Why Marxists oppose both Milosevic and the "opposition" in Serbia

The press in the West have been highlighting the opposition movement that has been developing in Serbia. They have been announcing the imminent fall of Milosevic ever since the ending of NATO's bombing campaign. Ted Grant and Fred Weston analyse this "opposition" and outline the position of Marxists.

The press in the West have been highlighting the opposition movement that has been developing in Serbia. They have been announcing the imminent fall of Milosevic ever since the ending of NATO's bombing campaign. Thus on 4th August The Guardian published an article under the headline 'Campaign to oust Milosevic gathers pace'. The television reporting has been particularly insisting on this angle. But when one looks at the real situation on the ground one gets a completely different picture.

According to opinion polls over 70% of the Serb population would like to see Milosevic go, but at the same time over 40% don't trust the opposition movement. The problem in Serbia is that the working class does not have its own political voice. Thus the struggle between the Milosevic regime and the opposition is between two capitalist camps. They all agree on one thing: that the economy should be privatised. What they don't agree on is how it should be privatised and who should rake in the benefits.

Milosevic clearly wants to make sure that it is his own clique that consolidates its control over the privatised economy. The opposition leaders represent a more pro-western bourgeois point of view. They want "reforms", i.e. privatisation, at a faster pace, and they want to open the road to their western backers. Neither road will offer a solution to the workers and youth of Serbia. In both cases the masses will suffer as the wealth they produce with their labour is robbed by the developing bourgeois class and ex-Stalinist bureaucrats.

To understand the situation better we must first look at what is happening in the Serbian economy. The economy was already in dire straits before NATO's bombing campaign. Now it is disastrous. According to Jane's defence publications more than 62% of Serbia's transport system, 70% of its power stations and 80% of its oil refining capacity were destroyed during the bombing campaign. Economic output in Serbia is now half what it was ten years ago. In the same period average monthly income has fallen from about £400 to about £70, with a drop of about 40% in the past period. Many workers haven't been paid their salaries or pensions since March. Back in 1993 the savings of many families had already been wiped out by a 700 million per cent inflation rate!

There has been a chronic lack of investment. The infrastructure of the economy has been deteriorating as a consequence. Before the bombing unemployment was officially 25%. The destruction caused by NATO bombing has probably doubled that figure now. Trade sanctions imposed from the West have not helped the situation. All they have achieved is to further criminalise the economy, with the Mafia elements making a lot of money through smuggling. The Mafia in fact supports Milosevic.

Throughout this period Milosevic and the gangster clique around him have been carrying out their own privatisation programme. An example was the privatisation of Serbia's state-owned telecommunications company in 1997 when Telecom Italia and OTE of Greece paid about $1bn to buy up a 49 per cent stake. In 1998 the large Beocin Cement Factory was sold to French and British investors. The Pancevo Petrochemical Industry was evaluated at a billion German marks and was preparing to go onto the London stock exchange before the bombing started. The state run sugar refineries were also sold off to foreign investors.

Many of Milosevic's clique have managed to become property owners in this process and transform themselves into capitalists. They do not have the interests of the Serb workers at heart but their own lust for wealth, power and privileges.

But what is the programme of the opposition? And is it a viable alternative? The opposition is riven with divisions. They cannot even reach an agreement on who is to speak at their rallies and in which order the speakers are to appear. They have also partially been put to the test in the municipalities they have controlled in the past period. There they have suffered a disastrous series of power struggles and corruption scandals.

The opposition has one thing which unites it, however, and that is the desire to bring to power a government which would speed up the process of privatisation. Their demand is for Milosevic to step down and to be replaced by a transitional government of technocrats. As The Guardian (4th August) pointed out, "the transitional government would have a one-year mandate. Its prime minister would have two deputies, one with special responsibility for economic reform." That is stating quite clearly what they are aiming at.

The creation of such a government is one of the central planks of the so-called "pact for the stability of Serbia". This is a document drawn up by a group of economists in Serbia, which is an attempt to accommodate to the demands of the regional stability pact drawn up by western imperialism. Western imperialism is excluding Serbia from this pact and is supporting the opposition in Serbia in its attempt to remove Milosevic. In this sense the opposition leaders are mere stooges of western imperialism.

