Serbia: Democracy or Counter-Revolution?

Events in Serbia and Croatia show that the situation in the former Yugoslavia remains completely unstable. The end of the war has brought little real improvement to the lot of the masses, but has had the effect of bringing to the fore all the accumulated contradictions in society. The mass street rallies in Belgrade and other Serb cities, and the strikes and demonstrations in Croatia, underline the unstable and crisis-ridden nature of both the Serbian and Croatian regimes. However, it is necessary to analyse these movements from a class point of view. It is not enough to oppose the existing regimes or call for their overthrow. It is necessary to ask who will overthrow them, and what kind of a regime will take their place? Our attitude to the present protest movements will be determined by the answers to these questions.

To begin with Serbia. The former Yugoslavia (now reduced to Serbia and Montenegro) in effect suffered a defeat in the war. The forces of its puppet state, the "Serb Republic of Bosnia" were smashed by the intervention of US imperialism, fighting under the banner of the UN and NATO. Serbia's main allies, the Russians, despite a lot of noise, did not lift a finger to defend them. In addition, the economic sanctions imposed by imperialism had a devastating effect on the economy of Serbia. At one stage, inflation actually reached 6% an hour. Living standards of the great majority collapsed, while a handful of speculators linked to the ruling bureaucracy of the former "Communist" Party (now renamed the "Socialist" Party) enriched themselves.

On the surface, Slobodan Milosevic has a strong position. He controls foreign policy, the army, the police force and the intelligence services. But in fact, he is a giant with feet of clay. As long as the war continued, Milosovic could maintain his hold on power by playing the card of Great Serb nationalism, leaning on the most depraved and reactionary chauvinist Chetnik elements, some with quasi-fascist tendencies, such as the Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj. But with the end of the war, which ended so badly for Serbia, the chickens have come home to roost with a vengeance. The fog of chauvinism has been quickly dispersed, as the population comes to terms with the results of the bloody and reactionary war, which left Serbia humiliated, exhausted and ruined. So bad are things that the majority of the Serb refugees from Krajina actually prefer to go back and live under Croatian rule rather than remain in the "Serb Motherland". The hardest hit are the 750,000 unemployed and 600,000 refugees from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, who are surviving on a mixture of meagre humanitarian aid, odd jobs and petty crime.

Milosevic has attempted to distance himself from the most extreme chauvinist elements. But the crisis of the regime has been shown by the emergence of splits at the top of the ruling party. Twelve months ago, Milosevic purged the Party leadership of a clique of nationalists and brought in more "orthodox" Stalinists including his wife, Mira Markovic. This move only deepened the divisions and clique rivalries in the Party. The information minister has resigned. More importantly, the Montenegran leadership has attempted to distance itself from Milosevic. Montenegro, which has 600,000 people out of a total of 10 million in the present Yugoslavia, has traditionally been the poor relation of Serbia proper (although there is hardly any linguistic or ethnic difference between them). But because of the distorting effects of the war and sanctions, Montenegro, which has a coastline and some oil, is now better off. This has led to increased tensions between the bureaucracies of Montenegro and Serbia, which might eventually even lead to a new rupture.

Salaries are still falling in real terms; the average monthly inflation rate is 8%. Banks refuse to provide loans or pay out pre-war hard currency deposits; the government is increasing its pressure on people owing back taxes. While factories have been very slow in restoring their production levels, much anticipated exports are stagnating, and the trade and payments deficit is constantly increasing. The only drop in prices was that of petrol, which was reduced from three Deutschemarks to one DM per litre. For the first time in years, many people have brought out their rusty old cars from garages and to enjoy the new-found freedom of travel.

The average monthly salary of the 2.8 million employees in FR Yugoslavia was 580 dinars in March, some 37 per cent higher than the average for November 1995. But with price rises that is a drop in real terms of 3 per cent. Expressed in hard currency, the monthly average salary is just over $100, which means that a four-member family must earn two and a half times the average wage just to pay for basic expenses, such as food, rent and utilities. The 1995 per capita income in FR Yugoslavia was less than $1,000 dollars ($1,330, according to official statistics), below even the poorest European states, such as Albania, Romania and Bulgaria.

