Serbia’s populist president pledges ‘disarmament’ after mass shootings

Serbia announces new strict gun control after 2 mass shootings
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic announces amendments to the law on weapons and ammunition controls and increased police presence around schools in the wake of two mass shootings this week. | Milos Miskov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Gun control measures could further erode civil liberties under President Aleksandar Vucic.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic promised an “almost total disarmament” after two mass shootings shocked the western Balkan nation this week. However, whether Vucic can follow through with his promise given the proliferation of illegal and unregistered weapons in Serbia, as well as the entrenched culture of violence even at the highest levels, is doubtful.

Though Serbia is tied for the third-highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world, with 39.1 firearms per 100,000 residents, mass shooting events are quite rare; the last one was in 2016, when a man killed five and wounded 22 in a shooting at a cafe in the village of Zitiste, in northern Serbia. This week’s shootings have inspired Vucic to call for widespread disarmament similar, much as Australia did after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. However, the measures that Vucic has proposed, including a moratorium on new gun licenses and a month-long general amnesty for illegal firearms, cannot address the violence that is deeply entrenched in Serbia, and which often benefits Vucic and those in power.

On Wednesday, a 13-year-old boy killed nine people — eight students and a security guard — at a Belgrade-area elementary school with two pistols he had taken from his father’s apartment. According to Serbian police, the alleged shooter also had four Molotov cocktails, a map of his planned route, and a list of his targets, Politico Europe reported Wednesday. Six children and a teacher were also injured in the shooting, and the father of the shooter has also been arrested.

Just a day later, a 20-year-old gunman killed eight people and wounded 14 about 50 miles away from Belgrade, apparently using illegally obtained firearms. The alleged shooter apparently had an altercation in a schoolyard in the village of Dubona, left to get a handgun and a rifle and opened fire, according to Serbian state broadcaster RTS. He then continued shooting from a car, firing seemingly at random at people in two other villages before police found him at his grandfather’s house, where there was a stockpile of weapons including an automatic rifle, ammunition, and grenades, Reuters reported.

In response, Vucic called for a one-month amnesty for people to turn in their illegal firearms and a two-year ban on issuing new gun licenses, as well as heavier fines or longer prison sentences for keeping illegal weapons after the amnesty period ends. “If they do not hand them over, we will find them, and the consequences will be dire for them,” Vucic said in a press conference Friday.

His government has also proposed an increase in police presence, with 1,000 police officers to be sent to schools in the next six months to “reduce peer violence,” the New York Times reported Friday, as well as increased surveillance at shooting ranges.

Additional penalties on top of Serbia’s already-strict firearms laws are likely to help in theory, but critics question the capacity and willpower of the government to actually effect change — and preserve the civil liberties of Serbs under ever-increasing surveillance and police presence.

Fighting entrenched violence in Serbia will take time

Serbian gun laws are already fairly stringent, especially when compared with regulations in the US. Adults 18 and over may have a gun license only after a thorough background check with the police which includes interviews with family and friends, and a medical check that must be repeated every five years. People with serious mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse disorders, or criminal history are supposed to be denied gun permits, and a permit can be revoked if a gun owner is deemed irresponsible, Reuters reported Wednesday.

In order to obtain a firearm, Serbian citizens must also take a training course and pass a test about gun legislation. Firearms must be stored in a designated cabinet, and concealed carry permits are hard to obtain; firearms are meant to be kept at home or used for hunting.

There have been successful amnesties in the past as well; SEESAC, the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons, tracks the number of illegal firearms handed over to the state. After the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, small arms flooded the region as is typical in post-conflict zones, providing opportunities for people to illegally obtain not just firearms, but ammunition and light weapons such as grenades.

But illicit weapons, by their nature, are difficult to monitor and difficult to control. “We don’t even have an assessment of how many illegal weapons are out there and what kind,” said Aleksandar Zivotic, a historian at Belgrade University, told Reuters. Furthermore, whether the government has the will to truly deal with the problem of gun violence as Australia and the United Kingdom both did after devastating mass shootings is unclear.

