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Eastern Europe Struggles to Contain Virus and Protests

Eastern Europe is becoming a new trouble spot in the coronavirus pandemic as infections spike and national governments face resistance to lockdown measures, most acutely in Serbia, where violent anti-lockdown protests have erupted.

(CN) — Eastern Europe is becoming a new trouble spot in the coronavirus pandemic as infections spike and national governments face resistance to lockdown measures, most acutely in Serbia, where violent anti-lockdown protests have erupted.

Former Soviet-bloc countries such as Poland, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Romania were quick to impose lockdowns in March as the pandemic exploded in Western Europe and they managed to keep the number of infections and deaths low.

However, after lifting lockdowns, several countries in Eastern Europe are reporting hundreds of new coronavirus cases each day, adding new volatility to a region already marked by political tensions, poverty and authoritarian governments.

Anger over the threat of a new lockdown has sparked protests in Serbia, where thousands of people have stormed the parliament building in the capital Belgrade. The protests have resulted in clashes between police and protesters hurling flares and stones and setting fires. Police used teargas to disperse crowds and were seen on videos attacking protesters. In one video, police are seen striking three men sitting peacefully on a bench.

In Romania, meanwhile, the number of new infections is surpassing its previous peak in April. On Wednesday, Romania reported 555 new infections, the most in a single day. In a legal twist, Romania's government is hampered by a Constitutional Court ruling last week that said authorities cannot force sick people or those suspected of being infected to remain in quarantine. On Monday, Health Minister Nelu Tataru said about 550 people left hospitals within a day of the court's ruling.

But it’s in the Balkan nation of Serbia where tensions are highest.

On July 3, Belgrade declared a state of emergency due to a quick uptick in cases that began in late June. State epidemiologist Predrag Kon warned that Covid-19 cases were at a dangerous level in Belgrade as more than 200 new infections were reported each day, leaving the city's hospitals struggling to cope. Serbia had reported fewer than 200 cases a day through most of May and June.

First, student protests broke out after the government said it was closing student dormitories. Those protests gathered momentum this week as lockdown measures were announced, including a curfew in Belgrade and limits on public gatherings.

Facing public anger, right-wing autocratic President Aleksandar Vucic backtracked on the lockdown measures Wednesday but his about-face did not quell protests fueled by accusations the government has underreported deaths and exacerbated the pandemic by lifting restrictions before a national election on June 21 to win political support.

Since May, gatherings had been allowed to take place, including a tournament held by tennis superstar Novak Djokovic that led to several tennis players and Djokovic testing positive for Covid-19. The disease is linked to respiratory problems and doctors increasingly believe it is causing vascular problems too, such as blood clots and heart problems.

Wednesday witnessed a second night of clashes between police and protesters. The violence left 10 police officers injured, a government minister said. At least 17 protesters also were injured, according to Serbian television reports.

The protests have become political, with the offices of Vucic's party offices in Kragujevac vandalized and opposition parties joining the protests. Euractiv, a European news service, reported that some protesters sang the Serbian national anthem and shouted nationalist slogans such as “Serbia has arisen” and “Kosovo is Serbia.”

In the June 21 election, a coalition led by Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party won its fourth consecutive term in office in a landslide victory after much of the opposition led by the Alliance for Serbia boycotted the election, allowing Vucic to concentrate political power more tightly in his hands.

Vucic claimed the protests had “nothing to do with the coronavirus” and were politically motivated, calling it the “most brutal political violence in past years.”

He said the protests are hurting his government's efforts to return to the negotiating table to normalize ties with Kosovo, a former province that broke away in a 1990s war. The two sides are scheduled to meet on Sunday in Brussels to resume talks brokered by the European Union.

“We will never allow the destabilization of Serbia from within and abroad,” Vucic said, according to the Associated Press.

The accelerating outbreak in Serbia prompted Montenegro to require travelers from Serbia to self-isolate. Serbia retaliated this week by requiring a 14-day quarantine for Montenegrin nationals entering Serbia.

To date, Montenegro has reported only 960 cases and 17 deaths, but the vast majority of these have been detected in the past two weeks, a sign that the virus is spreading in the small mountain nation. By comparison, Serbia has reported more than 17,000 cases and 341 deaths, according to Worldometer.

But Serbia's deaths counts have come under scrutiny after the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network found that Serbia likely underreported infections and deaths. The investigative news outlet said twice as many people likely died from Covid-19. The Serbian government has fiercely rejected claims that it has mishandled the pandemic.

Other countries in the Balkans, Central Europe and Eastern Europe are reporting spikes too. For example, Bosnia-Herzegovina has reported its highest daily caseloads since mid-June and reported 496 new infections on July 6, its highest yet. Bulgaria, Ukraine, Slovakia and Moldova have also seen spikes in infections since the start of June.

By comparison, Western Europe continues to report relatively few cases, confirmation that the virus is largely under control in the hard-hit countries of Italy, Spain and France. Still, even in Western Europe authorities are finding clusters of cases that require drastic containment measures such as local lockdowns and travel restrictions.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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