A panel dedicated to International Workers’ Day, under the title ‘Workers’ Struggles in the Balkans’, took place in Banja Luka, organised by the Marxist Organisation, Reds: the Yugoslav section of the International Marxist Tendency. For two years, the corrupt trade union leadership in Bosnia and Herzegovina, pressured by the ruling criminal political elites, have refused to even take part in the symbolic Workers’ Day action. We decided that this date was a good occasion to talk about the position of the working class, which is being subject to increased exploitation thanks to the anti-worker labour regulations and corrupt unions.
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In addition to that, the working class is being beaten by economic crisis produced by the capitalists and their servants in the state apparatus, under the guise of austerity. Constant and increasingly fierce attacks on the living standards of workers and peasants are not carried out without a response – workers’ rebellions are happening more often and are getting more radical. Also, the panel offered a broader, internationalist perspective on the workers’ struggles in the Balkans, as well as an insight into the way that the working class of the Balkans is fragmented by the small nation-states. The audience, numbering around 40 people, was addressed by speakers from Reds from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Macedonia, alongside guests from Vienna and Zagreb.
Dejan Lutovski from Bitola, a member of the Macedonian branch of Reds, talked about the living standards of the Macedonian working class, pointing out that although the market basket in Macedonia is just over 500 euros, the minimum wage is 200 euros. Around 30 percent of the population is considered poor. Lutovski talked about the strikes that take place frequently, even though bourgeois propaganda spreads lies that ‘the workers and the working class do not exist’. He mentioned the strikes carried out by UPOZ (the union of administrative workers), which took place in 2000 and 2016, that lasted 82 and 60 days, respectively. Strikers managed to win some additional rights such as the right to hot meal allowances and transportation to their workplaces, as well as a 35 percent wage increase.
The same thing happened with employees in the education sector, who organised strikes multiple times, fighting for increases in wages. One of the topics discussed was the situation the workers find themselves in after the bankruptcy of the companies they worked for. Without exception, they have been cheated by the government, which did nothing to help them.
Lutovski also mentioned the 2015 uprising of the precarious workers, which was of special importance. The strike was a result of the government’s decision to impose new taxes on workers. Comrades who are now members of the Macedonian branch of Reds took part in that struggle. Lutovski finished his talk by examining the extreme exploitation of workers employed in foreign companies. Foreign companies are heavily subsidised by the state and tax-exempt, while the workers toil for miniscule wages, have no right to create unions and all the profit extracted from them is taken out of the country.
Class struggle and anti-Vučić protests in Serbia
Uroš Milivojević from the Belgrade branch of Reds based his talk on a few anti-system protests, which took part in Serbia during the last few years. In 2011 and 2014, there were some student protests and blockades. In 2016, the Don’t Drown Belgrade movement was founded, which fights against gentrification and the construction of the Belgrade Waterfront. After the presidential elections in April 2017, won by Aleksandar Vučić, there was a series of Against Dictatorship protests, which the opposition did not succeed in co-opting and were easily shunned away. During 2017, the movement continued, with a series of workers’ protests - from educational workers to postal workers. Furthermore, there were strikes in the companies owned by foreign capital, such as the strike of the FIAT workers in Kragujevac (see: here and here), and the workers of Gorenje in Valjevo. In 2018, the fight against mini hydroelectric power plants started and culminated with a large-scale protest in Belgrade in February. In late 2018 and early 2019, the opposition started their protests under the name of 1 of 5 Million. Reds took part in this protest alongside other left-wing organisations, working together as the Left Bloc, which fought for social issues such as workplace safety, moratoria on evictions, stopping privatisations, and secure and stable jobs for everyone. The bourgeois opposition, which did not dare to show its real face, tried to silence and sabotage the Left Bloc with various attacks. The Bloc took part in the protests until the opposition put forward its Treaty With the People. Unfortunately, the opposition’s demands did not offer any solutions and the Left Bloc abandoned the movement, while the protests faded out with time.