In referring to the "stability pact" an article published in Le Monde Diplomatique (July 1999) explains the essence of this project: "The pact is basically designed to introduce market mechanisms wherever possible, and it is a fair bet that many of the Balkan states are going to find this kind of reconstruction just as painful as the war." There you have it! The process by which the bulk of the economy of the Balkans, and in particular of Serbia, is to be privatised will be a very painful one for the masses.

Mass privatisation will involve further increases in the already high levels of unemployment. It will involve the destruction of what little is left of the old welfare guarantees provided by the previous regime based on state controlled economic planning. That is why Marxists can give absolutely no support to the opposition movement in Serbia. This is not because we have any illusions in Milosevic. Milosevic is also an enemy of the working people. Both camps are out to make the workers pay. The opposition hides behind its camouflage of "democracy", but in reality it defends the interests of world capitalism, not renowned for its democratic credentials when it comes to defending its fundamental economic interests.

Western imperialism has been promising money to rebuild the economy of the ex-Yugoslavia and of the whole of the Balkans. It has specifically excluded Serbia from this project. They demand that Milosevic must go before any investment is provided. That is one of the planks of the opposition's propaganda. But apart from the devastating effects of further privatisation in Serbia, would the investment be forthcoming if Milosevic resigned and would it have the desired effect of alleviating the terrible economic suffering of the Serb masses?

In order to rebuild the economy of the Balkans Serbia has to be a part of the process. It is in a strategic position. Most of the transport system goes through Serbia. Bulgaria, Rumania and Macedonia send most of their exports to western Europe through Serbia, in particular along the Danube river and across its bridges. The Danube was blocked by the bombing of the bridges. These must be rebuilt if the economy of the Balkans is to start functioning properly again. Back in June the European Commission had calculated that at least $20 billion would be needed to launch the so-called "stability pact".

But will they pay up? An article published on the BBC's web site on July 29th gives an eloquent answer. It shows clearly how no hope can be placed in the imperialist powers for a genuine development of the economy of the Balkans. The fact that it is published by the BBC is significant, especially if we remember its anti-Serb propaganda during the bombing campaign. The article was written by Dr Jonathan Eyal, Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. In it we read the following:

"With a series of highly-publicised diplomatic summits, the task of reconstructing the Balkans in the aftermath of the Kosovo war is about to be launched. Ostensibly, the omens are good. Over $2bn has already been pledged for rebuilding the infrastructure of Kosovo. An additional $300m has been earmarked by the European Union as aid to Yugoslavia's neighbours - countries whose economies were badly affected by Nato's campaign. Nor are the pledges purely financial. Western governments are also promoting a new "stability pact" for the Balkans... This series of binding treaties between the countries of the region is intended to ensure local co-operation and eventual integration into Europe's wider institutions. The good intentions of those promoting these schemes cannot be doubted. For the first time since the World War Two, the Balkans are the focus of world-wide attention..."

"There is also widespread acknowledgement that preventing future crises in Europe's most incandescent hotspot requires genuine and long-term attention. But when the heads of states and governments depart after their summits and the pledges need to be transformed into actual payments, the Balkans will be confronted with a more mundane reality. The vast sums of money promised at the height of the Kosovo conflict are unlikely to materialise, and many of the treaties currently negotiated as part of the "stability pact" are basically irrelevant. Throughout the Kosovo campaign, Nato promised a new Marshall Plan for the Balkans, reminiscent of the effort made at the end of World War II in reconstructing Europe. Such talk produced good headlines in the media, but remains misconceived."

The author then goes on to say, "Finally, there is the question of the resources being made available... the Union itself suffers from a $5bn deficit in this year's budget as a result of financial reforms which have nothing to do with the Balkans. EU governments have decided that no further funding will be made available. As a result, regional reconstruction efforts will be funded out of existing allocations, plus a diversion of funds from the EU's aid budget to Third World countries and any specific contributions made available by other donor states. To date, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has received only $160m out of a total of $400m budgeted for the return of Kosovo's population. If the contributions have not been forthcoming for what is the most urgent task, it is difficult to see how they will be made available for longer-term projects...Nor is this just the start of a cash avalanche: the US has served notice that its current shopping contribution of $500m is the top ceiling of its largesse, rather than merely a foretaste of future donations."

