Issue 206 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: Arising from the ashes

Andreja Zivkovic

The heroic victory of the mass democratic movement in Serbia, which has forced dictatorial president Slobodan Milosevic to recognise the results of November's local elections, represents the first real blow for democracy in the region. It is also the first breach in the reactionary 'pax Americana' imposed on the people of former Yugoslavia at Dayton, Ohio, in December 1995.

The Dayton peace agreement was faithful to previous western peace plans in recognising and legitimising results of mass ethnic cleansing and genocide. Behind the official rhetoric of a united, multi-ethnic Bosnia, its de facto partition into three ethnic statelets was being sanctioned. The policing of this iniquitous 'new order' fell largely to the dictators of the region Milosevic, Tudjman and Izetbegovic whose one party regimes were now cemented by western support. By challenging Milosevic the protesters in Serbia have also confronted a western realpolitik founded on the dominant powers of the region. As an editorial in the New York Times noted, US foreign policy for the region has been thrown into utter confusion by Milosevic's capitulation to popular protests since it is no longer sure that he can hold the line in Bosnia.

This process was by no means accidental. It was Milosevic's new role (made in the US) as 'strongman of the Balkans' and the delusions of grandeur it fostered that led him to overplay his hand. And recent events in Croatia suggested that the west would tolerate almost any attack on democracy just so long as the regional status quo was properly maintained. Tudjman refused to accept the defeat of his party in the capital, Zagreb, in local elections in September 1995, and imposed his own mayor on the city. Neither this, nor the repression of any independent media, nor one of the worst human rights records in Europe prevented Croatia from being admitted to the Council of Europe. This encouraged Milosevic to believe he could safely ignore western protests while riding out domestic opposition. However, when protests involving hundreds of thousands exploded in all the major Serbian cities, the west was forced to criticise Milosevic and broke off a commercial agreement favourable to Serbia. This breathtakingly cynical posturing on the part of the west could not prevent the beginning of the end for the post-Dayton 'new world order' in the Balkans. And Milosevic was left floundering around in utter bewilderment in the face of the forces he had unleashed.

During the war western imposed sanctions meant Milosevic was able to blame the west for the dire economic straits of workers and thus to enforce 'national unity'.

However, beneath the apparent stability of the regime the war itself was slowly dissolving the chains that bound workers to their leaders. As sanctions produced mass unemployment, and as the ensuing hyperinflation forced the majority of people into destitution, the masses began to tire not only of the war but also of the sirens of nationalism. The ever flexible Milosevic responded by shifting from Greater Serb nationalism to a pro-peace stance. In this he was aided by a nationalist political opposition that had previously tried unsuccessfully to outbid him in national chauvinism and which now attacked Dayton as a betrayal of the Serbian nation. Hence Milosevic's trouncing of the opposition in the federal elections of 3 November. By now sick of nationalism, the people supported Dayton, an end to the war and the lifting of sanctions. This translated itself into a vote for Milosevic.

The local elections reflected the other side of the coin. Here the people punished the corruption and self enrichment of the ruling party-state bureaucracy. Radicalised by a war that has seen a minority become fabulously wealthy while the majority starves, most people were no longer so prepared to accept the status quo. So when Milosevic decided to annul local election results all the accumulated bitterness at mass unemployment and pauperisation, political repression and state control of the media suddenly exploded into mass rebellion.

At first the movement was largely composed of students and the urban middle classes since the workers, reduced to apathy and despair by effects of hyperinflation and mass unemployment on their living standards, remained atomised and marginalised. But the rising movement gave confidence to those who were laid off (on state benefits) to join the marches. Those at work were threatened with the sack if they were not at work on demonstration days. And where the workers threatened to take matters into their own hands, as in the seething industrial centres of Kragujevac and Nis, the regime immediately conceded the opposition election victories or paid back salaries owed which was enough to satisfy the movement. Workers were not willing to sacrifice all merely to put into the saddle an opposition whose lust for power and weak commitment to democracy are well known and whose pro-market strategy promises further misery and unemployment. Consequently Milosevic was able to demobilise industrial workers by playing on these fears and defending the social policies of the Titoist system.

So workers, while probably making up the majority of the marchers, did not impose their class demands and methods on the movement. And so the protests remained dominated by an opposition which was able to impose its strategy of boycotting parliament and lobbying the west to put pressure on Milosevic largely unchallenged. Hence despite protests mobilising up to half a million people the movement was unable to achieve the critical mass necessary to overthrow the regime.