Justice for David and strikes in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Dejan Prodanović, from the Banja Luka branch turned attention to the Justice for David movement, the most recent, massive movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the rebellion of Tuzla in 2014. The movement was a pain in the neck of the regime in the Srpska Republic for nine months. The difference between these two rebellions is that the Justice for David is not a typical workers’ protest. While the rebellion in Tuzla was a movement of workers from decaying industries in central Bosnia, the Justice for David movement was marked by its class heterogeneity. It attracted the attention of different layers of society, from the petty-bourgeoisie and middle class, to students and workers.
The movement showed two important things. Firstly, it broke the liberal illusions of just leadership from the government, which would step up and implement the law fairly. These illusions vanished quickly after the public realised that there was no hope of solving the case of David’s death or finding out who was responsible for sweeping things under the rug, even after a year. Secondly, the movement became a focal point that brought to the surface dissatisfaction, class instinct, yearning for justice and an anti-establishment mood. During the meetings at the Krajina Square, David’s parents often gave speeches against the regime and the tycoons.
Besides that, the movement crossed the national divisions and linked itself with the Justice for Dženan movement from Sarajevo. These and similar events are things Marxists must pay attention to and give political articulation in the future.
Furthermore, there were a number of strikes in the last few years. During 2017, there were a few strikes of the railway workers, which pointed to bad management and demanded their rights be respected. At the beginning of 2018, the workers from the iron mill in Tuzla went on strike because of the consequence of bankruptcy: 13 cases of unpaid wages, unpaid severance pay, and bridging of service periods. Over 150 workers blocked the town and the main roads on a few occasions, and only after these radical actions and confrontations with the police did the government of the Federation promise to fulfil their demands. Following a meeting with the canton’s prime minister, a document of agreement was signed.
The most recent strike was in the mine in Banovići, where around 100 miners stopped working and blocked a railway, prompted by terrible working conditions and decreasing wages. The miners had three demands: revision of the most recent wage, its increase, and an increase in hot meal allowances. The government reacted to the railroad blockade by sending the police and by trying to engage in political broking with the workers.
The government of Bosnia and Herzegovina usually reacts to mass movements and strikes by fulfiling certain demands on one hand, while on the other hand spreads propaganda that paints workers’ struggles as attempts to tear down the state. If it does not succeed in that, the government sends its repressive apparatus, which fully unveils the criminal character of the system. The corrupt union leadership and the isolation of struggles stresses the importance of solidarity and political articulation through a workers’ party, since the importance of strikes transcends the current demands and influences the consciousness of the masses, which become aware of their role as a class.
Workers' struggle in Croatia
Luka Resanović, the editor of the Workers’ Portal (“Radnički portal”) from Croatia talked about the aim of starting the portal back in 2016, the way it functions and some current examples of workers’ struggles in Croatia during the last few years (see also here). He stressed the need to connect and organise the workers in a social fight against the capitalist system as the portal’s aim. He also mentioned that the portal places importance on the public promotion of workers’ interests inside of the liberal (bourgeois) media space, which ignores them or tries to take advantage of them, as well as politicising the workers’ question.
He briefly described the portal’s modus operandi, which ranges from reporting on working conditions in various companies (via workers and militant unionists) to active participation in workers’ actions and strikes, publishing workers’ letters and writing socio-political analyses, as well as organising panels and roundtables (for example, about the court ban on the strike in Croatia Airlines, and the 170th anniversary of the publishing of the Communist Manifesto). As examples of workers' struggles in Croatia, he listed the founding of workers’ committees as autonomous bodies in which workers try to coordinate their actions and objectives, and in doing so transcend the disunity of the unions and inefficiency and opportunism within them. He also talked about offensive strikes, which the capitalist state wanted to stomp out with court bans. Resanović mentioned a situation in which a corrupted union, PPDIV, sued the portal because of an article in which they described the increased exploitation of workers employed in a poultry farm industry, committed by the company management as well as the union.
