May 31, 2023

With the glaring exception of the United States, a mass shooting normally sparks a national crisis — one that begins with some desperate, top-down soul-searching before an immediate clampdown on gun ownership. In Canada in 1989, Australia and the UK in 1996, and Norway in 2011, it took a single massacre for politicians to agree, almost universally, to tighten controls: heightened background checks for gun purchasers, a ban on military-style assault weapons, databases of those disbarred due to mental illness.

Despite having one of the world’s highest per-capita rates of gun ownership, Serbia had never witnessed a mass shooting until last month, when a 13-year-old boy killed nine fellow students and a security guard at his elementary school in Belgrade. It was the deadliest school shooting in Europe in 15 years – and it was followed by another spree, just one day later and a few miles away, when a 21-year-old man armed with a semi-automatic rifle opened fire as he drove through three villages south of Belgrade, killing eight.

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Although a number of American gun-control activists have praised the seemingly swift response by President Aleksander Vučić, the shootings have prompted the largest protests seen in Serbia since the fall of Slobodan Milošević in 2000. While Vučić hastily announced stricter measures, his authoritarian government’s deployment of 1,200 police officers to schools — as well as its threat to bring back the death penalty — were seen by many locals as both insufficient and heavy-handed. A Serbian minister’s claim the school shooting was caused by the spread of “Western values” further infuriated protestors, who accused him of instrumentalising the tragedy in line with a pro-Putin agenda.

In this way, the present crisis illustrates the failures of the authoritarian Vučić government — and, by extension, also of Western intervention in the region. But it also shows the grim success of a particularly American brand of individualistic, sexist rage.

Certainly, the immediate response by both the government and opposition has been a world away from the endless debate in America, which had seen nearly 200 mass shootings in 2023 by the time of the Belgrade massacre. But as Biljana Djordjevic, an opposition MP in a green coalition, tells me, the crisis occasioned by her country’s dual massacres is “bigger than these two tragedies” alone, and represents a potential “moment for this country to change”. Mass demonstrations at the shootings have prompted demands for resignations at the top of government and reforms of the government-controlled media ecosystem. The largest protests since Vučić came to power bespeak a deeper anger with his highly centralised rule, corrupt and inadequate service provision, and lack of democratic norms.

In Belgrade, few doubt that the powerful interests focused around Vučić are trying to prevent any such change from taking place. Last weekend, the president brought his supporters onto the city’s rain-swept streets. Memes on Serbian social media mocked the buses shuttling Right-wing nationalists into the capital, and the provision of free drinks and snacks as an inducement to attendees. (Vučić-branded cereal bars were freely available, with packets of Smoki, the delicious and insanely popular corn puffs, handed out only on request.)

While addressing a rain-drenched crowd, Vučić resigned the leadership of his dominant Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). He made it clear he will remain president while launching a new, centralised political force with which he intends to cleanse Serbia of what he called “severe diseases”. Prominent among those “diseases” will be the “vultures” and “hyenas” the president has condemned as attempting to politicise the shootings.

Demonstrators parroted government lines – that this was a “gathering”, not a protest; that the event had nothing to do with the recent shootings; and nor was it a rearguard action following the ongoing anti-government protests, which brought tens of thousands of people to the same streets. “This is not related to the shooting,” insisted Ilya, 32, one of a group of muscular, shaven-headed men lined up in front of the stage where Vučić was set to speak. “We just want to show we support our president. If he calls us, we will come.” 

In practice, the “gathering” was a show of force, bringing together pro-government hooligans, war veterans, state employees, Serb nationalists from Serb regions of neighbouring countries, and pensioners in pursuit of free nibbles. The event coincided with a flare-up of violence in Kosovo, provoked this time by ethnically Albanian authorities in the breakaway region, thus providing Vučić with a convenient foil for his calls for national unity. Scores of Serb protesters and Nato soldiers were subsequently injured in clashes. 

