Serbia, eyewitnesses of the events during the overthrow of Milosevic

Two correspondants from Belgrade provided us with an almost day-to-day account of last week's events in Serbia. These accounts show clearly how the intervention of the working class was decisive in toppling the old regime. What is also clear is the attempt on the part of both the old regime and the "opposition" to curb the spontaneity of the masses.

Two correspondants from Belgrade provided us with an almost day-to-day account of last week's events in Serbia. These accounts show clearly how the intervention of the working class was decisive in toppling the old regime. What is also clear is the attempt on the part of both the old regime and the "opposition" to curb the spontaneity of the masses.


Dear Comrades,

As you probably can see on your TV screens, the situation has became very radical. The opposition (DOS) claims that the police and some other vital parts of the regime have collapsed. This is true of the Belgrade city police. DOS (the opposition) is now organising the constitution of a new Federal Parliament, and I think that it is going to be a decisive moment.

The army is still standing neutral, but some of its units were on the streets of Belgrade. If the opposition persuades the top officers to give it support, it could be the end of Milosevic's regime. The moment in which he won't be able to reverse the situation even if he tries to use the most brutal methods seems to be close.

Comradely,
D. Belgrade, 2.10.00

Dear Comrades,

Special units of the police (most loyal to Milosevic) in the state TV did have orders to shoot, and they fired a few rounds. But immediately after that they disobeyed.

The state run TV, although it did switch sides, still uses the same propaganda methods (celebrating Kostunica instead of Milosevic), and the people disapprove of this. The same goes for the newspapers.

The media reported that Milosevic and Kostunica met last night. Kostunica also met with head of the army, general Pavkovic. This came after direct and indirect promises of Kostunica that there would be "no retaliation".

In my opinion, both DOS (the opposition) and the old regime made great efforts to retain control over events, and to pacify the masses as soon as possible, fearing their spontaneity. For example, immediately after DOS gained control over first TV station, they urged people not to take weapons from undefended police stations.

Comradely,
D. Belgrade, 6.10.00

Yugoslavia: the day the people took over

Dear comrades,

Revolutionary greetings from Yugoslavia. I hope this text (below) will help shed some new light on the recent events in my country.

G.M.
Belgrade, 9.10.00

From the early morning hours one could hear the sounds of numerous horns coming from cars, trucks and buses pouring into downtown Belgrade from each highway. Licence plates revealed that people had gathered from all over the country. Besides national symbols and anti-Milosevic slogans many of them proudly waved their trade union flags. Word on the street was that they came to the capital in order to finish up what they had started a few days earlier when most of the factories in Serbia were shut down and a general strike was announced.

Residents were on their windows and balconies saluting the incoming vehicles. Around this time huge groups of people started to arrive on foot from various suburbs and neighbourhoods. Belgrade didn't welcome them "at it's best" because most of the janitors and trash collectors had also been on strike for days and most of the shops were closed too.

When I got downtown, around noon, the city streets were already jam-packed and the atmosphere was electrified. People were passing food and drinks out of their trunks. They said that they were ready to camp in the streets as long as it took and that they wouldn't go back home until "the man" resigned. A few came armed with bars and clubs. It was clear that Milosevic wasn't ready to give up power that easy, at least not without a fight. Some people ran through with red eyes reporting that the police was "easy on the tear gas trigger" and that a few smaller incidents had already taken place in various locations around the city.

The main gathering place was organised by the opposition leaders in front of the state parliament. Mass protests on the streets of Belgrade are not a new sight, however the author of these lines had never witnessed before such a huge and heterogeneous crowd. Students, teachers, different trade unions, all of them marched separately through the city and in the end met in front of the parliament.

Each square was covered with people and you could see heavy trucks, buses and even bulldozers parked all around serving as perfect roadblocks. "It's now or never" was the phrase often repeated among the excited mass or "we're going all the way!". This was the general sentiment that afternoon.

Nobody dares to give an official estimate of the number of the people present downtown, but more than half a million were definitely there. However, I could have begun this saga with what had happened the day before and not made a mistake, because the first barrier wasn't broken in Belgrade, but miles away in a "Kolubara" mining complex.

Protest gatherings throughout the country and Belgrade started some week ago as soon as the shady official election results were published, but this was a deja-vu in many ways. Just like in 1996 (when the establishment was forced to admit the opposition victory in local council elections) people flowed into the squares in all the big cities across the country, demanding justice and calling for all-out civil disobedience.

