Gun control: mass shootings in Serbia prompt calls for further action

Polly BotsfordTuesday 27 June 2023

In Serbia, over 58,000 firearms, 2.6 million bullets and 20,451 explosive devices were handed in from May to June as part of a weapons amnesty, launched following two successive mass shootings. Though Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić was quick to react by instigating the amnesty after the separate killings – one by a 13-year-old boy who shot nine people in a village just south of the capital, Belgrade – there have been a series of widespread demonstrations calling for further action by the government.

There are an estimated 600,000 registered firearms – handguns such as rifles – in Serbia, for a population of 6.7 million, ten times the per capita number in the UK. This register only scratches the surface, however, as it doesn’t account for the number of illegal weapons in circulation, with some estimating there are at least the same number again. This state of affairs is in part a legacy of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s when violent conflict between neighbours ripped through the region. By the end of the war, there were an estimated six million surplus firearms in the Balkans, with around 2.69 million in Serbia itself.

But the story goes back further still. Kenneth Morrison is Professor of Modern Southeast European History at De Montfort University in the UK and has been regularly engaged as a regional expert by the country’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He says that for Serbia, the need to defend oneself against one’s neighbours has a longer history. ‘There are significant legacy issues to consider. Serbia was engaged in several wars in the twentieth century – from the 1912/13 Balkan Wars, through two world wars, even before the armed conflicts that accompanied the disintegration of the Yugoslav state,’ he explains.

Morrison says that this need goes even further back in time, as the Serbs have a historical tradition of having to fight their colonial rulers, the Ottomans, going back centuries. ‘And, of course, many of these conflicts have involved different ethnic groups within the region being pitted against one another,’ he says. ‘Even though weapons decommissioning has taken place after the wars of the 1990s, a lot still remain in private hands.’

Lack of international pressure has meant that disarmament just hasn’t been effectively carried out in Serbia in the way that it has in other post-conflict Balkan states

Toby Cadman
Secretary, IBA War Crimes Committee

As Morrison highlights, some progress towards reducing both legal and illegal gun ownership and use has been made in past years. There are a number of international and regional organisations involved in various disarmament programmes, including the Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is supporting awareness campaigns around gun laws, and the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons, a joint initiative of the UN Development Programme and the Regional Cooperation Council that aims to ‘control and reduce the proliferation and misuse’ of these guns. A number of initiatives are run in conjunction with the Serbian police and other institutions, including amnesties, the safe disposal of weapons and efforts to stop arms trafficking.

But these projects have not been as successful as in other post-conflict Balkan states, says Toby Cadman, Secretary of the IBA War Crimes Committee and a co-founder of Guernica 37, an international justice chambers. ‘Lack of international pressure has meant that disarmament just hasn’t been effectively carried out in Serbia in the way that it has in other post-conflict Balkan states such as Bosnia-Herzegovina,’ which has been under the oversight of the Office of the High Representative, the international institution overseeing the implementation of civilian aspects of the peace agreement that ended the war in the country.

Though the Serbian government has introduced other measures alongside the amnesty, including a moratorium on new small firearms licences being issued and a review of all existing permits to investigate whether they’ve been granted appropriately, demonstrators argue it isn’t doing enough to combat the gun problem.

Protestors have gathered under the banner ‘Serbia against violence’ in recent weeks and argue that the culture of violence in Serbian society is indirectly encouraged by the state and its various organs, such as through the licences and permits given by the government to TV stations and newspapers. Jelena Gazivoda, Council Member for Serbia on the IBA European Regional Forum and a senior partner at Serbian law firm JPM, highlights Serbian television shows that glorify ‘violent language’ and ‘physical fights’. She says that such programmes feature people who ‘should be discredited in society, not held up as influencers, and it contributes to this culture.’

Morrison agrees. ‘On Serbian TV you might see former mafia members or “heroes” from the war being interviewed. People carry weapons in pop videos, there is a glorification of gang/gun culture. That all feeds into the social fabric. And the government doesn’t do as much as it can to discourage this’, he says. Protestors have called for the licences of certain channels to be revoked and a ban on those newspapers that stoke the violence by legitimising attacks on political opposition. The protests have also broadened to cover a range of grievances against an increasingly authoritarian regime.

There are also concerns that enforcement is the key missing feature here – and that the government is now distracted by other matters. Tensions have increased in Kosovo’s border districts with Serbia, where many ethnic Serbians live. International negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo have been progressing, with the various proposals put forward including the establishment of an association of Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo. But in recent elections, Albanians – not Serbs – have been installed as mayors there, reigniting ethnic tensions. ‘Within a relatively short period, Vučić was not talking about the problem of mass-shootings anymore, it’s all about ethnic tension and defending Serbs in Kosovo,’ explains Morrison. ‘That said, the protestors against violence have continued their campaign.’

In Cadman’s view, Serbia has two options open to it in respect of controlling its firearms. ‘This could develop and follow the US model with repeated mass shootings in the light of lax laws and enforcement. Or it could take the Australian path where they imposed strict gun laws,’ he says.

Global Insight approached the Serbian government for comment, but none had been provided at the time of publication.

Image credit: Global Image Archive/AdobeStock.com