Around one million pensioners live on the verge of poverty, because their already small pensions are often paid several months in arrears. Pension payments are both too much of a burden for the ailing economy (they took up 15 per cent of GDP last year), and too meagre for pensioners to survive. The government has recently promised to pay out all pension arrears, but this decision is more a part of the campaign for next autumn's elections than a sign of general economic improvement.

The discontent of the working class was revealed by the strikes which have occurred on and off for the last twelve months, including health workers, tractor workers and even the employees of the law courts. The most important strike was that of the big Zastava arms factory in Kragujevac last September. The workers' slogan at the beginning was "We want jobs and bread," but later became "Serbia, raise your head!" This reflects a growing understanding that the workers' problems can only be solved by a fundamental change in Serbian society. But this does not signify a counter-revolutionary trend, but quite the opposite direction, as reflected in the article "Strike at Kragujevac: the Price of Hesitation" which appeared in Economska Politika on 23rd of September 1996:

"There is a danger, and it must be said, that this worker rebellion will be described as a 'movement in the opposite direction.' Slogans like 'We are Zastava,' 'The factory is ours' and the like evoke the deep-seated view of the self-management platform. The return of the economy to self-management and Kardeljism could, if taken superficially, get the workers' demands dismissed. The fiercest slogan of self-management socialism, 'Factories to the workers!'&emdash;while it may be the highest reach of a utopia&emdash;remained with the 'energy potential which changes the world.' The destruction of socialism throughout the Eastern bloc with all its consequences was impressive enough to remove any illusion about the possibility of turning back the clock. However, the sinking to these slogans on the part of the workers in Kragujevac reveals something else: It is actually an attempt to disqualify the environment constituting the economic system and those who have declared themselves to be its custodians, in order to get on a road which leads to a definitive surmounting of the crisis."

These words are significant. The author is clearly a pro-capitalist economist, who is hostile to the workers' class slogans, which he regards as retrograde ("a movement in the opposite direction").The workers are indeed seeking a way out of the crisis, but they approach it from the class point of view of the proletariat. Behind the demand for workers' self-management ("The factory is ours") is the correct idea that the only way out of the economic chaos is by the workers taking the running of industry and society into their own hands. The very same idea was put forward by Lenin in 1917 in writings such as The Threatening Catastrophe and How to Fight it.

If a genuine Leninist party existed in Serbia, it would be possible for the workers to put themselves at the head of the movement to transform society, drawing behind them the mass of the middle class and students. But in the absence of an independent movement of the working class, the vacuum can be filled by reactionary elements who really do want to go back&emdash;to capitalism. As in Czechoslovakia and also in Russia in 1991-2, the middle class opposition can seize the initiative, establishing its own pro-capitalist agenda under the guise of "Democracy" and even dragging behind it backward layers of workers, playing on the general revulsion against Stalinism.

The main victim of the crisis is the working class, but large sections of the middle class also face ruin and impoverishment. Under the economic blockade, the entire middle class has been eradicated. The population of FR Yugoslavia can now be roughly divided between the poor and the nouveaux riches. More than a quarter of the people live below the poverty line, and around 60 per cent have a very low income, while some 15 per cent of the population have become fabulously rich, mainly through criminal dealings and war profiteering. This is undoubtedly a factor in the present protest movement. The opposition parties, which were completely isolated during the war, have taken advantage to go on the offensive. The splits in the ruling elite have encouraged them. In the words of Milan Bozic, a leading strategist of the biggest opposition party, Serbian Renewal: "Without divisions in the establishment we would have to stay in the streets forever."

There is widespread hatred of a regime that has led the Serb people to ruin. Marxists stand for the overthrow of the Milosevic clique and the corrupt bureaucratic regime it represents. But we cannot support under any circumstances a movement that, under the banner of "Democracy" actually stands for capitalist counterrevolution. What is the class nature of the movement? And what are its aims? These are the fundamental questions to be answered. The immediate issue was the rigging of the local election results on November 20th.

