BELGRADE (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of disenchanted Serbs protested in central Belgrade Saturday in the biggest anti-government rally in years aimed at showing opposition strength ahead of scheduled 2012 elections.
A pro-European Union coalition has governed Serbia since 2008, but persistent economic hardship and frustration with slow EU integration has left many disgruntled with the government.
“This government was promising us milk and honey in 2008 and what do we have now? More hardship, and a dishonest and arrogant government which does not care about its own people,” said Zdravka Stanojlovic, 44, a Belgrade waitress.
The rally was organised by Tomislav Nikolic, head of the Serbian Progressive Party, the most influential opposition party shown in polls as offering a strong challenge to the current ruling Serbian Democratic Party.
Police estimated that 70,000 attended the rally.
“I was not a Nikolic voter in the past but now I am so disillusioned because of unfulfilled promises, poverty, corruption and hardship,” said Dragomir Djuric, 56, a metal worker, who had travelled to Belgrade from Kragujevac.
Protestors, some of whom arrived by bus from cities across Serbia, gathered in front of the national parliament holding banners including: “Democratic Party, time to go” and “We are hungry” Police closed off parts of central Belgrade to accommodate the demonstration under sunny skies and a break in recent bitter winter cold.
Nikolic’s party, one of several at the protest, is demanding early elections, higher wages and a crackdown on corruption in the EU applicant country. “If they don’t respond to our demands, we will start continuous protests from April,” Nikolic told Reuters ahead of the rally.
Serbia has emerged from 2009 recession with modest 1.5 percent growth in 2010 and expects three percent growth in 2011.
Teachers in most schools went on strike last month and an independent police union joined them this week, while doctors, nurses and pharmacists said they may also join in.
The government has so far dismissed their demands for higher wages arguing it will overburden the budget.
“It is clear that the opposition will try to use social discontent,” Bozidar Djelic, Serbia’s deputy prime minister, told Reuters. “The only way they can change the government is to win a majority in the parliament and elections are in 2012.”
Some political insiders and experts say the discontent could lead to early elections later this year, but others disagree.
The impact of the world economic crisis has led to growing political divisions and discontent in the emerging Balkans.
A protest in Albania two weeks ago resulted in three deaths. Kosovo and Bosnia still have no governments after failing to agree on new coalitions after elections months ago, and there are signs Macedonia could hold early elections this year.
Writing by Adam Tanner; Editing by Maria Golovnina