Austrian imperialism and the Balkans
Below, we provide a transcript of the speech by Emmanuel Tomaselli, a leading member of Der Funke, our sister organisation and the Austrian section of the IMT, which deals with the influence of Austrian imperialism in the Balkans, through mostly financial capital.
Dear comrades, good evening. I am very happy to speak here in Banja Luka, and with great interest I listened to the contributions of the co-speakers here on the platform who talk about the workers' struggles in the Balkans.
And listening to these important contributions I now better understand my role here. I am supposed to represent the bad guy, because I am from Wien, or Becs as you call it, so I am supposed to be the representative of Austrian imperialism in this room.
But I fully reject this role, because it is not true. What is true is that, as a member of Der Funke, the Austrian section of the IMT, I am the expression of the most conscious political force of the labour movement in Austria. And this includes a clear understanding of and opposition to the role and the crimes of Austrian imperialism throughout history, up until now, in the Balkans.
The objective of the Austrian bourgeoisie was the destruction of Yugoslavia, as soon as they saw a possibility to achieve this. They took an active part in the reintroduction of capitalism, to create small statelets open to their control and penetration. They gave all kinds of support to all the local reactionaries, nationalists and war mongers to achieve this goal. All these policies were concentrated in the then foreign minister Alois Mock.
They were drunk with success when Slovenia split out of the Yugoslav Federation, and the liberal paper Der Standard even raised the perspective of integrating the newly independent Slovenia as the tenth federal region of Austria.
Obviously, this direct rule was a miscalculation by the capitalists, although we must not forget that, when it comes to Bosnia Herzegovina, it is not far from the truth. In the Dayton Agreement, they cobbled together a fully dysfunctional state, which has not even got formal independent status. Its so-called High Representative, Valentin Inztko is an Austrian, who made his career as a political-cultural representative of the Slovenian Minority in Austria. So, he is a long-standing specialist in the ethno-business and brings this art to the highest standard in Bosnia. Also, we must not lose sight of the fact that Bosnia is occupied by a foreign military power, the EUFOR, and its main troops are Austrian.
But obviously the main form of domination and exploitation is investment, or as Lenin named it, “export of capital”.
The result back in Austria is a blown-up banking sector, whose equity is bigger than the gross national product. The equity of the biggest bank, the Raiffeisen Bank – which is very familiar to you – is 140 billion euros: close to 40 percent of the country's GDP. In the last year, the profits of the bank reached an historical record of 1.27 billion euros (after taxes). Eastern Europe, (mainly Russia) contributed more than half of the profit, and the Balkans 452 million euros, more than a third.
These figures show how the destinies of our working classes are connected. Before the crisis, 59 percent of the profits listed in the ATX index of the Viennese stock exchange were made in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. This import of wealth squeezed out from the new markets has been a central part of the social stability in Austria.
Since the crisis of 2008, the government made three initiatives to save the banks from bankruptcies. First, an umbrella without limit to guarantee the equity of all banks in autumn 2008, which, by the way, was an all-party decision of the parliament. So, they decided to establish socialism for capitalists: “we guarantee all your wealth.” Just as a side note: this law was written by bankers themselves, and the Members of Parliament had to wait in the house until they had finished writing it, which then was accepted by all the MPs without debate or even reading it. Then they gave the balers money to stabilise their accounts. Then, the then-finance minister drew up an international fund called “Donauinitiative” to stabilise the Austrian banks even more on an international level.
Three banks still went bust, and who pays the bill? You can guess, it’s not the shareholders, but the taxpayers! This account is not closed yet, and by now we stand at about 10 billion euros of taxpayer money handed out to the bust investors.
One of these bust banks, the Hypo Alpen Adria should surely be known by some of you. This institute in itself is the best example of the reactionary role of capitalist restoration on the Balkans. It financed war criminals in Croatia and was bound tightly to the reactionary Croat oligarchy. In the bank’s bankruptcy agreement, you could see how they shifted from financing the war to financing luxury estates on the Dalmatian coast and all kinds of luxury vehicles, from yachts to cars. And, obviously, scrap metal. For example, hundreds of ancient tractors from Macedonia to Slovenia, many of which lack tyres. This scrap was labelled as “investments”, but this was just a cover for money laundering.
