Hatred, lies and vigilantes: the Serbian “anti-vaxxer” brigade plays with fire
Knezevic was initially reluctant to be interviewed, citing his distrust of “global media,” a category in which he has included BIRN. Before accepting to speak, he stressed that the popular patrols were “anti-regime”, or opposed to the government of President Aleksandar Vucic. The Serbian leader, a former ultra-nationalist, is vilified by many on the far right after renaming himself along relatively traditional lines as a populist national-conservative. His efforts to consolidate power and muzzle critics have led to accusations of authoritarianism from all walks of life. Resentment boiled over in July last year after a lockdown announcement sparked street protests in Belgrade, which were violently quelled by police. Knezevic was briefly arrested during the protests on charges of leading a crowd who broke into the parliament building.
Contempt for the political system permeates Knezevic’s worldview. Meeting with BIRN around a hamburger and a beer after finishing his job, he compared his career to that of former colleagues from Zavetnici. “And now they make a living from politics,” he said, “while Damnjan Knezevic hangs on a rope from buildings in New Belgrade, plastering cracks.” He said he was proud of his job – it had allowed him to make a decent living with “two cars and a lot of equipment” under his belt.
During a conversation he met as he had done at the October rally, speaking fast and a little mechanically, as if reading a script. He stressed that his supporters would not accept vaccines and that they would resist any “territorial division” of Kosovo. He reiterated a claim he made at the rally that the Serbian government intended to grant residency to some 750,000 migrants due to its obligations under the Dublin Convention, a law of the ‘EU.
The claim is easily debunked. The Convention only applies to EU members and Serbia’s application for membership in the bloc has been blocked for more than ten years. Within the xenophobic Serbian far right, this demand has nevertheless become an article of faith. Recycled on social media, it sparked a series of small nationwide protests in February 2020, calling on the government to cancel non-existent “contracts” to settle migrants. When the coronavirus pandemic hit Europe, the Dublin Convention claim would be encompassed in the emerging field of Covid conspiracy theories. Now it has been alleged that the government was using the lockdown as a cover to secretly settle migrants in Serbia.
The request entered the general public in 2017, after a right-wing MP said some 700,000 people had applied for asylum in Serbia in the previous five years. The source of that number is not known, but it echoes a figure from data released by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, which shows that some 620,000 people had declared their intention to seek the asylum in Serbia during the period 2008-17.
However, most of these statements were not sincere: they were an obligation for migrants and refugees who wished to remain in the country legally until they could organize their trip to Western Europe. The number of those who ultimately applied for asylum in Serbia during the same period is likely to be much lower. While BIRN was unable to find precise data for the period 2008-17, figures provided by the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, BCHR, an NGO, show that Serbia received some 2,993 asylum applications on a comparable period, 2012-20. The number of people who ultimately get asylum tends to be even smaller. According to the BCHR, only 156 applications were approved by the Serbian government during the period 2008-18.