This is quite clear: the peoples of the Balkans can expect no real help from the imperialist powers. What they can expect is a race for lucrative contacts from western companies. As the same Dr Eyal points out in his article: "...behind the diplomatic smokescreen a huge battle is now developing between Western governments, all of whom are eager to secure lucrative contracts for their own companies."

When it comes to analysing the restructuring of the Balkans' economy Dr Eyal says: "All the region's states suffer from similar problems: relatively large agricultural sectors, redundant industrial capacity, a surplus of labour and a decaying infrastructure. Not only do they have little to offer each other, but they actually compete with each other for the same Western capital resources."

And he concludes thus: "The goodwill of the leaders gathering in the Balkans this week is not in doubt. But their methods and long-term commitments are. Western democracies have always been better at rising to the immediate challenge of a war, rather than dealing with the often tedious and interminable details required in order to consolidate peace."

This is the true picture of so-called "aid" from the West, whether Milosevic is in power or not. Thus the opposition in Serbia is fooling the masses with its promises of investment from the West. The investments that will be made will be only for the benefit of western capitalist companies. A few pro-capitalist stooges in Serbia will also benefit, but the masses will see no benefit.

What happened in Bosnia shows what would happen in Serbia. In 1995 the West promised $5.1bn in aid funds for Bosnia. $4bn were actually provided. Of these up to $1bn are thought to have been embezzled by corrupt officials from all three ethnic groups (Serbs, Croats and Muslims). Thus while the masses suffer on all sides a privileged elite reaps the benefits.

That is why Marxists can give no support to the capitalist opposition in Serbia. It is our duty to expose the real nature of their intentions. At the same time as we cannot support this opposition in any way, we also have to note that it is divided and in reality very weak. Its strength comes more from the hatred of the masses for the Milosevic regime than from some inner force of its own. This is revealed by the fact that they do not want Milosevic to be overthrown by the masses but through the intervention of people within the state apparatus, army officers, police, and breakaway elements from the Milosevic regime itself.

According to the Italian newspaper, Il Manifesto (5.8.99), Draskovic is not even opposed to having leading figures of Milosevic's Socialist Party in a future transitional government. With this he hopes to give it the character of a "government of national unity". This in itself reveals that there is a common thread running through both the opposition and the Milosevic regime. As we said before, they are both in favour of so-called market reforms, i.e. a return to capitalism.

Lamberto Dini, ex-director of the Bank of Italy, ex-Prime Minister of Italy, and presently the Minister of Foreign Affairs, has stated quite clearly that what is needed in Serbia is a "smooth democratic evolution". And as Il Manifesto pointed out, "Thus, no violence on the streets. And room for the 'liberal' reforms of his banker friend Avramovic."

In one of their latest updates the Intelligence agency, Stratfor, pointed out that, "The Yugoslav opposition admitted that it is powerless to unseat Milosevic without the participation of at least part of Yugoslavia's security apparatus." (August 18, 1999)

The opposition called a demonstration for 19th August. This had been previously called off because the organisers were not convinced that there would be a big enough turnout. They finally went ahead on the 19th, and about 80,000 to 100,000 people turned up in Belgrade for the rally. In the build up to the rally important opposition figures were announcing they would not take part. Vuk Draskovic had announced he would not take part, only to turn up at the last minute. Draskovic had no confidence in the ability of this movement to overthrow Milosevic. He had actually been playing with the idea of a return to the government in the previous period. He then swung over to support the movement only to withdraw again. On the actual day of the demonstration he decided to turn up as he must have thought that the movement was gathering strength and he didn't want to be left out. Draskovic is an opportunist who goes wherever the wind takes him. As it turned out he was booed on the day with people shouting "Treason!" and "Vuk, go away!"

