Thousands gather for rally supporting populist Serbia leader

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Thousands gather for rally supporting populist Serbia leader
Supporters of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic wave flags during ''The Future of Serbia'' major rally to counter months of anti-government protests demanding his resignation, free elections and media freedoms, in Belgrade, Serbia, April 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Tens of thousands gathered in Belgrade on Friday for a rally in support of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who critics argue has overseen a dilution of democratic freedoms in the Balkan country.

Authorities sealed off central streets in the capital as Vucic’s supporters arrived in buses from all over the country, neighboring Bosnia and Kosovo. Police helicopters hovered above the flag-waving rally held in front of Serbia’s parliament.

Vucic has promised a “carnival atmosphere” at the rally he described as Serbia’s biggest in decades. Folk and rock singers are performing and Vucic and others are set to address the rally.

The rally comes in the wake of a slew of anti-government demonstrations over Vucic’s alleged autocratic tendencies.

In live broadcasts, the dominant pro-government media lambasted opposition officials as “fascist and thieves.”

Vucic formally advocates joining the European Union, but has remained pro-Russian since his ultranationalist past, including the information minister during the rule of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.