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Wave of anti-government protests highlighting growing disaffection with establishment parties may exacerbate political tensions – Balkans Analysis

Executive Summary

Several countries in the Balkans have seen intense anti-government protest movements in recent months, exacerbating nationalist sentiments and political tensions.

In Albania, protesters are calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Edi Rama amid perceptions of systemic corruption. Snap elections would likely see Rama retain power, leading to a period of intense opposition protests.

Montenegro’s President was the subject of anti-corruption protests. A period of resisting protester demands will culminate in early elections, which he will likely win.

In North Macedonia, the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party are expected to rekindle protests surrounding the naming agreement with Greece. Disputes over the election of the President are liable to be the key motivator.

Serbia’s President is liable to heed protesters’ demands and call for early elections. Vucic’s continued support from non-urban voters will preserve the ruling party’s status in government


During the course of 2018-19, several countries in the Balkans experienced anti-government protests stemming from issues including corruption, media manipulation, and territorial disputes. Protest movements remain ongoing in urban centers of Albania, Montenegro, and Serbia by both newly created organizations and established political parties, while demonstrations surrounding the name deal with Greece have temporarily abated in Macedonia as of the beginning of 2019. Protests have witnessed instances of unrest and violence, including clashes between protesters and police in capital cities and major urban centers.

Ethnic Composition of Balkans

Regionwide protest movements could lead to rekindling of nationalistic sentiment and exacerbate ethnic tensions

The protest movements throughout the Balkans are liable to lead to a rekindling of nationalist sentiments spurred by disaffection to systemic corruption and a lack of economic prosperity. Factions in each country seek to remove governments with the support of protest movements, and movement leaders have widely adopted nationalist stances to garner support for the changes in government. The various protest movements and leaders have promised to guarantee better governance and have capitalized on the existing nationalist tendencies. The rise in nationalist sentiments could see a shift in voting patterns with traditionally center-right to right-wing parties gathering traction and support by moving further to the right, particularly on issues of ethnonationalism.

The increasing influence of nationalism on political and government policies risks disrupting the already fragile coexistence of the multiple ethnicities within the region. Incumbent leaders are taking stronger stances on pre-existing issues, such as Serbian President Aleskander Vucic’s strategy in ongoing negotiations with Kosovo, which has included proposing a territorial exchange with Pristina and seeking to end the tariffs on Serbian goods through talks hosted by the EU. Vucic, in order to garner support from nationalist and right-wing elements, is liable to pursue a policy towards Pristina that does not include the possibility of recognition and call for the establishment of semi-autonomous ethnic Serb authority within Kosovan borders. The implications of the aggravation in Kosovo-Serbia relations could increase tensions between the Albanian diaspora in other nations, as well as other ethnicities. With this, a growth in the Albanian representation in North Macedonia and Montenegro has been recorded, as well as Bosnian and Hungarian parties in Serbia seeing an increase in support.


Initial protests against the Albanian government commenced in November 2018, when residents of the Astir neighborhood rallied against the construction of the Unaza e Madhe or Great Ring Road. Following the Great Ring protests, student organizations began staging mass demonstrations in Tirana and other urban centers. The protests called on the government to improve the education budget and the overall status of institutions in Albania, among other grievances.

Since February 2019, the main opposition party, Partia Demokratike e Shqiperise (PD) and other political entities have staged anti-government demonstrations in Tirana. The PD has called for Prime Minister Edi Rama of the Partia Socialiste e Shqiperise (PS) to resign and call for snap elections. Thousands continue to attend weekly protests in Tirana, which have seen widespread unrest with protesters targeting the PM’s office and parliament buildings. The PD accuses Rama’s cabinet of corruption and links to organized crime, as well as vote manipulation during the 2017 general election. All 65 opposition MPs vacated their parliamentary seats on February 18 in protest against Rama. The PD and other opposition parties have stated they intend to boycott the upcoming local elections if PM Rama refuses to step down.

Leaders & Protest Groups in Albania

Opposition demands for snap elections unlikely to translate into increase in political power

The protests are reflective of the perceived inability of the administration to reform the economy and tackle corruption, which remains a core public grievance and is often viewed as the chief hindrance to the country joining the EU. A continuation in the violence witnessed at political demonstrations could negatively impact potential negotiations with Brussels.