The fact is that the opposition does not have the full backing of the masses. This pro-western opposition supported Nato during the bombing campaign. This may help in explaining why they are not so popular! It was recently rumoured that the US Senate was thinking of contributing $100 million to the coffers of the opposition in Serbia. This however could prove to be counterproductive as it would show clearly that the opposition leaders are mere tools in the hands of western imperialism.

The Milosevic regime ably uses this to discredit the opposition. On 12th August the state-run TV in Serbia showed clips of Draskovic, Djindjic and other opposition leaders at the head of demonstrations back in 1996 where British and American flags were quite prominent, the flags of the two Nato powers which were most adamant in carrying out the bombing campaign against the Serb people.

And the situation in Kosovo does not help the opposition either. The Kosovo Serbs are being "ethnically cleansed" out of Kosovo and Nato is proving incapable of stopping this. The KLA is carrying out brutal attacks on what remains of the Serb population in Kosovo under what appears to be Nato support. Thus for many Serbs any politician seen as collaborating with the west would be extremely unpopular. This is revealed by Draskovic himself who has been pleading with the west to do something for the Serbs of Kosovo. Of course he has not got the interests of the Kosovo Serbs at heart, he merely understands that it could be one element which would weaken the opposition if something is not done.

The fact that Perisic, the recently deposed army chief, who has been playing with the opposition, also pulled out of the 19th August demonstration shows that he understands that an opposition in Serbia doesn't stand much of a chance if it is seen as being a stooge of the West. His perspective is one of developing Serb nationalism and he probably wishes to portray himself as a "saviour of the Serb nation" against both Milosevic and the West.

While all this is going on Milosevic still seems to have control of the police and the army. He has made sure that the police in particular have received their wages, while of course hundreds of thousands of ordinary Serb workers and pensioners have been waiting for months to receive payment.

The lack of a genuine working class and socialist alternative determines the tempo and the direction of events in Serbia. The Milosevic regime is corrupt, it is a clique of gangsters who have enriched themselves at the expense of the ordinary people. It is supported by Mafia elements. And it has even betrayed the nationalist spirit it based itself on to stay in power. After ten years of national conflict the end result for the Serb people has been the displacement of about 700,000 refugees from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Milosevic is doing nothing for these poor homeless people.

This explains the hatred for the regime. On this basis, eventually Milosevic could be displaced from power and a coalition government could be patched together. But as we have seen this will not be a solution to the problems facing the Serbian working class. The workers will learn this from their own painful experience. They will learn that they can place no hope in either Milosevic or the so-called opposition.

Inevitably the workers will begin to move as a class at a later stage. We have had a taste of what will happen in Serbia with the Tudjman regime in Croatia. Recently there has been a big strike wave and a big movement of the peasants in Croatia which has forced the regime to make concessions.

We also have to place events in Serbia within the context of the World economy and world politics. The Asian economy is heading for further crisis in the coming year. This will reduce the prospects of any hope of export-led development of the Serbian economy. Events in Russia will also have an effect. The pro-bourgeois wing of the old bureaucracy is in retreat. Sooner or later the Russian workers will go onto the offensive. We had a foretaste of this with the movement last year.

All this will have a profound effect on the consciousness of the Serb working class and will create a favourable environment for the development of the genuine ideas of socialism. The task of Marxists today in Serbia is to defend and develop the ideas of genuine Socialism and to develop a force among the working class that can show a way out of the present impasse. Marxists must take these ideas into the trade union organisations and factory committees and patiently explain to the workers of Serbia that they cannot have any illusions in capitalism.

Capitalism can offer no way out. We must return to a planned nationalised economy, but not to that over which Milosevic presided before deciding to go along the capitalist road. We have no need for privileged bureaucrats to run a socialist economy. In fact the very presence of these elements means that there is no genuine socialism. What we need is for the planned economy and the state to be under the democratic control and management of the workers themselves.

The prospect is one of 'Either - or'. Either the workers of Serbia come to power under a genuine Marxist leadership or various bourgeois formations will have the power. On this basis nationalism will emerge over and over again with new fratricidal wars among the peoples of the Balkans. It is our duty as Marxists to offer an alternative.