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FEATURE 08 Jun 17

Serbian Protest Movements Turn to Fighting Social Injustice

The movements that emerged from Belgrade’s anti-government protests in April are now taking direct action to combat individual cases of social injustice - but the authorities have been fighting back.

Filip Rudic
BIRN
Belgrade
Eviction of the Khawatmi family. Photo: Filip Rudic/BIRN

Branislava Khawatmi and her son Tarik, who suffers from cerebral palsy, were scheduled to be evicted from their apartment on Tuesday at 10am due to an unpaid debt.

Serbia's protest movements, which sprung into existence at anti-government protests in April, tried to rally supporters on social networks, calling on them to show up before the planned eviction time and help the family to remain in their home.

But the protesters were beaten to the punch by the police, who showed up at half past six in the morning and blocked the entrance to the building in order to secure and facilitate the eviction.

What was meant to be a battle for people’s justice turned into an awkward stand-off as protesters joined the neighbours in front of the building, facing the police with banners and blowing whistles, unsure of how to proceed.

“It’s terrible. They sold the apartment without any attempt to reach a settlement,” one of the neighbours told BIRN.

Milinko Bajceta, the lawyer for the Khawatmi family, told journalists that their home was sold at an auction for 26,000 euros because they were unable to pay their 6,500 euro debt. Bajceta said the family tried paying the debt before the apartment was auctioned off, but the debt collector ignored their attempt.

In Serbia, this sort of debt collections are handled by so-called enforcement agents, whose services are paid for by the debtor. Branislava Khawatmi was charged around 2,000 euros to be forcefully evicted from her home, according to documents to which BIRN had access.

Enforcement agent Nenad Botoric, however, denied that there were any irregularities. “All these allegations were checked by the Chamber of Enforcement agents, the Ministry of Justice, even the Public Prosecutor. If there was any doubt about irregularities, they would have probably reacted,” Botoric told BIRN.

Even when all due procedures are followed, that does not help many people in Serbia who are too poor to pay their debts in time.

Protest movement widens its focus

This was just the latest example of how the anti-government movement has decided to expand its activities to include the battle for social justice, staging actions across Serbia.
The anti-eviction initiative was hosted on Facebook by a group called Seven Demands, which highlights economic and social issues as well as critiques of Serbia’s government.
“The system is set up so that people can be evicted from their homes, deprived of their rights to a livelihood, so we intervene in every case we learn about,” Marko Stricevic from Seven Demands told BIRN.

“Debt collectors are crossing every line,” said Nemanja Grujic from another protest group, Against the Dictatorship.

The initiative launched to help Khawatmi family drew a crowd which reflected the diversity of April’s protests, which broke out after then-PM Aleksandar Vucic won the presidential elections.

Taking part in those demonstrations were the members of Against the Dictatorship, the Let’s Not Drown Belgrade initiative, which fights against the controversial government-backed Belgrade Waterfront development project, and other groups and individuals from both left and right, including the controversial figure of former anti-terrorist police spokesperson Radomir Pocuca, who fought on the Russian side in the war in Ukraine and was acquitted in December of threatening peace group Women in Black.

However, Seven Demands and Against the Dictatorship are the only two groups that did not exist before the protests, which have since largely subsided.

As the eviction started, a truck parked near the back door of the building to take away impounded property from the Khawatmi apartment.

“To the back, people!” someone shouted, and the crowd rushed to the rear entrance, where a group of protesters was already piling up sacks of rubble against the door – preventing the police and the debt collector from exiting that way.

Blocked back entrance. Photo: Sara Nikolic

A man started blowing out the tyres of the truck and soon two policemen approached him.
“What, are you going to arrest me for doing this?” he asked. The officers looked at him, then walked away, murmuring into their walkie-talkies.

Soon, news broke out that the debt collector had managed to break into the apartment with the assistance of a locksmith.

Branislava Khawatmi’s daughter, Jovana, left the building carrying personal belongings. Her disabled brother was taken outside by paramedics. The action to stop the eviction had failed, and the apartment was sealed off that afternoon.

“I don’t know what will happen when my mother and brother are evicted. My brother’s company, which employs people with visual and speech impairments, is shutting down, so they are left without home and income,” Jovana Khawatmi told BIRN.

Corrupt privatisations leave people homeless

The protest movements had some early success preventing evictions like this one. They had saved the homes of former workers from a bankrupt company which had been controversially privatised.

Ever since it was sold in 2008, the Trudbenik company had been trying to evict its workers from the living spaces it had previously provided for them. This privatisation is on the infamous list of 24 cases of potential corruption that the EU demanded that Serbia investigate.

The company went bankrupt in 2011, but the evictions were continued under a bankruptcy manager.

In defence of two workers and their families, the neighbours were joined by Seven Demands and other movements and organizations.

“It’s good that the citizens have shown up,” one of the workers, Vojislav Jokic, told Serbian website Insajder.

“As long as I am provided alternative accommodation, I’ll be out of here immediately. Otherwise, I have nowhere else to go but the street,” he added.

Despite the police showing up in force in the morning hours on May 16, the citizens held their ground. The official in charge of enforcing the eviction failed to show, after which the police retreated.

On another occasion, protesters gathered to prevent the property of Belgrade’s Dragisa Misovic Hospital from being impounded.

The hospital was sued for 1.1 million euros over land which had been nationalised in 1960, and recently returned to the descendent of the old owner, who demanded reimbursement for the time during which the Dragisa Misovic Hospital used the land.

Around 50 protesters showed up on the day that debt collectors were going to impound the hospital’s vehicles and equipment.

The hospital’s director, Radisav Scepanovic, addressed the gathering to say that the debt collection would not take place, but the protesters waited until the Health Minister Zlatibor Loncar arrived.

“Don’t you want us to respect the courts? What were we supposed to do, put pressure [on the court] so it’s no longer independent?” Loncar told the protesters, who booed and shouted at him.

The minister promised that the state would find a solution so that the hospital’s property was not impounded, but did not specify how.

For Marko Stricevic of Seven Demands, Loncar’s statement was hypocritical.

“The question is, whose interest do laws protect? I don’t think it’s the interests of ordinary, working people struggling to survive, but the interests of capital,” Stricevic said.

The authorities strike back

During more recent actions, however, the authorities have undermined the protesters by showing up much sooner than officially announced. They evicted a cultural centre for handicapped children and orphans by showing up on Friday June 2, instead of Monday June 5.

And then, on Tuesday, came the eviction of the Khawatmis, when police appeared three-and-a-half hours ahead of schedule.

“We learned we need to show up as early as 5 or 6am. If that’s what it takes, we’ll show up,” Stricevic said.

He sees these direct actions as a continuation of the April protests, and hopes that there is the possibility of energising the public - although he also noticed the lack of news camera crews at the Khawatmis’ eviction.

Nemanja Grujic from Against the Dictatorship told BIRN that his movement is developing a direct-action strategy too.

“We are working on our infrastructure and will soon be launching such actions of our own,” Grujic said.

Serbia’s fledgling protest movements have started to address new issues, but it’s clear that they are already facing new challenges as well.

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