The increasing pressure on Rama caused by the protest movement and threatened resignation of President Ilir Meta, who has clashed with Rama in the past, indicate that a snap election is increasingly likely, possibly coinciding with the local elections in June. However, in light of the possible opposition boycott of the local elections, the PD and other parties could denounce such a decision and refuse to participate in any elections until Rama formally steps down, increasing the potential for an increase in political volatility at associated demonstrations.

Given that Rama’s PS gained 74 of 140 seats in Parliament in 2017 and that the protest movement has failed to gain sizeable traction outside Tirana, the PS could retain control of the parliament in snap elections. Rama’s victory would further elevate the discontent among the opposition, leading to large-scale protests, accusations of electoral fraud, and violence at protests.

Considering PD leader Luzlim Basha’s statements and the widespread discontent emanating from student organizations, residents of Tirana, and opposition members, protests are liable to continue in the near-to-medium term in Tirana. The protests could see an increased turnout if PM Rama refuses to engage in dialogue, call early elections, or put forth his resignation. Demonstrations will continue targeting government buildings and could witness further unrest. Further elevating the propensity for unrest are recurring accusations of corruption within Rama’s government, which have led to two senior ministers resigning since the protests began.


Since February, large-scale anti-government protests calling for the resignation of President Milo Djukanovic and his government have been recorded in Podgorica surrounding government buildings. The protests have included episodes of unrest, such as on March 16 when demonstrators launched projectiles at security forces who then proceeded to use tear gas and force to disperse the unruly gatherings.

Following the detention and subsequent release of an opposition leader in December 2018 which incited protests, a video was released in January showing Dusko Knezevic, a prominent businessman and former ally of Djukanovic, giving illicit campaign funding to a member of Djuaknovic’s Demokratska Partija Socijalista Crne Gore (DPS) party.

On March 30, leaders of the Odupri se protest movement and 39 Members of Parliament called for opposition parties to campaign together against the DPS should elections be called. A second anti-government protest movement supporting Knezevic was created under the banner of “Do Slobode” (To Freedom). The leaders of the Odupri se movement have continued to denounce Dusko Knezevic, who has attempted to set up his own political party. On May 9, the High Court in Podgorica convicted 14 individuals for their involvement in the October 2016 coup plot. Among the convicted are the leaders of opposition parties such as the Demokratska Narodna Partija (DNP) who are one of the chief protagonists of the ongoing anti-government protests.

Leaders & Protest groups in Montenegro

Djukanovic liable to call snap elections; could see right-wing, Serb-interest parties making gains

The anti-incumbency sentiment towards Djukanovic, who has been in power for nearly 30 years, was exacerbated by corruption accusations and a failure to address the activities of criminal and drug trafficking organizations, who continue to operate in port cities and are known to conduct targeted killings.

Djukanovic’s denouncement of the protest movement will likely translate into a prolonged resistance by his administration to enact its demands which include the resignation of top officials and forming a transitional government to hold elections. With Djukanovic unlikely to acquiesce, a continuation of large-scale protests can be expected in the immediate term focusing on government buildings in Podgorica. Tensions with the opposition could be exacerbated by the conviction of opposition leaders for their involvement in the 2016 coup plot. Odupri se, whose leaders immediately denounced the conviction, will likely rally behind the DNP and other opposition leaders and seek to invoke perceptions of the persecution of opponents of President Djukanovic.

The unification of the Odupri se protest movement and leaders of the opposition is liable to increase pressure on Djukanovic to call snap elections. However, the emergence of the “Do Slobode” organization could see rival protests manifesting and scuffles among rival groups.

If snap elections are called, the DPS is liable to see a decrease in its overall seats but may still be able to form a governing coalition, while right-wing and pro-Serb interest parties stand to make gains. An increase in the political power afforded to Serb interest parties could result in further political polarization over future relations with the EU and neighboring countries, in particular, Serbia.

North Macedonia

Beginning in 2018, anti-government demonstrations organized by the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party and other nationalist organizations were witnessed in Skopje and other urban centers. The protests were incited by the Prespa Agreement with Greece, under which the country will legally change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia in exchange for the removal of Greek opposition to joining the EU and NATO.

Protesters denounced PM Zoran Zaev’s decision to resolve the long-standing dispute with Greece due to the multiple concessions during negotiations and perceptions of a change in the country’s national character. Clashes between protesters, mainly members of nationalist organizations, and police were reported surrounding the Parliament and other government buildings in Skopje.

