Serbia: government and opposition defend status quo

Several organisations, including the Yugoslav IMT Marxist Organisation ‘Reds’, have mobilised together in a united front as the ‘Left Bloc’ for several weeks as part of mass protests in Belgrade, Novi Sad and Zrenjanin. The Bloc put forward social demands in the demonstrations, instead of the merely civil and democratic demands presented by the organisers from the opposition.

Our goal was to present an alternative to the policies of the ruling coalition around the Serbian Progressive Party, but also to put forward a different approach from the opposition coalition spearheaded by the Alliance for Serbia, who were organising the protests. Additionally, we wanted to mark a sharp difference from the policies promoted by the AFS: an unprincipled coalition of people recycled from previous ruling parties, members of the far-right and liberals who try to portray themselves as leftists. This alliance includes a spectrum of parties from the so-called left, to those on the far right.

It was known from the start that the opposition was behind these protests, but they were presented as open to all citizens, because the opposition feared that if people saw their hand behind these protests, it would hurt the turnout. Because of that, it was not just sympathisers of the Alliance for Serbia and the urban middle-class were attending the protests, but also a broader layer of people from different social backgrounds, disgruntled with the state of society and poor living standards.

Stop to bloody workers uniforms Image RedsStop bloody workers' uniforms / Image: Reds

This was the reason for our decision to go out on the streets, and offer a different vision of progress through a class-based struggle for social rights, instead ‘civic’ questions concerning the ‘rule of law’, and moralising disgust towards the corrupt government.

Stop bloody shirts (AKA ‘one in five million’)

Attack on Borko Stefanović Image Levica Srbije on TwitterAftermath of attack on Borko Stefanović / Image: Levica Srbije on Twitter

The cause for these protests was a street attack suffered by Borko Stefanović, the leader of the Serbian Left, on 23 November 2018. The attack was definitely politically motivated and the most likely motive for it was the term ‘left’ in his party's name. We condemn this attack, even though there is nothing left-wing about the Serbian Left, because it was most likely orchestrated by right-wingers who have been behind attacks on the radical left in the past. Those active in the class struggle know that attacks on the left by all types of thugs are nothing new or surprising. We are also aware that, with time, leaning on these hooligans this will be a more common tactic of the ruling class in crisis, no matter which party comes to power.

Two weeks after the attack the protests against violence named ‘Stop bloody shirts’ began in Belgrade, organised by the opposition, but labelled as civic protests. After the statement by president Aleksandar Vučić that he would not give in to any demands, even if five million protesters demonstrated, the protests were renamed ‘one in five million’, after the defiant placards carried by the protesters. Tens of thousands of people came out to the streets of Belgrade, a turnout that probably surpassed even the expectations of the bourgeois opposition. The opposition followed a different tactic than that adopted in the April 2017 protests against Vučić’s victory, which were also started by them, but of which they quickly lost control, partially due to the intervention of the radical left. This time, the opposition called for ‘apolitical’ protests, so they could prevent any different political position than theirs being expressed, until they had prepared the ground for taking over the protests. But due to the fact that the protests formally didn’t belong to any party, the radical left could nevertheless find room to intervene.

Left Bloc on the protests

United Action Roof Over One's Head, an organisation fighting against evictions, informed the organisers of the protests that they would distribute their leaflets on the third protest, scheduled for 22 December. Since the protests were against violence, the assumption was that it would be allowed to highlight the struggles against evictions, thus raising awareness about a common form of violence against working people. The organisers replied that ‘Roof Over One’s Head’ were not welcome with their leaflets on the protests, because (according to a statement by ‘Roof Over One’s Head’): “of a supposed agreement that no party, initiative or movement should distribute anything at the gatherings (an agreement which was never publicly announced).” The statement further added: “[as if] the faces of the leaders of the Alliance for Serbia in the front rows of the protests are not a perfectly clear party symbol, while the organisers are AFS youth.”

The activists of ‘Roof Over One’s Head’ decided to distribute their leaflets anyway, despite the clear message that they were not welcome. The left-wing organisations supporting them organised themselves into the Left Bloc on the fourth protest, separated from the opposition with banners saying “Down with Vučić – down with capitalism!”, as well as “No one without a home!” and “Stop bloody workers’ uniforms!”, which were replies to the hypocrisy of the opposition, which organises protests against violence when their own shirts are bloodied in attacks, but when people are evicted from their homes or when workers die or get injured in their workplaces, they are nowhere to be found. Last year, 53 people died in workplace accidents in Serbia, and there were 779 serious injuries as reported by Kurir. Among those were the deaths of construction workers at the infamous project Belgrade Waterfront, which is a gentrification project funded by United Arab Emirates investors. Some of the slogans chanted by the Left Bloc were “No one without a home, a roof over our heads now!”, “A worker is not a slave, scaffolding is not a grave!”, “France! – Serbia! – revolution!”, since the yellow vests were at their peak at the time, as well as the famous song from the April protests of 2017, whose lyrics were coined by the ‘Reds’:

“You band of thieves

“You sold everything

“Schools and factories

“Health care and pensions

“But we’ll get all of it back!”

Demands put forward by the Left Bloc were:

  • Safety in the workplace
  • Moratorium on evictions
  • Suspension of privatisation and selling of public companies and their property
  • Permanent and stable jobs for all

Constant attacks on the Left Bloc by the opposition

With the emergence of the Left Bloc in the protests, there came tensions with the opposition and the Alliance for Serbia. The first who objected to our attendance was the very star of the protests, Borko Stefanović. On an unrelated comment on Twitter – pointing out the hypocrisy of the opposition being bothered by slogans against them, all the while calling for an “apolitical” protest – Borko cynically replied “You’ve had a great slogan: stop bloody workers' uniforms’, because, you see, my busted head is a yellow, dirty thief’s head and therefore it is not important.” It’s also interesting that Stefanović added: “pointing out party slogans is unnecessary and bad. Imagine everything that we could point out, but we think it would be excessive.” At that point, at the protest rallies, there were speakers directly from the Alliance of Serbia. The ‘Agreement with the People’ was read out: a document written by the Alliance for Serbia with a number of commitments that the opposition will hold to if the document is signed by the people – none of this is apparently ‘excessive.’

