BELGRADE - Serbia’s president pledged Sunday to defend the country’s law and order a day after opposition supporters stormed the national TV station, protesting what they called his autocratic rule and biased grip on the country’s media.
The opposition clashes with police on Saturday and Sunday in Belgrade, the capital, were first major incidents after months of peaceful protests against populist President Aleksandar Vucic. The demonstrators are demanding his resignation, fair elections and a free media.
As Vucic held a news conference Sunday in the presidency building in downtown Belgrade, thousands of opposition supporters gathered in front demanding his resignation and trapping him in the building for a few hours.
Skirmishes with riot police were reported, including officers firing tear gas against the protesters who sought to form a human chain around the presidency to prevent Vucic from leaving the building.
The pro-government Pink TV showed a photo of Vucic playing chess with the interior minister apparently inside the presidency. Vucic posted a video message on Instagram, saying “I’m here and I won’t move from a place they want to occupy.”
Later, he was seen leaving the building as most of the protesters dispersed from the scene.
“They (protesters) have no power, can do nothing ... as you can see, they have no courage, no courage for anything,” Vucic said as he got into his car. “Nothing will come of it, nothing.”
Police said they were attacked and arrested several demonstrators. The interior minister said the protest leaders must be “processed” as soon as possible.
The crowd, however, chanted “He is finished!” at Vucic, which was the slogan of the October 2000 uprising that led to the ouster of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, architect of the country’s bloody wars with its neighbors during the early 1990s.
During his televised address, Vucic repeatedly branded opposition leaders as “fascists, hooligans and thieves.”
“There will be no more violence,” Vucic said. “Serbia is a democratic country, a country of law and order and Serbia will know how to respond.”
Vucic tried to downplay the protesters’ numbers, insisting that only about 1,000 people had gathered, saying “they think they have the right, 1,000 of them, to determine the fate of the country.”
He has also claimed support from outside the capital, saying people are ready to come to Belgrade to defend him.
Serbian riot police on Saturday night removed hundreds of people, including opposition leaders, who stormed the state-run TV headquarters in Belgrade to denounce the broadcaster, whose reporting they consider highly biased.
Serbia’s weekly anti-government protests began after thugs beat up an opposition politician in November. A former extreme nationalist, Vucic now says he wants to lead Serbia into the European Union.