THOUSANDS of people in Serbia demonstrated for a fourth consecutive night in response to President Aleksandar Vucic’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and wider concerns over the state of democracy in Serbia.

The protests in the capital Belgrade and other cities mark the first major pandemic-related unrest in Europe since the beginning of the crisis and were initially met by a heavy-handed police response.

People first took to the streets on Tuesday, just hours after President Vucic announced that Belgrade, and possibly the rest of the country, would be placed under a new three-day curfew following a spike in confirmed coronavirus infections.

Serbia is now one of the Covid-19 hotspots in Europe and on Wednesday First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that people travelling from Serbia would have to go into quarantine when arriving in Scotland.

Official data shows that more than 350 people died from the coronavirus in Serbia, a country of seven million, with almost 18,000 infected.

Some 300 new infections are being reported daily. Many people in Serbia, however, have lost trust in official data after a local investigative journalism organisation published leaked government documents showing the real number of deaths to be significantly higher. After initially dismissing the coronavirus, with one of its chief scientific advisers calling it “the most ridiculous virus in history”, the government of President Vucic took a U-turn in mid-March and introduced the strictest lockdown in Europe, with people not allowed to leave home for up to 72 hours at a time, not even to take a dog out for a walk more than once a day.

Senior citizens were kept indoors for weeks and allowed to go to buy groceries only at 4am.

Then, with the date of the rescheduled parliamentary elections approaching, came another U-turn with an overnight lifting of all the measures.

This allowed, among other things, restaurants and gyms to open, spectators to attend football matches and tennis World No 1 player Novak Djokovic to organise a tournament in Belgrade.

The government declared “victory” against the virus so that it could hold an election which most of the opposition parties boycotted.

Since Vucic came to power eight years ago, there have been widespread allegations of vote-rigging, with, among other things, state sector employees being forced to vote for the ruling party and photograph their ballot papers to prove they did so.

The government has always denied these reports.

After the June 21 election, Serbia was left with a Russian-style rubber-stamp parliament, dominated by the MPs from the ruling Serbian Progressive Party and its allies to the point that almost any semblance of democracy is gone.

As soon as the vote was over, the coronavirus epidemic was back in the news, with a spike in reported new cases and deaths.

Now the country’s health system is apparently at breaking point. Serbian health minister Zlatibor Loncar said last week that hospitals in Belgrade are running at full capacity and that new Covid-19 patients would have to be taken elsewhere.

When on Tuesday President Vucic announced another 48-hour curfew, people poured on to the streets to protest, feeling that he was all along playing politics with public health.

What started as a protest against the perceived government mishandling of the pandemic quickly turned into a wider expression of frustration at Vucic’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

After a small number of protesters managed to enter the national assembly building, riot police were filmed beating unarmed protesters with batons.

When the protesters returned to the streets on Wednesday, they were met with an even more heavy-handed police response.

Amnesty International said that “disproportionate use of force” was not justified, while the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner Dunja Mijatovic noted that the “violent dispersal of demonstrators” by police raised serious human rights concerns.

The government accused right-wing extremists of being behind the violence, while the opposition parties and some independent observers insisted that

the violence was deliberately started

by infiltrators working for special

police units.

It is unclear what really happened. Serbia is a deeply divided society, with fault lines existing not only between supporters and opponents of Vucic, but also between pro-Russian, right-wing conservatives on one side, and middle-class pro-European urbanites on the other.

These divisions are evident in the current protests whose spontaneous nature reflects the lack of institutional means to express dissent in a country rapidly sliding into dictatorship.

Freedom House, a Washington-based watchdog, now refers to Serbia as only “partly free”.

The media and state institutions are completely controlled by the ruling party, while the opposition is divided and lacking trust of the majority of Serbs.

The ongoing protests might soon dissolve because they lack leadership, strength and a clear goal.

It would not be the first time for protests against President Vucic to fizzle out without forcing any concessions.

But it probably won’t be last time either, as it is safe to assume that violent protests will become a regular part of Serbian politics unless the government reverses its course and shows a willingness to engage in dialogue with its citizens.

For now, though, the protesters in Serbia can take some pride in the knowledge that following the protests the government has abandoned plans to reinstate the total curfew and opted for a much looser set of measures instead.

Aleksandar Kocic is a journalism lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University