However, this call was limited to certain social layers. Middle class professionals and the student movement were traditionally at the core of these events. Local small businesses, cinemas, theatres, schools and universities responded to the opposition calls and went on strike immediately, but industry had always remained untouched by these movements. Partly due to the openly elitist and anti-worker politics of the opposition leaders and mainly because of the manipulation of the unions controlled by Milosevic's Socialist Party through the union bureaucracy, big waves of strikes hadn't been seen in the last ten years.

This time things went further, much further. The turning point happened a few months ago, long before the elections, in the place where the class struggle had been at the highest level for years now, Kosovo. Under the weak excuse that it's destroying the environment some 900 KFOR "peacekeeping" commandos with the help of tanks and helicopters seized the lead-smelting plant in southern Kosovo. Workers refused to go back to work and decided to picket the plant. This event hit Serbia as big news and the establishment couldn't afford to ignore it. They gave the workers support (only in words of course) and the strike had it's place in prime time on national TV.

So, this time, after the election results were published, the wave of strikes went deeper than anyone could have imagined. By mid-week , fewer than 100 factories were working across the state. It started with public transport and garbage collectors and culminated in the country's most important coal mines in the Kolubara district. This particular strike threatened to leave half of the country without electricity. Police squads surrounded the plant immediately and tremendous propaganda was used against them; the plant was threatened with lay-offs. Despite these pressures the workers resisted, refused to negotiate and demanded that the opposition leaders address them personally. On Wednesday evening a bus with one opposition spokesperson managed to break through the police roadblock and go inside the plant, and by Thursday morning the miners were on their way to Belgrade to put the final nail in Milosevic's coffin. Kolubara miners were just the most notable example, but this pattern was repeated by workers all over the state. As I noted earlier Belgrade was filled with heavy machinery and people who were confident and determined to go "all the way".

Indeed it's really hard to explain everything that was happening that chaotic afternoon. To a casual observer it might appear that the people had "gone mad" and many people will tell you that they witnessed "anarchy", but as Trotsky pointed out a long tome ago: "Revolution appears to a conservative as collective madness only because it raises the normal insanity of social contradictions to the highest possible tension".

It is exactly thanks to this "insane majority" that history keeps moving forward. It is exactly because of these half a million "lunatics" that we got rid of the parasitic bureaucracy that had been on our backs for decades. Anyway, I'll try to describe what I saw (or what could be seen through the tear gas clouds).

By 2 p.m. hundreds of thousands of people had already gathered in the area around the state parliament. Opposition leaders held speeches and decided to give Milosevic a 60 minutes deadline by which he had to resign. The biggest mistake, however, would be to believe that the organisers had some kind of absolute influence, power or control over the crowd.

Everything that happened that day grew directly out of the general atmosphere and the initiative came from the people. Opposition leaders got "caught off guard" and were pretty hesitant and got left behind in the beginning. The masses probably made them go further than they imagined in their wildest dreams. Around 3pm the crowd ran out of patience. Surprisingly, the police road-block at the front of the parliament was not that massive. This encouraged the crowd and the first wave occupied the main staircase. After a short fight with the cops the staircase was won.

This symbolic act released cries of support and cheering from the masses. People climbed the stairs and started to celebrate vigorously waving their flags and chanting. However this turned out to be a trap. All of a sudden tear gas bombs started to fall on the staircase and into the crowd from all directions. The police obviously had agent provocateurs inside the crowd and strategically placed people on the rooftops of local buildings "showering" the crowd with tear gas.

At that moment all hell broke loose. So much tear gas was released that you could see a huge cloud of smoke rising from other parts of the city. People were crying and coughing all over Belgrade. The crowd was chased away from the staircase and the people were outraged. People could be heard shouting "They are trying to suffocate us all!"

If the crowd had come angry, by this time it was already raving mad. A second wave took charge. What had been expected the whole day finally took place. The crowd split into a dozen smaller groups and dispersed all around the parliament and across the area. The police also scattered and abandoned their positions and vehicles.

Nothing could stop the sea of people. Police cars were put on fire and now nothing stood between the protesters and the parliament. You could see individuals climbing and entering the building through smashed windows. While one part of the protesters was entering the building others organised in a split second. Arming themselves with police equipment that they had taken from the police, and also with clubs and shields made from the parliament furniture, many chanted "RTS, RTS!" (Radio Television of Serbia, the much hated national television building controlled by Milosevic) signalling that this was the next target located nearby. All along a rain of smoke bombs was falling all around.

From this point on people organised spontaneously and took over crucial buildings. Most "private" TV stations and newspaper s that were also controlled by the regime were freed without much trouble. Local apparatchiks and "program directors" started to "abandon ship" like rats before the flood. Many of them got caught in front of these buildings and were beaten. "Get out, Get out!", demanded the crowd. They were helped by the staff inside these buildings that refused to take orders and joined the protesters. National Television was guarded by the police for a short period of time, after which they scattered. Many of them took off their uniforms and joined the masses, others desperately tried to stop the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets (real shoot-outs were also reported).