One of the main leaders is Vuk Draskovic, a well-known a pro-capitalist, pro-western politician. Another is Zoran Djindjic, the co-leader of the opposition coalition Zajedno ("Together"), characterised by The Economist as "a smooth academic (who) now plays down his past championship of Bosnia's bellicose Serbs and has turned his Democratic Party into a haven for would-be technocrats, including many of Serbia's saner economists." (What The Economist regards as "sane" economists are those who favour selling off the 80% of the Serb economy which remains in state hands for the benefit of the Serb Mafia capitalists and the big international monopolies.) Yet another is Dragan Djilas, who works for the Belgrade office of Saatchi and Saatchi British advertising agency with close links to the Conservative Party. On the social composition of the protest demonstrations, the same journal says:

"One of the protest movement's weaknesses is that it consists largely of people like Mr Djilas. Most rural Serbs still back Mr Milosevic, and most blue-collar workers, though disgruntled, are loth to challenge him openly for fear of losing their jobs or throwing their country into turmoil." (The Economist, 14/12/96)

The overwhelming majority of the demonstrators are students, intellectuals, professional people and the like. The working class has generally stood aside, despite their discontent and hostility to the regime. They see no real alternative. That is why Milosovic has succeeded in holding onto power. They instinctively realise that they cannot support the demand for "Democracy" raised by reactionary petit-bourgeois like Vuk Draskovic. The protests have not succeeded in attracting the support of the workers, although if the movement continues, it may drag behind it the more backward layers of the class. On the other hand, they have acted like a magnet for all the most reactionary forces in Serb society&emdash;the monarchists, the chauvinists and, of course, the Orthodox Church. But the most powerful force behind it is none of these.

Behind the radicalised Serb petit bourgeois stands world imperialism, which has played such a revolting role in the break-up of Yugoslavia and the subsequent bloody mess. Through organisms like the IMF they are attempting to pressurise and blackmail Serbia to move down the capitalist road, privatise the economy and open it up to the plundering and looting activities of the western multinationals, who&emdash;if they could get away with it&emdash; would like to go back to the position in 1941, when ninety eight per cent of the copper, lead, timber, and cement industries in Yugoslavia were owned by foreigners. In this cynical game, the students and petit bourgeois demonstrating on the streets of Belgrade are just so much cannon fodder.

Imperialist pressure

If the link between the mass of petit bourgeois protesters and world imperialism is not conscious for many of the students, it is absolutely clear to the leaders. Zoran Djindjic, appealing for the West to put pressure on Belgrade, told a German radio station: "This is at the moment probably the only thing that can make (Milosevic) move." (AFP). "EU and US flags are prominent at opposition rallies," according to one report. "which reflects popular appreciation for foreign support. The independent media closely follow foreign coverage of Serbian affairs, and opposition leaders frequently give interviews in English and German to Western media."

This attitude of the leaders reveal weakness more than anything else. There are already certain symptoms of a slackening of the numbers attending demonstrations after the Xmas holidays. It is quite possible that Milosevic is waiting for the movement to weaken, and then send in the riot police. A petit bourgeois movement normally relies on going from strength to strength, without meeting serious obstacles. If the authorities crack down hard, these students would be easily scattered. The tactic of "passive resistance" will have no effect on the riot police, mainly drawn from the peasantry, who have little sympathy with the educated town dwellers. It is therefore not surprising that Djindjic and his friends look to foreign intervention for salvation.

The West has indeed a powerful hand to play. This is probably what makes Milosevic hesitate. In the past Serbia could look to Russia as a counterweight to the pressures of imperialism. But the pro-bourgeois government of Yeltsin needs to keep on good terms with Washington and has played a shameful role in the Yugoslav conflict. In effect, Yeltsin sold out the Serbs to imperialism. Probably he would not be displeased to see the bourgeois opposition in power in Belgrade, although the Russian general staff would not be so pleased.

The pressures of imperialism on Serbia are tremendous. The lifting of sanctions has had a certain effect, but the Serb economy is still in dire straits: "Industrial output is expected to grow by 5-6% this year, thanks to the lifting of most sanctions. Real incomes may be picking up. But the semblance of well-being depends on high imports, to keep up consumption and industrial out-put and hold down inflation by providing plenty of goods and competition.