Several weeks later, at the end of the protest rally, among the activists from the Left Bloc appeared Dragan Đilas, ex-mayor of Belgrade and former leader of the Democratic Party, as well as the current leader of the Alliance for Serbia, followed by three bodyguards. This was intended as nothing but a provocation. With the aim of warding him off, the activists started shouting “Vučić, Đilas, same shit!”, at which point his security tried to grab one of our activist’s signs which said: “Public executors – private robbery.” The aim of those slogans was to point out that Vučić and Đilas are two sides of the same system, which is oppressing the working majority. The law that allows evictions was introduced under the rule of Đilas’ former party. An altercation occurred again after the protest, when Đilas was confronted with criticism of his own and Vučić’s policies, and he replied in a haughty tone, like he owned the place, insulting the Left Bloc activists with phrases such as: “fuck you, faggots”.

The regime media spun the situation. With the aim of discrediting Đilas and belittling the left-wing activists, the incident was reported as an attack by Đilas on “poor little children”, completely ignoring the fact that those “children” gave it back to poor little Đilas harder than what he gave! This hypocritical ‘defence’ by the regime media only sought to discredit the anti-regime protests as some sort of carnival, where nobody knows who is fighting whom. This was followed by a campaign in defence of the opposition on social media by AFS ‘bots’: people who, on social media, try to artificially manipulate public opinion. They attacked the left-wing organisations, presenting them as in cahoots with the Vučić regime, even though these same organisations have been speaking out against Vučić for years.

Realising that we would not easily budge, on 2 February, the opposition prepared a row of stewards, cordoning off access at the usual meeting place of the Left Bloc, with the aim of stopping us from joining the protest. This time they were far more aggressive, and when we moved to join the protests it came to shoving and even attempts at taking our banners. Of course, that did not stop us, and as soon as we went for a stronger push, we broke through the line of the opposition stewards. After all, left-wing ideas of a better society are a far stronger motive that personal interest and repeating the cycle of worn-out, capitalist policies. After that, a few stewards stood in front of our banner “Stop bloody workers’ uniforms”, one of which was in constant communication with his superiors through headphones and a microphone. The aim of this move was to provoke an attack from the Left Bloc, which would be distorted and used to discredit us, but all they did was to confirm that the Alliance for Serbia doesn’t care about bloody workers’ uniforms, any more than the coalition around Vučić.

Monitors mocking the Left Block with a banner of Vulin and showing the Serbian three finger salute to show their nationalism 1Stewards mocking the Left Block with a banner of Vulin and showing the Serbian nationalist three-finger salute / Image: Reds

The protests spread to other cities, and with them the Left Bloc spread to Zrenjanin and Novi Sad. But, as rumours started to spread about the ‘Agreement with the People’ – the document redacted by the Alliance for Serbia with the aim of formally taking over the protests – so the number of ordinary people at their protests in Belgrade decreased. The culmination of the conflict with the opposition happened on 16 February, when the Alliance for Serbia printed out actual copies of the ‘Agreement with the People’ to be signed by the people on the protests. Members of the Democratic Party, together with members of the far-right Dveri, dressed in shiny vests, came to provoke the Left Bloc, a move that was in part caused by the support the Left Bloc received from the Croatian reformist party, the Workers’ Front, which was regarded as a big torn in their side by the Serbian right-wing. Ladies dressed in expensive clothing jumped to take away our megaphone, the opposition stewards made a banner with the face of Vulin to mock the Left Bloc, calling us ‘Vulin’s Left’, since he is a regime bootlicker whose party has ‘socialist’ in its name. Later on they tried again to take away our banners and flags. The authenticity of the slogan, which came out spontaneously without much thought, was proven correct that day: Vučić and Đilas truly are cut from the same filthy cloth.

How to continue the fight?

The Left Bloc has decided not to join these protests any longer, even though they have continued. The opposition has successfully scared away a decent layer of the wider public when it formally took over the protests, which made us turn to more important fields of activism. The subsequent protest ended with the protesters chasing away the street cleaners, who were forced by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party to remove the stickers attacking Vučić that the protesters had left in a tunnel. Meanwhile the organisations supporting the Left Bloc met in a conference where the conclusions and political perspectives of each organisation were discussed. Through United Action ‘Roof Over the Head’, we defended a few families from evictions. We joined a protest of postal workers, the International Women's Day march, and the protest organised by an organisation called ‘Moms are the Law’, which is fighting against cuts to child benefits.

Member of the Reds on the International Womens Day march Image fair useMember of the Reds on the International Working Women's Day march / Image: fair use

In the case of street protests like the ones organised by the opposition, it is always a matter of time before they will start to dissipate, especially when there are no concrete results. The mood for struggle among the masses cannot last forever without a road forward, but while that mood lasts, that is when the left should intervene. After the April 2017 protests against Vučić’s victory, the radical left once again proved it is necessary to clearly stand out against both the regime and the so-called opposition.

Even though we consciously entered the struggle against far stronger enemies, like the ruling Serbian Progressive Party and the opposition Alliance for Serbia, we will continue to join working people in the struggle for a better future, and will continue down this road until we accomplish this. Only by building the forces of Marxism around the IMT can offer an alternative to this cruel system and create a world fit for humanity!