The agreement was ratified by the North Macedonian parliament on January 11. Protests have temporarily abated as political attention has been focused on the Presidential elections. The first round on April 21 resulted in no clear winner, with both the VMRO-DPMNE and government-backed candidates garnering 42 percent of the vote. The second round of the elections on May 5 resulted in a victory for the ruling Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) candidate, Stevo Pendarovski with 51 percent of the total vote. VMRO-DPMNE officials immediately denounced the election results due to claims of voter manipulation.

Leaders & Protest groups in North Macedonia

Presidential elections highlight political polarization, protests expected to restart

Following the results of the Presidential elections and the possibility of both NATO and the EU calling for further concessions during membership negotiations, protests led by the VMRO-DPMNE could see a resurgence. Judging by VMRO-DPMNE officials immediately denouncing the election results, allegations of electoral fraud and corruption are liable to continue to be levied against Zaev’s administration. The VMRO-DPMNE will likely call on their supporters and members of nationalist organizations to stage demonstrations in urban centers, possibly motivated by President-elect Pendarovski’s approval of laws surrounding the name deal such as the changing of signs and constitutional amendments.

Instances of unrest stemming from nationalist organizations remain a distinct possibility going forward as nationalist elements have been galvanized by Zaev’s concessions during talks with Athens. Additionally, the VMRO-DPMNE could call for demonstrations if further party members are detained on allegations of corruption, as has occurred several times in recent years.


On December 8, 2018, the first anti-government protest was staged in Belgrade following an attack on the leader of the Levica Srbije party, Borko Stefanovic, in Krusevac, by unidentified assailants. The protests have continued and recorded crowds in the high thousands in Belgrade. The protest movement has manifested under the banner of “1od5Milliona” (One of Five million), which is a play on President Aleskander Vucic’s statement to the initial protest in which he said he would not compromise even if there were five million people in the street. The movement has spread to other major cities such as Nis and Novi Sad. Protesters are calling for the immediate resignation of President Aleskander Vucic of the ruling Srpska Napredna Stranka (SNS) party amid accusations of the manipulation of media and an increase in political violence.

On February 6, the opposition parties announced their intention to boycott parliament and proposed a manifesto containing reforms based on protesters’ demands. The protests were initially peaceful, however, on March 16 protesters attempted to enter the New Palace, the seat of the Presidency, as Vucic was inside, as well as the offices of the state broadcaster. Opposition leaders have reportedly given the government a May 4 deadline in order to heed their demands for widespread reforms.

President Vucic has stated that SNS officials are willing to call snap elections in order to gauge their popularity. On April 19, thousands convened in Belgrade for a pro-government rally.

Leaders & Protest Groups in Serbia

Vucic to remain in power despite mass protest movement due to entrenched support and opposition disunity

Anti-government demonstrations in Belgrade and other urban centers are unlikely to abate unless President Aleskander Vucic accepts demands for widespread reforms or calls snap elections. Instances of unrest cannot be ruled out with protesters expected to gather at known focal points in Belgrade, such as the New Palace, the National Assembly, the public broadcaster’s office, and the University of Belgrade’s campus. Any allegations of media suppression or acts of political violence could incite larger turnouts and heighten the disaffection towards the Vucic.

If Vucic does not adequately respond to protesters demands following the May 4 deadline, demonstrations are liable to increase in both frequency and size. This increased pressure could lead Vucic to instruct Prime Minister Ana Brnabic to dissolve the government and call snap elections. As with protests against Vucic in 2017, which arose due to accusations of voter and media manipulation, the current wave of protests may lead to little substantial change and are liable to eventually be discontinued.

Judging by Presidential elections in 2017, where Vucic secured 53 percent of the total vote, and the relatively smaller attendance at anti-government demonstrations outside Belgrade, the SNS would likely maintain their sizeable majority in parliament in snap elections. In such a scenario, political instability could arise from protest groups refusing to accept the results and accusing Vucic of manipulating results.

Potential for militancy, protest activity heightened during March 26-28 elections; major instability as seen in past years unlikely – Egypt Analysis

Current Situation

On March 26-28, Egypt will hold Presidential elections. Current President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi will be running for reelection against El-Ghad Party leader Moussa Mostafa Moussa.