The result is a $2 billion trade deficit. How it is paid for is a mystery, but the likeliest explanation is that the government is drawing down money stashed away is places like Cyprus by quasi-state firms that exploited the economic crisis to part ordinary Serbs from their foreign-exchange savings. Serbia's rulers would rather use western taxpayers and investors to pay for the country's imports: hence their overtures to the IMF. But without an injection of $2 billion from the West next year, industrial production could drop sharply again; and inflation could jump." (The Economist, 14/12/96)

Thus, the IMF has in its hands a powerful lever to influence the direction of the Serbian economy. It is blatantly using this power to interfere in the internal political life of what is supposed to be an independent state. They have even threatened to re-impose sanctions if the Belgrade government does not capitulate to the opposition. Here it is hard to say what is more astounding&emdash;the impudence of the imperialists or their cynicism. Let us recall that the pro-bourgeois regime in Albania rigged the elections a few months ago (this was universally recognised by the "international community"). Riot police broke up protest demonstrations in Tirana, surrounded the headquarters of the Socialist Party, and beat up protesters.

One report stated that "Riot police were seen indiscriminately beating protesters, among them many women. Some of them were hauled away in vans and detained at several police stations across the capital. 'I was appalled when I saw them beating a woman with rubber batons,' an eyewitness said. 'Look what they have done to him. Take pictures, show everybody this is a dictatorship." Again: "They beat us like beasts, then drove us away to the suburbs," said one woman, "This is the democracy they have won."

Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini of Italy, the then President of the EU, said that he was "worried by events in Albania but added that it was too early to decide what to do about the situation." British and Norwegian members of a European observer mission said that the vote "did not meet international standards for free and fair elections." (in other words they were rigged). In spite of this, nothing was done about it, except the usual ritual head-shaking. The rigging of the general election in Albania was hardly mentioned in the Western media. Compare this silence with the hue and cry over the results of the local elections in Serbia, and the contrast is glaring.

Clearly, the West's concept of "Democracy" is of a relative character! When a capitalist regime rigs the polls and beats up the opposition, that is OK. But when it is a case of destroying a regime (true, a monstrously corrupt and oppressive regime) based on nationalised property forms and replacing it with a "market economy" then their righteous indignation knows no bounds!

Croatia and Bosnia

The so-called Dayton Peace Agreement has in reality solved nothing. It is merely a temporary truce, which may hold for a time, but which inevitably will break down in further wars and conflicts. The ending of hostilities, however, has meant that the underlying tensions and contradictions suppressed during the war have now come to the surface, and not only in Serbia. In recent months there has been a wave of strikes and demonstrations in Croatia.

The workers of the SZH railway union representing half the workforce on the railways staged a month long strike, starting at the end of November. About the same time, there were strikes and protests of the public sector unions demanding a 58% wage increase. The workers said that the Tudjman government had "devastated Croatian education, science and culture," and demanded that the ratification of the state budget be postponed until agreement on wages for the public sector workers be settled.

On the 23rd of November, some 15,000 pensioners staged a rally in Zagreb Sports Centre to protest against low pensions. Moreover, the protests have not been limited to economic issues, but have taken up political demands. The Croatian authorities announced on 20 November that they would not renew the license of the popular Radio 101&emdash; probably the only independent station there that deals with news and politics as well as broadcasting rock music. Thousands of people staged a protest rally in which opposition politicians, journalists, and union leaders attacked the government's decision. A Croatian army captain resigned and handed in his medals in protest.

What this means is that the Croatian working class is tired of the reactionary chauvinist policies of the Tudjman clique, with its quasi-fascist Ustasha overtones. Just as in Serbia, the criminal and reactionary war has impoverished the masses in Croatia. The same is true of Bosnia. The balance-sheet of the break-up of Yugoslavia has been catastrophic for all the peoples. Thus, the slogan of "self-determination" in this concrete context has revealed itself as essentially reactionary. What a condemnation for all those allegedly "left" groups who hastened to align themselves to one or other of the belligerents! Croatian "self-determination" has turned out to be the conversion of Croatia into a client state of German imperialism. "Poor little Bosnia" under the rule of the Moslem chauvinist Izetbegovic is the creature of American imperialism. Now they want to bring Serbia under Western domination as well. In this way, nothing is left of the alleged "self-determination" for which the bloody fratricidal war was waged. and the workers and peasants are expected to pay the bill.

