What began as an outpouring of grief after two shootings in Serbia has morphed into a mass movement against the government, bringing tens of thousands onto the streets in a tense showdown between an enraged public and President Aleksandar Vucic.
The “Serbia against violence” protests have culminated in some of the largest rallies since widespread demonstrations triggered the fall of strongman Slobodan Milosevic more than two decades ago.
They have tapped simmering anger towards Vucic and the ruling party over what protesters say is a culture of violence fanned by the government and the media outlets they control.
“Everything is so malignant in our society, it’s scary,” Slobodan Markovic, a 70-year-old pensioner, told AFP during a recent rally.
The protests first took shape in early May following two back-to-back shootings within 48 hours – including a massacre at an elementary school in Belgrade.
The violence left the country deeply shaken.
Days later, a silent march called for a crackdown on violent content on pro-government media and the resignation of the interior minister and intelligence chief.
The shock quickly transformed into outrage after the protest demands were met with fierce rebuttals from the President and his allies, who mocked the rallies and hurled insults at participants.
Vucic has compared the opposition leaders organizing the protests to “vultures” and “hyenas” aiming to exploit the tragedy for political gain.
The President also scheduled his own counter demonstration on Friday – “the biggest gathering in Serbian history”.
Belgrade is bracing itself for a tense weekend, with thousands of Vucic’s supporters expected to arrive by bus from all over the country, while the opposition plans to take to the streets again on Saturday.
“The government seems to be living in a parallel reality. It’s like they don’t see these people, don’t hear their cries and don’t want to serve them,” said Dobrica Veselinovic, a leader of an opposition leftist party.
The rival protests have stirred fears of the eruption of unrest on a par with violent clashes during demonstrations in the 1990s.
Ahead of the pro-government demonstration, Slavisa Micanovic – a leading member of Vucic’s party – issued an open threat on Twitter against anyone who sought to disrupt the event, suggesting their bodies would be dumped in the capital’s rivers.
The protesters have also targeted pro-government media, saying they broadcast gratuitous violence while also offering ruling party officials a bullhorn to divide the public and target opponents.
Vucic routinely takes to the airways to berate his rivals with aggressive language.
Since the protests began, government talk shows have hit back, calling demonstrators “scum”, publishing doctored photos downplaying crowd sizes, and peddling conspiracy theories about foreign powers allegedly orchestrating the rallies.
“Our sister intelligence services from the east tell us that these are the attempts at carrying out color revolutions,” Vucic said recently, comparing the protests with the 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine.
The message often finds a receptive audience in rural communities, where access to media outside of government-backed outlets is rare.
“A big part of Serbia doesn’t even know about the events happening in Belgrade,” Professor Cedomir Cupic from Belgrade University’s faculty of political sciences told AFP.
He said the state’s fierce pushback is likely tied to protesters’ demands to bring pro-government broadcasters to heel.
“The only demand that could actually hurt the ruling party is the one about the media,” Prof Cupic said.
“They can easily replace the interior ministry, the whole government for that matter, it’s irrelevant. But the media is the pillar of their rule.”
Civil society groups have meanwhile called on Vucic to scrap his rally.
“Your decision to cancel the rally on May 26 would be a good sign that it is possible to put state interest over party interest,” said a joint statement signed by leading advocacy groups.
Demonstrators are hoping to maintain their momentum and pile further pressure on the government.
“I thought the hope was gone,” said 41-year-old Belgrade economist Bozana Vujovic.
“But with this energy, I believe that now there is some.”