With the help of a bulldozer the Television studios building entrance was pushed through and soon enough the whole building was in flames. The parliament was also set on fire and people kept coming out with "souvenirs". People seated themselves in the "ministers' sofas" which they placed in the streets and enjoyed reading classified documentation and papers with parliamentary seals.

"Rioting" and" looting" was reported all around, however the targets were obviously not chosen according to the level of material gain. Only certain shops were looted. Foreign observers may not understand this , but each object that was torn down had some kind of symbolic significance. For example an exclusive perfume shop in the centre of the city was looted because it is believed that it belongs to Milosevic's son. The parliament represented political oppression, the National TV building represented media propaganda and lies upon which this system had laid it's foundations. They were both burned to the ground. Of course, the local police station was not spared either. Unknown quantities of weapons were taken from this station before it was set on fire.

By the evening most of the battles had already been won. "Belgrade is ours!" could be heard from thousands of throats. Anger slowly transformed into happiness and rioting into celebration. People gathered once again from all sides in front of the "liberated parliament" and two trucks carrying huge speakers made it's way through the crowd that was singing and dancing to the music. The, by now, legendary bulldozer was exhibited to the people and fire extinguishing vehicles were let through to hose the burning parliament.

People already started to debate and organise among themselves spontaneously. Some of them took things out of the parliament and TV building and continued to destroy what was left of it; others claimed that things should be collected in one place and saved because they are all "our things" and we're going to need them in the future.

However, not a single person could completely relax. People did not throw away their "arms" immediately, since a counter-attack and the army was expected. A rumour started to circulate that the army tanks were already on their way to Belgrade.

Opposition organisers and politicians finally re-appeared and started to make speeches to "calm down the mass". Vojislav Kostunica (the opposition presidential candidate) was announced as the "new president of the country" and people greeted him with cheers. During his speech a spontaneous chant started to come from the crowd: "Let's go to Dedinje!" ("Dedinje" is a residential area where most of the high profile bureaucrats and army generals live, including Milosevic). The people felt that it was time to seize the moment and "go all the way" while the enemy was still breathless. Kostunica assured the crowd that it was all over; that there was no need for further fighting and that the police wouldn't intervene. In the meanwhile news broke out that the tanks had stopped and that the army wouldn't go "against it's own people". The party had started.

At the moment that I am writing this the celebration is not over yet. People are still in the streets beeping their horns and taking pictures of the burned out parliament. TV channels have started broadcasting once again, but this time publishing uncensored news and playing formerly blacklisted artists. Tons of foreign media journalists are also mingling around. This morning a French reporter asked me to give a statement. She asked me: "what can the European Union do for you now?" I answered: "Leave us alone and let us continue what we started yesterday". The confused journalist thought that I had misunderstood her and said that she was referring to credits and investment. I began to explain how all of this did not bring any good to the people of Eastern Europe or Russia, but she told the cameraman to cut and went along looking for a suitable comment and a victim.

A ceremony was held today honouring the newly formed government and the president. However, Vojislav Kostunica is not an anonymous political figure in Serbia. He formed, and is a leader of, the Democratic Party of Serbia, one of many opposition petty bourgeois currents. The western media label him as a "moderate nationalist", however I remember him as a right wing reactionary par excellence, a person who never said a single word against Milosevic's war crusades and at the same time makes a fetish of market economy and private property. He does not hesitate to point that he is speaking for, and addressing, the Serbs in the country (since, in his words, they are a majority and hence hold the biggest responsibility for the fate of the country) and that he will help us to finally step out of the "communist stone age" and jump on the train with the rest of the "civilised world".

Not surprisingly, the imperialist powers give Kostunica full support. They have already stated that the sanctions against Yugoslavia will be lifted, but I doubt it will be done completely, at least not without a long list of uncompromising demands delivered straight to Kostunica's office.

The opposition alliance organised a concert for the people and held speeches today. The "Kolubara" miners were mentioned and the crowd gave a big applause, but instead of passing the microphone to the miners it was passed to a local church figure who said a collective prayer!

However, the Kolubara union issued a proclamation today that will reach the people in spite of the opposition's effort to silence them now that they are "not needed anymore". The strike is not over yet . They demand that the new government dismiss the still active Minister for Energy and Mining from his position otherwise electricity will be cut off from Belgrade once again. This clearly indicates that very valuable lessons were learnt during the last few days. The working class got it's confidence back and became aware of it's power and the people lost the illusions (if there ever were any) that things can be changed by papers being thrown in a wooden box.