Public anger rises across Balkans as coronavirus toll grows

Popular discontent is growing across the Balkans over governments’ handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, as concerns mount about continued lockdowns, poor testing provision and patchy access to healthcare.

In Serbia, which was initially relatively successful in containing the virus, anti-government protests turned violent last week, while in Kosovo a new ruling coalition is grappling with a steep rise in infections. The protests in Serbia continued at the weekend.

Elsewhere in the region, in countries such as North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the number of cases is also rising, along with allegations of mismanagement and cronyism.

While the authorities in Serbia initially laughed off the “silly virus” even as dramatic news of the spread of Covid-19 was emerging from Italy in early March, they later imposed one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns.

Then in late May all restrictions were suddenly lifted, weeks before an election that would see the conservative Serbian Progressive party (SNS) of president Aleksandar Vucic win almost 65 per cent of the vote in a ballot boycotted by most opposition parties.

Protests began in Belgrade on Tuesday last week after new lockdown measures were announced. Many of the protesters, who come from across the political spectrum, alleged hypocrisy after several officials tested positive for the virus following the SNS’s victory celebrations. Observers said demonstrators’ anger is focused less on the latest lockdown and more on the fact that holding the election arguably put people’s lives in danger.

 “Mr Vucic tried desperately to revert Serbia from a multi-party system to a single-party system and ultimately he succeeded,” said Marko Kmezic, a senior researcher at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria.

“Now there is no other way to vent this frustration besides taking it out on the street.”

In an attempt to dissociate themselves from the violence of previous evenings, which had seen clashes between demonstrators and the police, protesters on Thursday sat in a socially distanced manner. They were joined by workers from the Belgrade hospital handling Covid-19 patients. Serbia has registered more than 18,000 cases and 380 deaths.

However, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network has accused the government of under-reporting the death rate. Mr Vucic has dismissed the data as “inauthentic”, but Predrag Kon, the head of the government’s crisis management team, acknowledged recently that the officially published numbers of people tested “do not add up”.

Petar Djuric, a Serbian man, has become a symbol of the country’s protests after speaking to local media on Tuesday. He said his father died from Covid-19 because he could not get access to a ventilator and complained that his death was not officially registered as being due to the virus.

Mr Vucic accused Mr Djuric of lying and pro-government tabloids have published a number of attacks on him. In a news conference on Wednesday, Mr Vucic blamed foreign intelligence agencies, conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccination campaigners for the protests. Some protesters, meanwhile, said they believed football hooligans loyal to Mr Vucic had sought to provoke violence to scare ordinary people off.

A passer-by wears a mask in Pristina. Many in Kosovo say poor governance has played a role in the rising infection rate, say analysts A passer-by wears a mask in Pristina. Many in Kosovo say poor governance has played a role in the rising infection rate, say analysts © Armend/AFP/Getty

In Kosovo, anger is mounting over a change in government carried out in the midst of the pandemic and a rapid rise in the number of infections.

An administration led by anti-corruption firebrand Albin Kurti took power in February just before the spike in cases and was widely seen as handling the pandemic well. However, he and his well-regarded health minister were ousted after only 52 days over a dispute about how to handle negotiations with Serbia, which still does not recognise its former province’s independence, declared in 2008.

A new premier, Avdullah Hoti, from the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), who did not stand as a prime ministerial candidate at the most recent election, was selected.

“The [new] LDK government was completely unprepared” to deal with the pandemic, said Donika Emini, a Pristina-based political analyst. “They took the lead without having proper strategy about how to proceed and created confusion among citizens.”

Kosovo had registered 4,700 infections and 101 deaths as of Sunday. But many, like Ms Emini, complain that they have been denied tests in public hospitals despite showing symptoms. Ms Emini had planned to go to neighbouring North Macedonia to be tested before it closed its border with Kosovo because of the recent increase in cases there.

Ms Emini said there was widespread feeling that poor governance had played a role in the rising infection rate.

“Public procurement in the health system has been subject to corruption forever,” she said, adding that the same was true of the response to the pandemic. Ms Emini noted concerns that hospital equipment malfunctions had led to deaths.

In nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina, prosecutors are investigating why a company that owns a raspberry farm and that has no experience buying medical equipment won a tender to import ventilators from China. 

Bosnia has registered more than 6,700 infections and 219 deaths. Like elsewhere in the region, the numbers have risen sharply in recent weeks.