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Protests against President Vucic spreads throughout Serbia

Kosovo Serbs march against the policies of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, an ultra-nationalist turned-pro European accused of being an autocrat, in the town of Gracanica
Kosovo Serbs march against the policies of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, an ultra-nationalist turned-pro European accused of being an autocrat, in the town of Gracanica AFP
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Belgrade (AFP)

Thousands of Serbians defied freezing temperatures Saturday to join a protest march against President Aleksandar Vucic in central Belgrade, and in dozens of other cities across the country, in the tenth consecutive weekend of demonstrations.

Since early December demonstrators have rallied each Saturday, accusing the president of stifling media freedoms and cracking down on the opposition.

In the latest, marchers again hoisted flags and banners, blowing whistles in a united display of discontent against Vucic's increasingly controversial rule.

Protests were also held in more than 40 other Serbian cities, according to local media, including the southern town of Nis, northern Novi Sad, and central Kragujevac and Cacak.

Vucic, an ultra-nationalist-turned-pro European, has rejected claims he has become autocratic, and in return has launched a "Future of Serbia" campaign, visiting towns throughout Serbia and championing his policies.

Observers and analysts see the campaign as a response to the opposition protests but also as a beginning of an election campaign as Vucic, who has been in power as prime minister since 2014 and as president since 2017, has repeatedly hinted he could call early elections in spring as a "concession" to the demonstrators.

The next national vote is scheduled for 2020.

Opinion polls suggest he would likely win another term in office.

Despite the protests, Vucic's SNS party dominates the political arena. Serbia's divided opposition has little in common other than an aversion to the president.

However, this week, opposition leaders from across the political spectrum drafted what they called an "agreement with the citizens" listing their next steps, including not to take part in election until the conditions for a free and fair vote are met.

The opposition is also vowing to quit national and local parliaments and boycott them until the free elections, as well as to get access to national media outlets, currently under the control of Vucic and his party.

The first anti-Vucic protest on December 8 drew several thousand people, but the numbers quickly grew due to the reaction of the president.

Speaking after the first demonstration, Vucic told the nation "even if there were five million people in the street" he would not agree to the protesters' demands.

That acted as a catalyst for the demonstrators, who adopted the slogan "one in five million".

Protesters have also called for the head of the public broadcaster RTS to step down. They want "at least five minutes of air time each day" to "break the media blockade", according to prominent activist Branislav Trifunovic.

The European Commission last year raised concerns about media freedoms in Serbia, denouncing threats, intimidation and violence against journalists.

But Vucic has rejected such criticism.

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