But the resistance is growing, and not just in Croatia and Serbia. In Bosnia too, the working class is finding its feet. Last December, there was a strike of Bosnian ex-servicemen at the building firm GP Sarajevo, protesting against poor wages and conditions. All over Bosnia-Hezogovina, tens of thousands of ex-servicemen have been demobilised under the Dayton Agreement with no prospect of work or housing. The reality of "peace" and "national independence" has turned into a nightmare. It was not for this that they fought the war! The "democratic" credentials of the Bosnian regime are hardly better than its neighbours. Nor is its attitude to the workers' movement. On 6th January, Edhem Bicakcic, the new prime minister of the Moslem-Croat Federation warned the miners that although they were free to go on strike, they were not allowed to block the movement of traffic. This indicates that they fear an increase in labour conflicts in the coming months.

Nor does the Dayton Agreement signify a definitive peace in the Balkans. Only the presence of American, French and British troops maintains a fragile settlement. Clinton is under pressure to withdraw, as agreed. But he knows that to withdraw all US troops would be to invite a fresh outbreak of hostilities. In particular, the mainly Moslem Bosnians are now well armed, and seething with discontent over what they regard with reason as an unjust settlement, made largely at their expense. Izetbegovic might well be tempted to seek an excuse to break the uneasy "alliance" with Croatia forced on him by Washington, and try to divert attention from domestic problems by launching a new offensive to regain lost territory.

The Americans have been trying desperately to get the Sarajevo government to break its links with Iran. But the Bosnian leaders understand that their "friends" in Washington can abandon them to their fate at any stage, and need a stand-by, just in case. Any hint of a US withdrawal, and they would seek arms and aid from Teheran for any adventure they had in mind. As the British and French have gained nothing from the conflict, they would not be anxious to keep their troops there without the Americans. And Germany, which has gained a sphere of influence in Croatia is not enthusiastic about sending soldiers. So the USA is stuck with the position.

The Kosovo powder-keg

In spite of everything, the situation remains very unstable, and potentially explosive. Milosevic still maintains a chauvinist position in relation to Kosovo. the province which, while theoretically part of Serbia, has a population that is 85% ethnic Albanian, and only about 10% Serb. His ploy to send Serb refugees from Krajina to Kosovo did not succeed, as, understandably, the refugees had no wish to jump out of the frying-pan into the fire.

The position of the Albanians in Kosovo is intolerable, as the following extract from War Report (Feb. 1994) shows: "Across Kosovo residents are subject to daily power cuts and water disruptions while rubbish pile up in the streets. The quality of health care in Kosovo is especially grave. Patients are even expected to bring their own medicines and bedding to the hospital. The incidence of illness is also on the increase. According to Serbian authorities, Kosovo suffered 30 outbreaks of eight different diseases last year, affecting tens of thousands of people. The death rate has risen significantly, particularly among babies and small children. This winter Kosovo has been without central heating altogether.

"And while the Serbian authorities keep Albanian schools and universities locked shut, students attend classes in private houses across the province. All teachers and professors&emdash;some 26,000 of them&emdash;are financed entirely by Kosovar Albanians. Housing, too, has been affected by the campaign of repression. In the past three years, some 500 Albanian families have been evicted from state-owned flats, and replaced by Serbs and Montenegrins. Thousands of Albanians, in violation of Serbian law, are daily refused licenses to purchase their flats. This despite the fact that all the legal formalities have been completed and the money paid out."

According to figures released by the Committee for Human Rights in Pristina, in 1993 alone, Serb authorities were responsible for having killed 15 Albanians and wounding another 14. Police searches were carried out in 2,000 Albanian flats and houses. Forty-nine Albanians were sentenced under criminal law and 62 under civil law. And 1,080 Albanians were subjected to physical torture. The remorseless pressure on the Kosovar Albanians was stepped up during the war, with the intervention of semi-fascist Serb Chetnik groups, which systematically attacked and provoked the Albanians.

It is not ruled out that Milosevic might try to get out of the crisis by engineering a provocation in Kosovo. Let us not forget that he originally came to power on this basis. Even without the deliberate intervention of Belgrade, an explosion in Kosovo is possible. It must be a great temptation for the Kosovar Albanians to take advantage of the disarray in Belgrade to move to assert their own rights. If that were to happen, the results would be incalculable. Whether on a Stalinist or a capitalist basis, the Serbian regime will never willingly allow the secession of Kosovo, which they consider to be an inalienable part of Serbia, without a fight.

