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Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic appeared to backtrack on a plan to impose a virus lockdown in Belgrade this weekend after the announcement of a 59-hour curfew triggered violent street protests.

Vucic accused what he called “opponents” at home and abroad of instigating violence to weaken his country’s position ahead of European Union-brokered talks with Kosovo as a second day of clashes with police rocked the capital.

Belgrade riot officers used tear gas Wednesday to disperse mostly right-wing demonstrators in a resumption of the biggest outbreak of violence against Vucic since he came to power in 2014. The violence which began late Tuesday, spread to at least two other cities, including Novi Sad, where protesters hurled firebombs and smashed the office windows of Vucic’s ruling Progressive Party.

Vucic warned that hospitals are stretched to the limit. But he appeared to back away from imposing the curfew by saying health authorities would have the final say and may forgo reinstating the lockdown. Serbia’s Covid-19 death toll rose to the highest levels since the pandemic began.
“I thought that we should introduce curfew, and I still think it’s the only solution,” he said.

The former Yugoslav republic of 7 million lifted its virus restrictions — which included overnight and weekend curfews and banned inter-city travel — in May along with the rest of Europe after the social-distancing restrictions helped stifle contagion.

However, a new surge in cases hit the country following June 21 elections, with electoral commission officials, the head of Serbia’s government office for Kosovo, the speaker of parliament and the defense minister all testing positive.

The protests have little chance of unseating Vucic’s party, which won a constitutional majority in the vote. At the news conference where he announced the renewed lockdown, he said a new government would be formed by Aug. 25.

“There won’t be any violent change of power or anarchy in Serbia,” Vucic’s prime minister, Ana Brnabic, said on Pink TV. “We will continue our fight against coronavirus and to protect our health workers and we will win.”
Protesters demanding his resignation smashed shop windows and set police cars on fire Tuesday, while smaller groups rallied peacefully.

Aside from opposing the plan for the new lockdown, they chanted “We don’t want migrants” and “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia,” the latter of which underscores the Balkan state’s dispute with its neighbor, which declared independence a decade after the two sides fought a war.

Vucic said he’ll meet French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday before taking part in a video conference with him, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and EU representatives on Friday, as part of preparations for talks with Kosovo leaders in Brussels on Sunday.

There’s also the risk that the disease will persist into the winter, when it may coincide with the seasonal flu, Vucic said.

“I was thinking about imposing the lockdown in the entire country once again,” he said in an online panel discussion with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa. “But if we’d done that, we’d have no chance to survive economically.”

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