People attend an anti-government protest in Belgrade, Serbia, January 5, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

Belgrade - Thousands marched through Belgrade's frozen city centre on Saturday to protest against President Aleksandar Vucic and his ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and demand media freedoms and end to attacks against journalists and opposition figures.

Several thousand people marched Saturday in the Serbian capital, the fifth consecutive weekend rally against the rule of President Aleksandar Vucic whom they accuse of authoritarianism.

Protesters blew whistles, waved banners that read "Stop the Treason, Defend the Constitution and Back the People", and chanted "Vucic, thief!" in the fifth such protest in as many weeks.

The rally, the third weekend protest in a row, was the first significant opposition demonstration since spring 2017 when thousands of young Belgraders protested for weeks against the incumbent president's election. Image Credit: AFP

The protests, which have also been staged in the town of Kragujevac, were triggered by an incident in November in which opposition politician Borko Stefanovic was beaten by unknown assailants in the town of Krusevac.

The opposition Alliance for Serbia (SZS), an umbrella of parties from across the political spectrum, accused the attackers of being supporters of Vucic's ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), a claim the authorities denied.

"Serbia is slowly rising, entire towns are rising ... and our numbers will grow," actor and one of the movement's leader Branislav Trifunovic told the crowd in Belgrade on Saturday, quoted by N1 television.

Since the first protest on December 8, the rallies were joined by students and public figures, notably artists.

The demonstrators gathered in front of the faculty of philosophy and marched through Belgrade behind a large banner reading: "1 in 5 million."

Demonstrators hold a banner reading "1 out of 5 million" as they protest against the Serbian president in Belgrade, Image Credit: AFP

It was a reference to Vucic's earlier statement that he would not meet opposition demands for free media and fair elections "even if there were five million people in the street".

Vucic, a hardline nationalist-turned-European, is accused by the opposition and civil society of having established autocratic rule and total control over the media, using it to campaign against opponents.

Commenting earlier on the protests Vucic said he was "ready to listen to the citizens who are demonstrating but not to opposition liars."

Vucic was elected president in 2017 after holding the post of prime minister.

Backers of the Alliance for Serbia, a grouping of 30 opposition parties and organisations, say Vucic is an autocrat and his party is corrupt, something its leaders vehemently deny.

Opposition groups have said they would boycott any election.

In Numbers

According to an October poll by the Belgrade-based CESID election watchdog, the SNS alone has 53.3 percent support, far ahead of other parties.

If the opposition parties ran as an alliance, they could count on around 15 percent of the vote, according to the survey.

However, there is little sign so far of such an agreement between parties united by little apart from their animosity towards Vucic and his party.

The SNS-led ruling coalition has a comfortable 160 of parliament's 250 seats. The next national vote is due in 2020.

Major opposition protests have been relatively rare in Serbia since the popular unrest that ousted strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

Demonstrators attend an anti-government protest in central Belgrade, Serbia, December 29 Image Credit: Reuters

Most of the current opposition leaders served in successive pro-Western coalitions that led Serbia between 2000 and 2012 - when the SNS forged a coalition with Milosevic's Socialists and came to power.

Vucic was a nationalist firebrand during the violent collapse of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but later embraced pro-European values and set membership of the European Union as Serbia's strategic goal. He also maintains close ties with Russia and China.