In the recent period, under international pressure, and conscious of its own weakness, Albania has stated that it would not go to war over the Kosovar Albanians. But the spectacle of the mess in Serbia seems to have caused at least some of them to think again. It was reported on the 24th of December that a group of 600 Kosovar students called for tougher action against Milosevic. At the same time Sali Berisha, the President of Albania, said that if Kosovars wanted to win their rights, they could not stand idly by during the protests in Belgrade. That is, he was egging them on to take action. He called for "peaceful protests" in Kosovo (naturally, all these gentlemen are in favour of "peace"), and noted that "it is very clear that the Kosovars' problems would not be solved in Tirana, Belgrade, Washington, London or Paris, but in the very next breath he warned that "Albanians on either side of the northern border will act as a unit in the event of a war."

What all this shows is that the national problem in the Balkans cannot be solved either by Stalinism or capitalism. The collapse of Stalinism, far from improving the situation, has only made things worse, with the re-emergence of all the old Balkans demons&emdash;Greater Serbia, Greater Croatia, Greater Albania, Greater Bulgaria, Greater Greece. All this spells rivers of blood in the future unless the working class succeeds in uniting on a revolutionary, class and internationalist programme. The so-called "Peace" agreement is just a scrap of paper, a temporary pause in the hostilities which will inevitably break out again as soon as one side or the other imagines they can get the upper hand.

For a real Socialist alternative!

Milosevic is now in a difficult position. Although some of the army chiefs have said that they would not fire on the demonstrators, he still has the riot police, who are heavily armed and well paid. On the other hand, he is under the pressure of the West, which, having relaxed sanctions, can soon put them on again if Milosevic does not play their game. In the circumstances, it seems likely that he will have to cave in and open the door to the counter-revolution. Our attitude to this is quite clear. The experience of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union over the past six years shows that this would be a disaster for the Serbian workers and peasants. Our position is: No support for Milosevic, and certainly no support for the so-called "Democratic" movement which stands for capitalist counter-revolution in the former Yugoslavia. It is not democracy at all, but the Yeltsin option. It is necessary that all Socialists, Communists and workers understand this.

A particularly nauseating role is played by the right wing leaders of the international Social Democracy. Felipe Gonzalez has gone to Serbia to "investigate" the election results (he did not go to Albania, or for that matter to Croatia, where the local elections were also rigged). As always, the right wing Social democratic leaders merely echo the ideas of the imperialists, lending them a slightly "democratic" or "pacifist" tinge.

Gonzalez denounces Milosevic, but his alternative is not a democratic socialist Yugoslavia, but capitalist counter-revolution. This cannot be defended by any real Socialist. Slobodan Milosovic is a corrupt gangster who represents the interests of the Serb bureaucracy, not the working class. There is no doubt that the local elections were rigged, although exactly how many areas were actually won by the opposition is impossible to tell. We stand implacably for all democratic rights&emdash;free and fair elections, freedom of speech and assembly, the right to strike, and the rest. But we are implacably opposed to the capitalist counter-revolution in Serbia, as in Eastern Europe and Russia. We cannot support Milosovic, but neither can we support Draskovic and the other advocates of capitalist restoration who wish to hand over the Serbian people bound hand and foot to the tender mercies of international capitalism. This would be another nightmare for the working class.

If a genuine Marxist tendency existed in Serbia, it would put forward an independent class position. While fighting for all progressive democratic demands, it would link these to the demand for elected workers' committees in every factory and mine. Linked up on a national scale, the workers committees, expanded to include the elected representatives of the students, small businessmen, housewives, soldiers and farmers, would form the basis of a really democratic alternative to the corrupt rule of the bureaucracy. A real workers' democracy in Serbia, on the lines of Russia in 1917, would be a beacon to all the peoples of the former Yugoslavia, to the rest of the Balkans, to Russia, Europe and the world.

Alan Woods
London 9/1/97

[Back to In Defence of Marxism] [Back to Europe]