standard scenario to weaken a legitimately elected government and destabilize the country."
There are enough people who believe in this version of events. One of them is a bus driver, just starting his shift. "So what! They're just kids, they have no idea," he said with revulsion while his colleagues wait helplessly in their buses until the protesters move on.
Several Twitter users who remember the Milosevic era said they don't believe the protests will continue. For that, they say, you need good organization and concrete goals. The young people in Belgrade and other cities want everything: independent reporting, fair elections, and above all, for Vucic to go. It's not likely that he will comply. The demonstrators slowly begin to disperse, saying: "See you tomorrow."