Moussa has stated that he supports al-Sisi for president, despite his own candidacy. Numerous political opposition leaders declared a boycott of the elections, in protest of the current administration’s detention and alleged pressure on previous candidates to withdraw.

The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood political organization and other anti-government groups have yet to release official calls for protests during the elections. In recent weeks, authorities announced arrests of Muslim Brotherhood elements “seeking to interrupt the elections and endanger public safety.” On less frequent occasions in past weeks, security forces apprehended militants belonging to the Hasam Movement, a militant group comprised of pro-Muslim Brotherhood elements, who were “planning to carry out attacks during the elections”.

The Islamic State (IS)-affiliated Wilayat Sinai released media on February 11 in which it threatens to attack polling stations across the country during the elections, and warned “the Muslim public” to avoid voting sites and other locales associated with the elections in view of attack operations. The Sunni jihadist group stated the Presidential elections are “the greatest form of polytheism.”

In IS’s official literature on February 15, the group encouraged attacks by its militants and supporters, stating that “attacks will show al-Sisi’s allies that he is incapable of controlling security in the main areas under his rule, let alone distant regions like Sinai, the Western Desert, and areas in Aswan and Upper Egypt.”

Assessments & Forecast

Al-Sisi likely to be reelected

Considering al-Sisi’s current competition in the election, the result is likely predetermined, and al-Sisi will be reelected for another term. Moussa’s candidacy is likely meant to provide the elections with an appearance of being democratic and to lend credibility to al-Sisi’s mandate as head of state upon his reelection. The successful removal of all serious candidates is indicative of the support al-Sisi maintains among Egypt’s military and security elites, who trust that he will protect their interests, especially their financial stakes and Egypt’s overall stability. The detention of two former high-ranking figures of the armed forces demonstrated this, namely former Prime Minister and Egyptian Air Force (EAF) Commander in Chief Ahmed Shafiq, and former Chief of Staff of Egyptian Armed Forces (EAAF) Sami Hafez Anan, who both subsequently left the Presidential race. Al-Sisi could not have placed these long-serving, well-connected military rivals into custody if he did not have the backing of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the heads of Egypt’s intelligence service. In light of this, al-Sisi will likely retain this support in the coming years, rendering a change in the country’s leadership improbable.

Protests likely in lead-up, during elections, but government likely to effectively contain

Though calls for holding anti-government protests during the elections have yet to be issued, they will likely be released in the coming days, given widely held sentiments against the current leadership, and a view of the elections as undemocratic prevailing among the public. Muslim Brotherhood activists release calls for nationwide protests on a weekly basis, and the theme of their anti-government protest activity in the coming week is liable to focus on denouncing the al-Sisi Presidency and elections as illegitimate. Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups will likely stage protests in conjunction with the elections.

FORECAST: The rate of protest activity will likely rise over this period relative to recent months. Some of these will be planned, and others will occur on a sporadic, spontaneous basis, likely near polling stations. The protests may devolve into civil unrest, featuring scuffles and localized clashes between participants and security personnel. This would stem from the anti-government nature of the demonstrations and heightened sensitivity over the elections. Events of this volatile nature would likely be forcibly scattered by security forces, including through the firing of tear gas and rubber bullets.

However, this period is unlikely to witness the type of destabilizing unrest seen during Egypt’s revolution and subsequent political upheaval of 2011-2013. In more recent years, the rate of anti-government protest activity and unrest has declined significantly. This is due to various government measures, including the arrests of thousands of anti-government activists and their leaders. This has left such groups without much of its capable leadership who organized political operations and demonstrations, and deprived of a large share of their membership. Citizens’ political will to engage in major protest campaigns has also likely markedly diminished, given protesters’ general lack of success in achieving their goals, and the human toll taken over the course of their pursuits.

Moreover, in advance of recent sensitive political dates and events, authorities have also closed off symbolic places previously used as protest sites, including Cairo’s Tahrir Square, as well as main thoroughfares. This has prevented protests from materializing, thus averting large-scale violent incidents as seen in 2001-2013, and stopping protest movements from gaining traction and momentum overall. Authorities will once again implement this security strategy from May 26-28, which will likely be effective overall in containing and preventing anti-government demonstrations.

