Uprising in Serbia

A MASS movement has swept Slobodan Milosevic from power. After a week-long strike action, up to one million people converged on Belgrade on 5 October demanding the end of the regime, storming the national parliament buildings and taking over the main government television station. The masses of Serbia have removed the old regime in one week, a task NATO’s ferocious 78-day war was unable to accomplish last year.
Niall Mulholland examines the momentous events.

WORKING PEOPLE and youth around the world will be inspired by these historic events and will celebrate the demise of this dictatorial and anti-working class regime.

The tumultuous October events were triggered by the blatant government rigging of recent presidential elections. It is clear the opposition candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, won by a large margin, but the desperate regime declared that a second run-off election was required.

The opposition boycotted the second elections and called for protests. The masses’ response was overwhelming. Workers staged a week-long general strike in many sectors of the economy and students came out. By the end of last week Serbia was convulsed by a revolutionary upsurge.

The Western powers have, of course, welcomed the end of Milosevic. To them, Serbia under his rule was an unpredictable rogue state in an explosive region.

For years Milosevic was regarded as “a man the West can do business with”. Only when his regime threatened stability in the Balkans by its bloody subjugation of Kosova did the attitude of the Western powers change. Eventually NATO went to war against Serbia.

Western leaders like Tony Blair have attempted to claim some of the victory. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, praised the mass action that led to the regime’s downfall.

The hypocrisy of these people is unlimited. It is the same politicians who were only yesterday condemning the fuel protests across Europe as “undemocratic”, despite the mass support they enjoyed. If the uprising in Serbia had assumed a clear working-class character with socialist aims then the big powers would have set out to destroy it.

Opposition parties

FOR OVER a decade, the right-wing, pro-capitalist opposition parties in Serbia have also proved completely incapable of removing the Milosevic regime. As the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI – the socialist international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated) has always argued, this task could only be carried out by the working class and masses of Serbia.

According to press reports, Kostunica decided to launch mass demonstrations following a meeting on 29 September with senior generals in the Yusoslav army at which they assured him they would not attack civilians. The army tops could sense the growing anger amongst workers, students and the middle classes against the regime, a mood they knew they could not quell.

Kostunica and his 19-party coalition had the limited aim of replacing the Milosevic regime. But the opposition plans of seizing power could only succeed because there was a genuine mass movement on the ground.

Once Milosevic was overthrown Kostunica appealed for striking workers to quickly return to work and for people to return home.

The situation is still far from stable, and events can bring workers back onto the streets again. But in the absence of an independent working-class leadership the new administration has so far been able to succeed in limiting the mass movement.

Wars and poverty

UNDER MILOSEVIC and his ruling elite, the people of Serbia suffered three terrible wars and a disastrous return to the market economy. Corruption, repression and cronyism were all part of the regime’s rule.

Thousands have died or been injured in conflicts and Serbia is awash with hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken Serb refugees. Unemployment and poverty are rife and there are no prospects for youth.

Economic sanctions imposed by the Western powers have mainly hit working-class people.

In the past, Milosevic used Serbian nationalism to try and deflect the anger of workers and the middle classes. He was able to play off a hopelessly divided opposition.

Mass movements had developed against the regime in the 1990s but were misled by opportunistic, reactionary politicians. But after the trauma of another hopeless war, this time over Kosova last year, the mood of the war-weary Serbian people began to change decisively.

Socialist alternative missing

UNFORTUNATELY, CLASS consciousness has been thrown back in Serbia as a result of decades of totalitarian Stalinism, and then the return of the market economy and the regime’s reactionary nationalism. There are no mass independent trade unions, or workers’ party.

The most vital ingredient missing in these revolutionary events has been a mass party representing working-class interests. A socialist revolutionary party in Serbia would put forward an independent working-class programme, for democratic rights, full employment, a living wage, and decent pensions.

These cannot be achieved by the pro-market policies of the opposition parties.

However, the events of recent weeks will not be lost on workers and youth. They will draw profound lessons, not least that mass action can remove hated governments. The appetite for fundamental change has been whetted.

The anti-working class policies of Kostunica will mean that at some point workers will be driven into conflict with the new regime. Kostunica will probably soon move to privatise the remaining state sectors of the economy, resulting in mass lay-offs and further poverty.

It is from these bitter experiences that workers will see the need to have organisations that represent their class interests and will be better prepared for future battles, including future revolutionary struggles.

Western agenda

THE WESTERN powers want to try and ensure that a new government follows their line as much as possible. Some sanctions are being lifted and promises of ‘aid’ are being made.

They are prepared to tone down their demands for Milosevic and others to be brought before the War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague. This area of ‘principle’ can be put aside in order not to antagonise the new regime.

Kostunica reflects Serb nationalism and the still raw anger of many Serbs towards NATO when he refuses to work with the Tribunal.

The new 19-party coalition government is no reliable Western prop. Enormous strains are already showing within it, as parties and individuals jockey for positions and influence.

The coalition is unlikely to last long.

Opportunistic horse-trading and right wing policies will be the hallmark of this new regime. There will probably be a public show of ‘cleaning up’ the system, but cronyism and corruption are permanent features of capitalism in the Balkans.