It is clear that many Serbians are angered by what they view as the government’s self-serving response to the shootings. A uniquely diverse range of opposition parties — centre-Right, liberal and Leftist — plus various political movements have backed the ongoing anti-government demonstrations. “I’m in favour of a complete ban on weapons,” said Biljana Stojkovic, co-chair of Leftist party Zajedno (Together), “but the presence of policemen in schools can only increase fear and abnormality.” Djordevic notes that the Belgrade shooter came from wealth and the second gunman’s father was an army General, meaning that both could still have access to guns, regardless of official controls.

In a clear contrast with the pro-government “gathering”, the angry protesters huddling under umbrellas were immediately and volubly political, linking the shootings to what they call a “culture of violence” and impunity emanating from the government. “Why are we here? After 10 years of dictatorial rule, repression, closed media and brainwashing, why do you have to ask?” Slobodan, 52, tells me. Like other demonstrators, he is quick to demand Vučić’s removal, liberalisation and a concomitant pivot towards Europe, away from what Slobodan calls “Eastern despotism”. (Serbia has been on the waiting list to join the EU since 2009, a major stumbling block to its membership being its refusal to recognise Kosovo’s declaration of independence.) 

Indeed, Western policy plays a crucial rhetorical and geopolitical role in shaping Serbia’s ongoing domestic debate. In Serbia, criticisms of state policy are typically articulated through appeals for a pivot towards the West, which are in turn rebutted and echoed in reverse by the government’s supporters. “The issue is the immediate reaction, the claim the system has not failed,” says Djordjevic, arguing that the minister who blamed “Western values” mere hours after the massacre intended to distract attention from government failings. She highlights the second shooting, conducted by the general’s son sporting neo-Nazi insignia, as instead demonstrating the role of nationalist, Right-wing ideology in facilitating the ‘culture of violence’ blamed for the killings. “Blaming ‘Western values’ is a way to promote Putin’s values in Serbia, as a contrast to democracy,” Stojkovic adds. 

Ever since the collapse of Tito’s “third way” socialism path between the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist United States, the Serbian Left has struggled to articulate alternatives to Russian-sponsored revanchism without looking to Europe for inspiration and support, with predictably limited results. Actual European accession, and subsequent investment, remains essentially off the table. As such, the liberal opposition’s courting of Europe has resulted in few positive steps toward the democratisation protesters believe could prevent more shooting tragedies. “We just have to wait for the EU to help us to move forward. Right now we are stuck in a vacuum,” says Stojkovic.

Meanwhile, there are other US “values” that may underpin the Belgrade massacre. As a prescient analysis published just two weeks before the school shooting suggests, ultra-misogynistic ideas promoted by “manosphere” influencers such as Andrew Tate — who chose the Balkan nation of Romania as a hideout prior to his arrest on rape and human trafficking charges — have found an enthusiastic audience among young Serbian men. NGO-led efforts to promote gender equality have struggled to make significant inroads, with feminism and LGBT rights characterised as “Western”, therefore liberalising, therefore destructive influences.

It’s striking that eight of the nine fellow pupils killed by the school shooter were girls. Though Djordevic cautions it is too early to ascribe definitive motivations to the shooter, the hallmarks of a US-style school shooting motivated by a particular confection of entitlement, resentment and “incel” ideology are readily apparent. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the poisonous notion that young men have a “right to sex” with whichever girl they please constantly recurs as a motivation behind recent US school shootings. (On a US-based “incel” forum, the shooting was rapidly praised by both US and Serbian posters.)

As in America, the idea that young people’s hardships are the fault of a political culture that denies them opportunities for conquest has proven considerably more compelling than the liberal rights order with which the misogynistic ideologues are in constant, self-perpetuating battle. Neither Tate nor Vučić offers any real solution to the genuine challenges faced by the new generations over which they hold sway. But in their own way, each is able to harness and profit from their followers’ misplaced anger. And in both cases, the Left has long struggled to come up with a compelling, organised alternative to their opponents’ strident battle-cries. 

Whether Serbia’s nascent protest movement will indeed prove able to “institutionalise the change people feel in their hearts”, as Djordevic’s claims, remains to be seen. What is certain is that Serbia, like the United States, is in need of political proposals and cultural role-models reaching beyond current polarities. And in both nations, the criticism of a liberal order which has failed to follow through on promises of a better world for the new generation should not preclude the critique of those who prey on young men’s worst impulses.