“The president announced complete disarmament, but this is more of a populist statement than a realistic measure,” Maja Bjelos, a senior researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy told Vox. “It is more realistic to expect some cosmetic changes in legislation and criminal procedures to be made in haste and without real public discussion and the involvement of civil society.”

Firearms, though, are only part of the problem, according to Belgrade University psychology professor Dragan Popadic. After the shootings, “people suddenly have been shaken into reality and the ocean of violence that we live in, how it has grown over time and how much our society has been neglected for decades,” Popadic told the Associated Press. “It is as if flashlights have been lit over our lives and we can no longer just mind our own business.”

The overlapping mechanisms of violence in Serbia — of the state against its citizens, of ethnic tensions exploited for the government’s benefit, and gender-based violence — come from the top down, Bjelos told Vox.

“To understand this situation, you need to understand the nature of the regime and the political leadership,” Bjelos said. “The current regime is repressive and has been labeled as a hybrid regime or autocracy by various international organizations. The top leadership, especially the president, are rebranded nationalists and radicals. The modus operandi of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is based on violence within the party and against citizens through usurped institutions.”

Gang and mafia violence is also allegedly enmeshed with the government in Serbia, and overlaps with ethnic tension leftover from the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. Vucic has managed to play both of these elements to his advantage, painting himself as a leader who will stamp out corruption by weakening democratic institutions and increasing government surveillance, while also periodically stoking conflict with neighboring Kosovo over the status of the Serb minority there.

“The state is the main instigator of violence though institutions (e.g. police brutality), the state media and loyal tabloids, informal groups like hooligans, right-wing and pro-Russian groups, [and] criminals,” Bjelos said. “Impunity for perpetrators is the rule, not the exception.”

The Vucic reforms open the door to abuse civil liberties

Under Vucic, Serbia has imposed increasingly draconian surveillance measures, including “cutting-edge” technology to keep watch on citizens and political rivals, Bjelos said. Now, the president could use the recent attacks to push forth even more problematics laws and policies aimed at control, rather than security.

“The public is not against disarmament, but there is resistance to potential repressive measures that could limit civil rights and freedoms,” she told Vox. Those repressive populist measures, she said, include the increased police presence the president has introduced, as well as increased surveillance and his proposed reintroduction of the death penalty, which goes against the present Serbian constitution.

Looking even further ahead, Vucic could use the mass shootings this week to push through a draft law — which has already been introduced and retracted multiple times — which would allow for the use of general facial recognition technology to monitor public spaces as well as other biometric mass surveillance.

“The government is determined to legalize biometric surveillance [through] the draft law on internal affairs,” Bjelos said. “The introduction of such intrusive technology was first justified by the government’s need to fight terrorism and organized crime, and later to prevent sexual harassment of minors on the internet and child abduction.” The changing rationale for such surveillance could easily shift to mass shootings, though Vucic has not yet introduced mass surveillance as a solution for gun violence.

Serbia, first under Yugoslav-era leader Slobodan Milosevic and now under Vucic, is considered a victim of state capture — “a process in which (political) actors infiltrate state structures with the help of clientelist networks and use these state structures as a mantle to hide their corrupt actions,” according to a 2020 policy brief from the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. Under Vucic, every political and government apparatus, as well as the media, have become organs — clients — of his political party, whether because they’re been filled with party loyalists, or because their funding depends on the government, in the case of the media.

Under the SNS and Vucic, the apparatus of the state has been reoriented from public service to serving the powerful few, to the detriment of society. Whether the mass shootings present a turning point for Serbia to either move further toward authoritarianism or try to claw back the nation’s institutions is unclear, but for many, it has served as somewhat of a wake-up call.

“People are currently furious,” Bjelos said. “They have a feeling that the whole system failed, from the top to the bottom.”

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