Tens of thousands of people in Serbia hit the streets on Monday to demand the resignation of top government officials and a prohibition on violence promotion in the media following a pair of mass shootings in the country that left 17 dead and 21 injured, many of them children.
"I'm here to demonstrate solidarity against the pervasive violence in the media, in parliament, and in daily life... to show my support in the wake of events that have shattered us, and to pay tribute to the lives of the children we have lost," one unnamed person toldAgence France-Presse.
Last Wednesday, a 13-year-old student armed with two of his father's handguns killed eight classmates and a security guard while wounding six other students and a teacher at a school in the capital Belgrade. The next day, a 20-year-old man brandishing an assault rifle and a pistol murdered eight people and injured 14 in a rural area south of the capital.
Monday's protests were organized by opposition parties. They took place in Belgrade, where people marched behind a banner reading "Serbia against violence," and in the northern city of Novi Sad, where participants held a banner declaring "Everything has to stop" and threw flowers into the Danube River to commemorate victims.
In addition to imploring government ministers to resign, demonstrators called for withdrawing the "licenses to the state-controlled mainstream media that promote violence and often host convicted war criminals and crime figures on their programs," The Associated Pressreported. The back-to-back shootings, which shocked residents of the Balkan country, "triggered calls to encourage tolerance and rid society of widespread hate speech and a gun culture stemming from the 1990s wars."
In Belgrade, more than 10,000 people marched in silence and gathered in front of the country's parliament building before proceeding to rally outside government offices.
"We are here because we can't wait any longer. We've waited too long, we've been silent too long, we've turned our heads too long," Marina Vidojevic, an elementary school teacher, told the crowd. "We want safe schools, streets, villages, and cities for all children."
Citing the "cataclysmic tragedy" of last week's school shooting, former Education Minister Branko Ruzic submitted his resignation on Sunday.
The government also launched a crackdown on firearms. As of Monday, "people who own unlicensed guns can start handing them over at police stations without punishment," AP reported. "Other new gun-control measures include a moratorium on new licenses, strict control of existing ones, and the tightening of rules for gun possession, which officials say will leave many current gun owners without weapons."
But for opposition parties, the government's response is insufficient.
"We have to learn anew how to speak to each other and how to create a healthy future... to nurture the beauty of living, of art, science, and humanity," Biljana Stojkovic, a leader of the leftist Together party, said Monday. "The worst among us have been in power for an entire decade, and they imposed the norms of aggression, intolerance, crime, and lies."
Protesters demanded bans on "reality shows known for promoting violence" and "pro-government newspapers that regularly stoke tension with crude articles targeting political dissidents," AFP reported.
In addition, demonstrators called on several top officials to step down, including the interior minister, the head of the national intelligence agency, and President Aleksandar Vucic, whose ruling Serbian Progressive Party party has been accused of becoming increasingly autocratic.
In response, Vucic dismissed the anti-violence demonstrations as "shameful." He condemned the organizers as a "faceless evil... that dares to use a national tragedy for their own interest."
The president made clear that he is prepared to "test his party's popularity in a snap vote, but did not specify a date," Reutersreported. Elections are currently set to take place in 2026.
"I will continue to work and I will never back down before the street and the mob... Whether it will be a reshuffle of the government or an election, we shall see," Vucic declared on television.
Vucic, who vowed to "disarm" Serbia after last week's shootings, emphasized the steps his government is taking to reduce the number of guns.
According to a 2018 estimate by the Small Arms Survey research group, Serbia has the highest rate of gun ownership in Europe, with roughly 39 civilian firearms per 100 people, the vast majority of them unlicensed.
Serbian police said that more than 1,500 illegal weapons were turned in on Monday, the first day of the country's 30-day amnesty period for surrendering guns with no questions asked.
"Vucic announced police checks of registered gun owners," Reuters reported. "Serbia has a deeply entrenched gun culture, and along with the rest of the Western Balkans is awash with military-grade weapons and ordnance in private hands after the wars of the 1990s that tore apart the former Yugoslavia."