In addition, the opposition refused to open the black pages of the nationalist past to critical discussion and limited its demands to those recognition of election results, liberalisation of the media that would catapult it into power. Refusing to demand real democratic changes meant blunting the revolutionary edge of the movement. Under these conditions Milosevic could sufficiently recover his political composure to pursue a carrot and stick strategy that has limited victory to a reinstatement of the local election results.

But if the combined exertions of Milosevic and the opposition have so far stifled the potential for a 1989 style revolution they have not been able to prevent the protests from turning into a festival of the oppressed. In the carnival atmosphere of mass demonstrations in cities like Belgrade ordinary people are liberating themselves from their previous state of servile dependence on and fear of the regime which has lost forever its ability to command the automatic respect and fear of the people. Thus a new period is opening in which, as one student leader puts it, 'nothing will be the same again'. The potential for further radicalisation is most clearly expressed among students. A whole generation is becoming politicised.

Milosevic could not prevent the example of the movement from spreading across national frontiers and divisions of the Balkans to Bulgaria and Albania. In Bulgaria opposition to the catastrophic social effects of Socialist Party mismanagement of the economy was largely inspired by the mass street protests in Belgrade. And in their turn the opposition protests emboldened workers to launch national strikes and to reject a government that many previously had looked to for protection against the worst ravages of the transition to a free market. A national education strike was organised in Serbia at the beginning of February in protest at the annulment of election results and workers in the largest engineering factory in Serbia threatened to go on strike. The fact that Milosevic's decision to retreat suspiciously coincided with these actions suggests that he probably feared that they would escalate into a general strike.

The democratic spirit raging across the Balkans clearly demonstrates that whatever the local origins of protests, there is a tendency for them generalise as economic struggles feed into political challenges to existing regimes, and vice versa as political struggles cause people to challenge their chronic economic situation. This is clearest in the case of Bulgaria and Albania where, respectively, economic collapse and casino capitalism are leading to rejection of incompetent, corrupt and authoritarian regimes. In Serbia the protests are primarily political in origin. They are also fuelled by a situation in which the mass of people have been thrown into destitution by the war and confront a tiny, corrupt elite.

However, in the absence of real socialist leadership the protests are likely to remain limited, fragmented and ideologically confused and thus open to manipulation or even repression. In Albania the lack of any leadership has meant that the protests have quickly descended into directionless riots which may leave people defenceless in the face of state repression. In Bulgaria the very success of the movement has created its own problems. Whoever wins the forthcoming elections will collude with the IMF to impose a vicious austerity and shock therapy programme to force the economy to follow the dictates of the market. The cost will, as usual, be borne solely by workers.

Workers in Bulgaria have so far not really come to terms with the abysmal future that beckons, as can be seen from one of their recent slogans. 'We are here not because of ideology, but because of our stomachs too much hunger.'

In Serbia the movement faces, to differing degrees, a combination of repression by the ruling class and the prospect of a painful transition to the market. The opposition, in refusing to call a general strike and in calling off protests for a free media until 9 March, is allowing a deeply split ruling class time to recuperate. Transfixed by the prospect of parliamentary and presidential elections, Zajedno is leaving the movement without any real focus or strategic direction. But genuine mass struggles cannot be switched on and off at will like a tap. Unless they move forward rapidly and generalise, they are likely to dissipate.

In destroying Milosevic's aura of invincibility the mass protests have blasted open a new chapter in Serbian politics, namely that of Milosevic's decline. This is not to say that he is doomed to defeat, but rather that he will never regain his absolute authority and that for the moment his star is on the wane. In this context he will certainly be tempted to unleash a spiral of violence from which, given the refusal of the opposition to mobilise the working class, he can only benefit. This might take the form of engineering a new crisis in Kosovo to divert popular anger into anti-Albanian pogroms, followed by the declaration of a national state of emergency. And without a class critique of nationalism even the most war weary people can be led by the nose by a 'national saviour' on horseback.

More optimistically, the 'spring' has awakened a critical spirit amongst the people, creating the very real potential of new struggles in the not too distant future. Furthermore the movement has lit a beacon that offers hope and guidance to others in the region. As in the case of Bulgaria and Albania, struggles that originate in response to local issues can be radicalised by the example of other, quite different, movements. This can initiate a transnational process of mutual conditioning and dialogue, in which the learning curve of class struggle spirals from economic to political questions and back again. Then workers and the oppressed may once more come to unite across the barbed wire ethnic frontiers in the teeth of attempts by their respective ruling classes to divide them. This is the key to progress in the region.

As the crisis deepens the alternatives facing the region polarise: either the use of populist nationalism and state coercion, war or terror, by the 'left' or right, to impose the transition to the free market, or a socialist alternative based on a class alternative to the region's national conflicts and economic problems.


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