Serbia Confronts Deep Divisions and Lethal Weapons Amidst Recent Mass Shootings

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People attend a protest "Serbia against violence" in reaction to recent mass shootings that have shaken the country, in Belgrade, Serbia, May 8, 2023. REUTERS/Zorana Jevtic

Serbia finds itself in a state of shock and introspection as the nation grapples with the aftermath of mass shootings that have prompted widespread soul-searching. In the first week of an amnesty program initiated by President Aleksandar Vučić, over 13,500 weapons, including guns, hand grenades, and anti-tank launchers, along with a substantial quantity of ammunition, were voluntarily surrendered by Serbian citizens. However, in a deeply divided country saturated with deadly weapons and glorification of war criminals, doubts persist regarding whether the president’s commitment to “disarm” the nation will prove effective. Tragic incidents have exacerbated these concerns. Two shootings occurred within two days, claiming the lives of 18 individuals and injuring 21 others. In the capital city of Belgrade, an alleged 13-year-old schoolboy, armed with his father’s pistols, shot and killed eight classmates and a security guard. A 10-year-old girl, who was injured in the incident, succumbed to her injuries days later. The second shooting took place in two villages located approximately 30 miles south of Belgrade, where a man armed with an assault rifle and a pistol killed eight people and injured 14 others. A 21-year-old suspect is currently in custody.President Vučić, known for his populist and pro-Kremlin authoritarian stance, expressed outrage at these incidents, referring to them as an “attack on our entire country.” To address the issue, he announced a month-long gun amnesty program, assuring the public that illegal weapons, ammunition, and ordnance could be turned in anonymously without fear of prosecution. The president received some international praise for his decisive action, with comparisons drawn to the perceived inability of the United States to address its escalating gun violence, marked by 22 mass killings in the current year alone.

In addition to the amnesty program, Vučić has pledged a two-year moratorium on new gun licenses, a comprehensive review of existing licenses, enhanced psychological checks, the deployment of 1,200 extra police officers in schools, and stricter penalties for gun-related crimes and illegal possession. Despite these measures, many Serbs question the underlying factors contributing to the pervasive violence in their country, including the role played by President Vučić, who has been in power since 2014. The prevalence of violence in Serbian politics, media, and society, along with deeply rooted memories of recent conflicts, raises doubts about the efficacy of the disarmament efforts. The recent tragedies have galvanized public sentiment, leading to protests in Belgrade where thousands of people, led by opposition groups, demanded the resignation of the interior minister and an end to the culture of violence perpetuated by the media and ruling party politicians. While Vučić accused his opponents of exploiting the tragedies for political gain, he announced his intention to step down as the leader of the Serbian Progressive Party soon and promised parliamentary elections before September.

Estimates of the total number of firearms in Serbia, combining legal and illegal holdings, range from 1.5 million to 3 million. Despite having a relatively high number of police officers per capita in Europe, citizens still do not feel safe, indicating that repressive measures may not be the solution to the country’s violence problem. The recent mass shootings, while infrequent in the past, were not entirely surprising to experts. They highlight the violent undercurrents within Serbian society, characterized by the enduring legacy of war, widespread corruption, and high levels of violence prevalent across various sectors. Serbia now faces the daunting task of reconciling its deeply divided nation and curbing the violence that continues to plague its communities.

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