Militancy threats from jihadist, disenfranchised Muslim Brotherhood groups heightened during election period

The rate of militancy-related events in mainland Egypt, including attacks and arrests of militants, has declined in recent years, and more so over past months. However, the potential for militant attacks on March 26-28 will be relatively heightened, as militant groups seek to damage al-Sisi’s reputation for tackling militancy, presenting him as unable to secure the country. A successful attack during the period of the Presidential elections would attract wide media attention for the militant group responsible, given the public and symbolic nature of this period. This would bolster the militant group’s profile, including by its members and supporters, possibly motivating further attacks and drawing recruits to its ranks. This is underscored by an IED attack targeting Alexandria’s chief of police on March 24 which authorities have stated was carried out by the Hasam Movement. A further example of such an event is the most recent attack in mainland Egypt claimed by IS, namely the operation targeting a Coptic Church in Helwan during the holiday season, on December 29, 2017.

As to the statements released by IS and its Sinai-affiliate threatening and calling for attacking polling stations and associated installations, these were likely aimed to deter Egyptians from voting, thus lowering the participation rate in the elections. This would further undermine al-Sisi’s mandate in the view of the Egyptian public, and diminish the reputation of the country’s authorities. This corresponds to IS’s overall strategy in Egypt, which is to weaken Egypt’s leadership, damage the State, in turn replacing it with an Islamic State in the future. Another Sunni jihadist group posing potential dangers during the election period, is the relatively new Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, which was responsible for the large-scale October 20, 2017 Bahariya Oasis attack. According to reports, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam has gained dozens of new members in recent months, including Islamist former members of the security forces, and an attack during the elections would greatly publicize the group’s existence and present it as especially capable.

The Hasam Movement, and similar militant groups consisting of pro-Muslim Brotherhood elements such as Liwaa al-Thawra, likely see the election period as a particularly attractive time to launch attacks. This is in response to the Muslim Brotherhood political organization’s continued banned status and removal from the sanctioned political landscape, and in response to authorities’ ongoing crackdown on the group’s members. These groups target security personnel, government officials, and those aligned with authorities. That said, bystanders face a threat of collateral damage in the event of the attacks. Overall, these groups have not been especially active of late, and the last claimed attack claimed was for an IED detonation at the Myanmar Embassy in Cairo on September 30, 2017, which Hasam claimed to have executed. However, the groups remain in operation, as indicated by periodically recorded arrests of their members over past months, and thus, they pose a persisting threat, especially during the symbolic election period.

FORECAST: Over the coming days, authorities will implement bolstered security protocols around the country, including posting additional security personnel, especially near polling stations and potential protest sites on May 26-28. Security forces will likely carry out raids targeting both militant elements and anti-government activists, to mitigate the potential for militant activity and larger-scale civil unrest to unfold. However, comparatively large gatherings of security personnel present attractive targets for militant groups, which may draw the attention of such elements during the elections. Citizens may view additional security personnel at protest sites as oppressive, exacerbating tensions between the sides, and fomenting localized unrest.


On March 26-28 avoid nonessential travel to the vicinity of polling stations, given the heightened threat of militancy and protests posed to these locations during this time period.

Allot for disruptions and plan alternative routes for travel due to the likely closures of main roads and thoroughfares concurrent with the elections.

Travel to Cairo and Alexandria may continue while adhering to all security precautions regarding militancy and civil unrest. Consult with us for itinerary-based travel recommendations.

Avoid all travel to the North Sinai Governorate and border areas with Libya, Sudan, and Israel due to the persistent risk for militant attacks, kidnappings, and general lawlessness.

Avoid nonessential travel to the Southern Sinai Peninsula, while maintaining heightened vigilance in the Suez Canal Zone, the Upper Nile area, and the Nile Delta region due to an increased risk of unrest and the heightened risk of militant attacks. Before traveling to Sharm al-Sheikh, confirm that flight operations are continuing and have not been impacted by recent militant threats.

In Cairo, maintain heightened vigilance and continue to allot extra time for travel due to possible delays emanating from increased security deployments, checkpoints, and closures throughout the capital.

Remain vigilant in areas surrounding and avoid the immediate vicinity of government installations, police stations, and religious centers, particularly churches, as these locations remain under elevated threat of militant attacks. When traveling in central squares, or in areas with persistent police deployments, avoid the immediate vicinity of security forces, particularly fixed traffic booths, as such personnel and facilities have increasingly come under attack by militant elements.