Kostunica’s nationalism

KOSTUNICA IS certainly not the big powers’ first choice as Serb president. He has a long history of espousing hard-line Serbian nationalism. His Democratic Party of Serbia attacked Milosevic for “compromising” by signing the Dayton Accords in 1995, which marked the end of the Bosnian war.

He is a reactionary nationalist but he also wants to gain as much financial aid and resources from the West as possible. If he can consolidate a government, Kostunica will probably try to balance between his domestic nationalist base and the Western powers.

The government of Montengro, the rump Yugoslavia’s other republic, is extremely wary of his Serb nationalism. They fear Kostunica wants to continue the Serb domination of Montenegro and have thus far declined to recognise Kostunica as Serbia’s new president.

Nevertheless, government sources in Montenegro have indicated they want to renegotiate their position in the federation. But the new government of Serbia, dominated by pro-capitalist and nationalist parties, will want to maintain their influence and access to resources and income.

The big powers fear a break-up and the creation of new states in the Balkans, which can lay the basis for future conflicts and wars. They too are likely to argue for new constitutional arrangements that keeps Montenegro in the federation.

Albanian leaders in Kosova are not celebrating the arrival of the new Serbian regime. Ironically, they calculated that while Milosevic remained in control the big powers would be forced to act as their ‘guarantors’ and eventually they could achieve independent statehood.

But the fate and democratic rights of the people of Kosova have always been so much small change to the powers. Robin Cook said on Channel Four news last week that Kosovan independence was never a Western principle.

Milosevic’s repression and NATO’s war meant thousands of deaths and turned Kosova into an economic wasteland and sectarian bloodbath. Kosova could well find much of its promised ‘reconstruction funds’ being relocated to Serbia and elsewhere, now that the relationship of forces has changed in the region.

By continuing to refuse demands for self-determination in Kosova and allowing the country to fester, the West is only storing up enormous problems that will at some point explode in their faces.

None of the fundamental problems facing the region – the national and ethnic issues, and appalling economic and social conditions – can be solved as long as capitalism remains.

United workers’ struggle is the way forward

A UNITED struggle by the working people of the ex-Yugoslavia for democratic rights and social and economic demands can unite the various nationalities. The revolutionary events in Serbia show this is not a utopian position but entirely possible.

For a workers’ movement to succeed it must guarantee the right of self determination to nations. In the ex-Yugoslavia this means support for an independent socialist Kosova.

Only a democratic socialist confederation of states, on a voluntary and equal basis, can begin to fundamentally resolve the national issues. A socialist economy, democratically controlled and planned by the working class, can unlock the tremendous resources of the region, leading to a complete transformation of of the lives of the oppressed of the region.

Masses storm history

THE SERBIAN events have displayed features of classic revolutions. The masses have entered the stage of history, attempting to take control of their destiny. Crucially, all fear of the regime evaporated in the last few days.

The revolution has been dominated by the role of the working class. The striking miners led the way.

In a few days their action was causing power cuts. Television pictures of buses of miners’ supporters brushing aside riot police sent a powerful message – the mighty state can be brought to its knees.

The march on the national parliament was seen as the decisive struggle to overthrow the regime. Waved on by their families, workers went to the demonstration like an army ready for battle. Workers even armed themselves and fought with the few pockets of government resistance.

The ruling elite around Milosevic suffered deep splits and was shown to be suspended in mid-air. Such is the intensity and depth of the economic, social and political crisis, in the end the oppressive regime of Milosevic was unable to rely on its traditional pillars of rule.

The police and army made no serious effort to defend the regime. Those police that clashed with protesters in Belgrade were soon forced to flee for their lives. Many openly went over to the side of the revolution.

The mainly conscript army was not used. Undoubtedly, the majority of them supported the revolt of their working-class brothers and sisters. Reportedly, a desperate Milosevic commanded his army chief of staff, Pavkovic, to send in tanks against the protesters outside parliament. Pavkovic replied that “no driver could be found”!

The fall of a “communist state”?

THE DEMISE of Milosevic does not represent the fall of a ‘communist’ regime as the media have claimed.

The Western ruling classes, by their continual reference to Milosevic’s regime as the “last Eastern communist state”, want to try and obscure the class issues that lie at the heart of the workers’ revolt – the struggle for democratic rights and social equality.

Milosevic came to power in 1989 riding on the back of reactionary Serbian nationalism and also led the charge towards capitalist restoration. Like other ex-Stalinist bureaucrats he used ethnic divisions to grab markets and resources for the Serb gangster-capitalist elite.

(Stalinism describes the former regimes of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, etc, and was characterised by the rule of a totalitarian elite resting on a nationalised, bureaucratically planned economy.)

Milosevic pushed through privatisation programmes that led to mass unemployment. Health and education and other welfare services have been devastated.

Fundamentally, it is the market economy and capitalism that has resulted in mass impoverishment and conflicts.

By getting rid of the regime, to be replaced by a right-wing coalition, the revolution has stopped short. What is required to meet working class demands is a social revolution; to abolish capitalism, to install a workers’ government, and to introduce a democratic socialist society based upon human needs not profits.