Issue 204 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: Defying the dictators

Charlie Kimber

Recent events in Serbia and Croatia have finally demolished the myths which were used to justify Western intervention in former Yugoslavia. They were myths that were swallowed by many on the left, and led some socialists to support armed action by their own ruling class.

The first myth was that there was no prospect of revolt by ordinary people against the regimes in former Yugoslavia. Therefore the only hope for those suffering so terribly was to call on the United Nations or some other outside agency. Some versions of this theory claimed that all Serbs were united behind their leaders' nationalist expansionism. Others suggested there was dissension but the weak opposition did not have the strength to challenge a cruel and ruthless government.

Yet for many weeks, beginning on 18 November, Serbia's President Milosevic was powerless to halt daily mass demonstrations in all his country's major cities. The protests had been sparked by Milosevic's decision to annul election results which had shown his party losing out in 15 of Serbia's 18 biggest towns. Western journalists commented on the fact that Milosevic did not send police and soldiers to crush the marches and speculated on whether this was a sign of his liberalisation. In fact it was evidence that Milosevic feared the revolt would spread from the streets to the heart of the state forces.

The street protests were not led by left wingers. The most conspicuous spokesman of the Zajedno (Together) coalition which headed the demonstrations was Vuk Draskovic. Although he now sometimes poses as a liberal, Draskovic is basically a Serbian nationalist who came to prominence by specialising in rabble rousing speeches against `Bolsheviks' and `Communists'. He was one of the main leaders of the 1991 protests against Milosevic in Belgrade. Already known as the `King of the Squares' for his ability to whip up a crowd, Draskovic led a series of big marches which almost toppled the regime. The fear that he would be driven from power was one of the main reasons why Milosevic racked up his nationalist baiting in 1991. He was successful because he played on two weaknesses in Draskovic's politics his nationalism and his refusal to focus on workers and strikes.

In 1991 Milosevic was weak in many respects, but he was quite capable of taking on all comers in a contest to see who could be the most vocal and vicious Serbian nationalist. But despite the leadership it is clear that the recent protests have also involved very many people who share nothing of Draskovic's politics.

A journalist who has recently returned from Serbia said, `Several students I spoke to said they hated Draskovic and thought the Zajedno leaders were little better than Milosevic. But who else was standing up for change? If there had been some other force calling for revolt, it could have grown quite quickly. Draskovic rests on middle class support, not the mass of people.'

This journalist also reports two other important factors: `A group of about 30 metal workers from a factory near Belgrade who were on strike about unpaid wages came to one of the demonstrations. They were hesitating whether to join the march when some of the Zajedno people started shouting at them, "Get back to work. We will build Serbia through hard work." Of course they left. I asked people why they had not protested about Milosevic before. It was not because they were scared, but because before they had felt Serbia was under pressure from outside forces and everyone had to stick together. I got the real impression this revolt would have come two years earlier if Milosevic had not been able to point to the sanctions, the Nato air strikes, the US troops and so on.'

Far from destabilising the Serbian regime which the West professed to detest, it is now clear that intervention has helped to prop it up. Even now, although the US had backed the opposition movements, the British ambassador Ivor Roberts has tried desperately to broker a deal to save Milosevic. According to the Daily Telegraph, Roberts' endeavours on behalf of British commercial interests with the Serbian regime has earned him the nickname Ratko Roberts, a reference to General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader.

While Milosevic was battling to stem the tide of revolt his counterpart in Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, was also facing marches and strikes. Again the immediate issue was electoral fraud, but as in Serbia what lay behind this was disenchantment with the promises made during the war and the continuing desperate poverty.

Over 100,000 marched in Zagreb in December and rail strikes shut down much of the freight service for over a week. Strikes were threatened in several other areas of industry and among transport workers. `We have had enough of the dictatorship. We have had enough of being told our enemies are abroad when we cannot even have a free press at home,' one protester told reporters.

Tudjman heads one of the most right wing governments in Europe. Yet he was feted by the West and many on the left during the war. He was used as the sword to slay the Serbian dragon and backed up by waves of Nato air strikes. The Krajina invasion, the most brutal piece of ethnic cleansing of the whole war, was carried out by Tudjman's forces with the full backing of the US.

With every day that passes it becomes more obvious that the Dayton peace agreement has solved none of the region's basic problems. Over a year since the deal was rammed through by US pressure ethnic cleansing has not been reversed, refugees remain wrenched from their homes and three repressive one party states have been fixed in office. It is these regimes, central to the whole Dayton process, which are now being fought in the streets of Zagreb and Belgrade. If reports at the end of December are to be believed, we can soon expect more protests in the streets of Sarajevo against the Bosnian Muslim regime as well.

Socialist Review argued throughout the war in former Yugoslavia that however difficult it might be to conceive it happening, the only future was for workers to unite across boundaries and ethnic divisions and that Western intervention would be disastrous. Both elements have now been proved correct.

The London conference which recently reviewed Dayton offered no prospect of improvements for the mass of people. No end to the 50 percent unemployment, or the spiralling inflation or the luxury lives of the rich while the majority suffer. Instead it simply rubberstamped plans for the 31,000 troops in the multinational force to take over from 20 December in the S-For `stabilisation force'. The real hope in the region is for the protests we have already seen to grow and develop, and in particular to connect with workers' demands and genuine socialist politics.


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