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Protesters face police officers during a demonstration outside the presidential building in Belgrade, on March 17, 2019.ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of Serbs marched through the streets of Belgrade on the weekend, the latest in a series of protests against what opposition leaders say is the increasing authoritarianism of President Aleksandar Vucic.

Demonstrations on Sunday targeted government buildings, including Mr. Vucic’s office, demanding he step down and call fresh elections. On Saturday night, the protests first targeted another pillar of Mr. Vucic’s power: the headquarters of Radio Television Serbia (RTS).

As thousands of protesters surrounded the RTS building, a group of several hundred broke into the state-owned broadcaster, demanding that opposition leaders – who are rarely given time before a national audience – be allowed to speak live on television. They were denied the airtime and eventually dragged away by helmet-wearing riot police.

The entire scene was thick with déjà vu. RTS was a frequent target of protest marches in the 1990s, as Serbian society gradually rose against Slobodan Milosevic – after he led the country into a series of disastrous wars – eventually deposing him in a 2000 revolution that famously saw protesters use a bulldozer to break through police lines guarding the RTS building. The anti-Milosevic opposition seized control of the channel and started broadcasting as “New RTS.”

Almost two decades later, emotions have boiled over as Serbians again confront a strongman ruler and a media landscape that tilts in his favour.

That’s perhaps unsurprising given that Mr. Vucic was Mr. Milosevic’s minister of information during the last two years of his rule. In that post, Mr. Vucic ordered the closure of independent newspapers he considered too critical of the government. He also accused foreign media of exaggerating the abuses of Serbian troops in Kosovo, a Muslim-majority region that eventually declared its independence from the former Yugoslavia after a 1999 NATO bombing campaign forced Mr. Milosevic to withdraw his troops.

Serbs hoped the authoritarianism had ended with the fall of Mr. Milosevic. But Mr. Vucic returned to the top of Serbian politics, decrying NATO “aggression” and appealing to wounded national pride as he was swept to the prime minister’s office in 2014 and the presidency in 2017.

Since taking power, Mr. Vucic has brought Serbia’s media – which experienced a period of freedom following the 2000 revolution – back in line with the government. Critics say Mr. Vucic exerts control over the main media outlets via their advertising budgets, with the President’s allies in the business community only buying ads at newspapers and TV stations that back the government.

“There is self-censorship galore. Vucic is now an all-powerful, omnipotent leader. Our experience in the former Yugoslavia and in Serbia is that when the government is strong, the media is weak,” said Ljiljana Smajlovic, a former president of the Serbian Association of Journalists. “Owners buy newspapers or TV stations to further their other businesses. So, if the owners are scared of the government, the journalists and editors are afraid of their owners.”

The tameness of the domestic media market has created space for foreign media companies to wade in, turning the country – as well as neighbouring states, where Serbian is widely spoken – into an East-versus-West information battleground.

So far that battle is being won by the Serbian-language operation of Russia’s state-owned Sputnik News Service, which launched in 2015 and distributes its stories free of charge. Journalists say Sputnik’s influence has grown in large part because its coverage – admiring of Mr. Vucic and Russian President Vladimir Putin, sharply critical of the West in general and NATO in particular – resonates with what many Serbs already believe.

“For Sputnik, this is low-hanging fruit. … If Sputnik is shaping the mood, it’s because they understand the mood,” Ms. Smajlovic said.

Fear that Serbia – a candidate for membership in the European Union – was slipping into Russia’s information sphere was reportedly one of the reasons the British Broadcasting Corporation restarted its Serbian-language operation in 2017, six years after it was shut down amid budget cuts.

Aleksandra Niksic, the veteran journalist hired to relaunch BBC Serbian, dodged a question about whether her job was to counter Sputnik. She said the real issue was editorial standards. “We recognized that Serbia and the Balkans were lacking a proper media reporting approach to stories that were important for the region,” she said.

The editor-in-chief of Sputnik’s Serbian-language service, Ljubinka Milicic, was blunter. She said she and her staff would not be interviewed by The Globe and Mail because the newspaper was an “enemy from the West.”

The starkly different media agendas were on display during the weekend protests. While outlets like BBC Serbian, and Balkan Insight, a web portal funded by the U.S., German and Norwegian governments, broadcast live from the anti-government demonstrations, Sputnik and RTS led their coverage with Mr. Vucic dismissing the protesters as “fascists, hooligans and thieves,” and claiming only 1,000 people were on the streets. Most estimates put the size of the anti-government crowds in the tens of thousands.

The street protests – which include an awkward mix of pro-Western liberals and far-right nationalists who fear Mr. Vucic intends to make a peace deal that recognizes the independence of Kosovo – have been a weekly occurrence since December. The initial trigger was a Nov. 23 attack on opposition politician Borko Stefanovic carried out by pro-government thugs. Mr. Stefanovic, a prominent pro-Western figure, was left bloodied and briefly fell unconscious.

But while the protests began as an outpouring of disgust at a specific act of political violence, they quickly evolved into a broader demand for wide-scale change.

“We need to establish a system that has things that are normal in your country – such as an independent and fair judiciary, independent and fair media, mechanisms so that we can change the government when we should. Right now, what we have is a façade democracy,” Mr. Stefanovic told The Globe amid Saturday’s protests.

A politically active student who took part in the anti-Milosevic demonstrations of the 1990s, Mr. Stefanovic was among those experiencing déjà vu as opposition supporters marched one more time toward the RTS building, chanting some of the same slogans they had 20-plus years before.

“It’s tragic that after decades of struggling for democracy, we are still walking – only now we’re walking with our children.”

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