And this is – up until now – an important business model: money laundering for the local oligarchies. Just recently, such a scandal was revealed with the so-called Ukio leaks, which links Raiffeisen to the black money of Ukrainian oligarch Poroschenko, who, as we all know, is the defender of western values against Russia.
For this heavy penetration of Austrian capital into the Balkans, our destinies are linked to each other. For the bourgeoisie, this means they are very sensitive to anything that happens on the Balkans. At the moment, these people are worried about the following factors:
The anti-Vučić movement in Serbia, which we know thanks to the excellent article by Reds, perhaps is not so much of a problem.
The ongoing border disputes between Serbia and Kosovo, where the EU is split and the Albanian rulers are trying to bring back the Americans into the game.
The impossibility of solving the situation in Bosnia: the impossibility of forming a government in the Federation.
Then there is something funny. The bourgeoisie in Europe are getting worried about “imperialist interference” in the region. What do they mean by that? China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Russia. Yes, because in the eyes of European imperialism, the Balkans naturally tend to be integrated into the European Union. Now, after promoting the wars and splits, they want to unite the Balkans into one market: the European market. They feel they need to teach the statelets to find civilised manners to live together in mutual respect of all the different nationalities, or rather, ethnicities as they prefer to call the rich culture of the Balkans. And obviously “good governance”: there can be no corruption! But now there are more powers displacing on the Balkans, and they are very worried, mainly by the activities of Chinese imperialism, which is increasing its market share in the Balkans. The last example of this is building the EU-financed bridge to Peljesac by a Chinese corporation. The dominant construction company in Croatia's infrastructure up until now is STRABAG, which is owned by an Austrian tycoon, who unsuccessfully went to court to squeeze out this new competitor.
And finally, and above all, we have a joint responsibility to make this new development the main problem for imperialism: workers’ struggle. In Bosnia and Serbia, a new maquiladora industry is being established, exploiting the low wages in the region for maximum profit. In Bosnia alone, there are 200 Austrian companies squeezing workers with low wages, which are three-to-four-times lower than in Austria. They speak now of a “lack of a skilled workforce in the region”, which in their language means nothing more than people refusing to work for these low wages any more. This new emboldening of the working class, which after years of splitting and decline is re-concentrated in modern factories, where they are highly exploited and poorly paid, is worrying to the ruling class. And it is true, there are a number of strikes here, which are highly effective and very spontaneous in their character.
We must understand that all of the problems mentioned: the unsolved national questions, imperialist scrambles, movements like “Justice for David” and workers’ struggles take place while there is still a boom in the world economy. A boom that is necessarily coming to end, which will sharpen all the contradictions, also in the Balkans.
Comrades, we advocate a joint struggle of the working class as the only way out of this situation. The Austrian workers are not your enemies. We too are highly exploited and work long hours. And our class in Vienna and all the other regions is a true mix of migrants of different generations, living together with common interests. This is a fact that the bourgeois class obviously constantly hides, as it tries to create racist and nationalist tensions.
We should be aware that imperialism rules not in the abstract but in symbiosis with your local oligarchies. These bastards create nationalist and religious tensions, and pretend to preserve the interests of “their” nations against the other. But this is a total lie. On the weekends, I can see them in Vienna, in their black SUVs, and they waste all the wealth they squeeze out of you on luxury restaurants and jewellery and brothels and nice private schools for their kids. Some of them even buy castles in Austria. And they never come to working-class neighbourhoods, where migrant workers also live. They only mix with the bourgeoisie in the rich places and districts. Sometimes, they also bring their gunmen and shoot one another down in these posh areas. Obviously, this is not the worst thing in the world, but we know that they will not completely kill themselves, the parasite class that they are.
Comrades, I invite you to challenge everything I said here. But if you agree with me, I propose that you join the IMT and fight with us for the re-establishment of a socialist Yugoslavia as part of the Federation of the Socialist States of Europe.