Perhaps the most enduring streets protests of 2023 have been in Serbia, a country of nearly 7 million in southeast Europe. Since early May, after 19 children and young people were killed in two unrelated mass shootings just a day apart, tens of thousands of Serbs have rallied weekly in major cities under the slogan “Serbia against violence.”
Incredibly, 1 in 4 citizens has joined the protests and about half support them, according to one poll. And this is in a country with the world’s third-highest rate of gun ownership – after the United States and Yemen – and with relatively strict gun laws.
The staying power of the protesters reveals a society seeking solutions to the root causes of violence. “Serbia needs to stop and ask itself how far it has come and where and how it should go after this,” declared the country’s teachers union in June.
The government’s initial response to the mass killings was to order anyone with unregistered weapons and ammunition to hand them over to the police by June 8. More than 100,000 guns were turned in. Sales of guns were also banned for two years. Yet protest leaders know more must be done. An American expert on the Balkan countries, Eric Gordy, wrote in The Atlantic that a critical mass of Serbs wants “institutions that are truthful and responsible” and “a culture that is, if not tolerant and understanding, then at least relatively nontoxic.”
The protests have been partly aimed at mass media that promote hate speech or fictional depictions of aggression. One TV broadcaster has already canceled a show that condoned verbal and physical violence. They are also aimed at reforming the police, who are widely seen as corrupt.
Yet for all the outward focus of the protests, many Serbs have looked inward. “We will fight for Serbia without violence only if each of us rolls up our sleeves and makes our contribution. No one else can do that work but us,” Dragana Rakić, a leading politician of the Democratic Party, told the news site Danas.
Self-reflection on each person’s role in violence – watching it on TV, for example, or implying harm to political opponents – may now be more common in Serbia. “Serbs have stopped shoving, they say thank you and pardon more,” one grandmother in Belgrade told The Economist. She said the country is “rediscovering kindness” after the shootings. Such gestures are no longer seen as a weakness, she added.
As one pollster told Euractiv media, “There has been an awakening of citizens who were apathetic.” Each week, many of them are on the street protesting. Others are bringing peace into their daily lives. Both may help silence the guns.