Issue 230 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
War returned to the Balkans in the 1990s because of the massive economic and political crisis that rocked Yugoslavia in the 1980s. Faced with a rising arc of worker resistance, the rulers of the different republics unleashed a terrifying wave of nationalism to force through market reforms and to hold on to power. In 1987 Milosevic was the first to use nationalist scapegoating in his campaign against the Kosovars, who he accused of genocide against the Serb minority in Kosovo. He soon found willing imitators in the other republican rulers, who blamed the crisis on the federal government and urged increasingly separatist solutions to their own nations' problems. It was this logic of nationalist inflation that was to eventually destroy Yugoslavia. However, it was a close run thing, with nationalism and the politics of all-Yugoslav class struggle vying for the allegiance of the different nations.
Even as workers capitulated to the sirens of nationalism they continued to pursue their autonomous class aims. Unable to completely dupe the workers, and traumatised by the worker and student rebellion of March 1991, Milosevic was forced to launch a murderous war.
As he embarked on a dummy invasion of Slovenia, around 80 percent of Serbs supported the 'preservation of peace by any means', with 23 percent refusing to fight in a war that they did not believe was theirs. The west now intervened to defend the integrity of the federation in the noble cause of ensuring the repayment of Yugoslavia's debt, effectively backing Milosevic. When the war spread to Croatia this position was undermined by Germany's unilateral recognition of Croatian independence, under a regime which not only refused to grant its Serb minority real national rights, but which was actively engaged in its persecution. This tragic and cynical intervention enabled Milosevic to claim the mantle of saviour of the Croatian Serbs as well as to use them as a battering ram against the right to self determination of the Croatian people.
Despite the mood of war hysteria cultivated by the regime, workers' nationalism was basically defensive. Workers in their thousands expressed mute opposition to the war in the form of draft dodging and desertion from the front. However, westem imposed sanctions from 1992 enabled Milosevic to blame the west for the dire economic straits in which workers found themselves. Around 500,000 young people, the backbone of the anti-war and democratic movement, emigrated. Loyalty to Milosevic's socialist party (SPS) was ensured through doling out favours to party cadres who ran the most important concerns in Serbia as well as the sanctions busting franchise, thus creating a tiny stratum of millionaires overnight. To integrate those sectors of the ruling class who depended on state protection to maintain their privileged status a substitute radical socialist party, the United Yugoslav Left (JUL), was formed under the leadership of Milosevic's wife Mirjana Markovic. However, this corrupt and unstable regime could only survive through a system of constant purges of suspect institutions and terror against its opponents. The paramilitary police was reinforced to act as Milosevic's personal guard against the army and to discourage dissent, and the media pumped out disinformation.
To cater for workers disillusioned by corruption, mass unemployment and the plunder of state property Milosevic created both radical leftist (JUL) and proto-fascist (Serb Radical Party) parties in the early 1990s. Led by the demagogue Vojislav Seselj, the latter was used to create a puppet opposition which concentrated on discrediting any real opposition movements. Access to certain social benefits was made conditional on membership of the corporatist, SPS led, trade unions. The key enemy here was Nezavisnost, the independent trade union federation which not only opposed the regime, but also demanded an end to the war and a democratic settlement to the national question in the former Yugoslavia. 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 nationalism. From 1993 onwards Milosevic was forced to drop Greater Serb nationalism and sue for peace to keep step with the popular mood.
At the end of 1995 the west came to Milosevic's aid once more. Conceived in order to stabilise the region, the Dayton peace agreement recognised and legitimised the 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 new order fell largely to the dictators of the region (Milosevic, Tudjman and Izetbegovic) whose one party regimes were now cemented by western support. Milosevic could now claim that a vote for his party was a vote for peace. So when elections to the federal parliament came at the end of 1996, the SPS and its allies benefited from a popular desire for peace to trounce the non-opposition that only knew one tune, Greater Serb nationalism. But in local elections the people punished the corruption, self enrichment and authoritarianism of the party regime by voting for the opposition coalition, Zajedno. No longer intimidated into silence by the war, and radicalised by its privations, wide layers of the working class had begun to break with the SPS. When Milosevic refused to recognise the election results all the accumulated bitterness suddenly exploded into mass rebellion. For three months the cities of Serbia were taken over, day after day, by a mass democratic movement that mobilised hundreds of thousands. The regime was forced to concede victory to the opposition in order to prevent revolution in Serbia.
However, in victory lay the seeds of defeat and of the present war. For Milosevic owed his survival to an opposition which limited its demands to recognition of election results. By refusing to demand real democratic changes--purging of the state apparatus, destruction of the party-state matrix, the prosecution of Milosevic and his clique as war criminals--Zajedno blunted the revolutionary edge of the movement. For a while, though, the regime's very survival was in the balance as workers threatened to take centre stage. Tragically, the self imposed limitation of the movement to the question of elections cut short the collective mobilisation of the working class against the regime. For who would risk all to put into the saddle an opposition notorious for its lust for power and weak commitment to democracy? Nevertheless, in this period all the demands of striking workers were immediately met and opposition victories recognised in the seething industrial centres of Serbia. Indeed it was fear of worker revolt which forced Milosevic to back down as a national education strike threatened to escalate into a general strike at the end of February 1997.
Writing in Socialist Review at the time, I warned that Zajedno's electoralist strategy could only lead to 'disarming the people in the face of the ruling class counter-offensive that will surely come at some point in the near future', and that in order to regain his authority Milosevic would 'be tempted to unleash a spiral of violence from which 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.' This has unfortunately come to pass. While the movement petered out into a fragmentation of demands, a regime on the brink of collapse was saved by an opposition that was imploding as its leaders fought over who was to become mayor of Belgrade. The west now intervened in the shape of the British foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind who persuaded Milosevic to bring the opposition into government in return for the promise of western investment. Bolstered by western support, Milosevic hit upon the tactic of dividing the opposition, absorbing its main component, the SPO (Serbian Renewal Movement), into a 'government of national unity' that also included Seselj's fascists. Bereft of any principles and hungry for power the SPO took the bait and its leader Vuk Draskovic was given the quite irrelevant position of deputy premier of Yugoslavia. Having destroyed the opposition Milosevic could now use the lifting of the trade embargo to demobilise an increasingly restive working class.
However, he still presided over a bankrupt, impoverished and truncated Yugoslavia with no apparent future and so latched onto increasing KLA resistance to police repression in Kosovo from the spring of 1998 to launch a military campaign against the Kosovars. The counter-offensive now began in earnest. First the students and lecturers, the most rebellious section of the mass movement, were neutralised by a law allowing the regime to directly appoint university rectors and faculty boards and forcing lecturers to sign humiliating new contracts as a sign of loyalty to the regime. Around 100 were sacked for refusing to do so, and a two month general strike by students against the law and for the reinstatement of the lecturers petered out in February 1999, leaving lecturers divided and students feeling betrayed. In October 1998 an information law was passed allowing Milosevic to crush the independent media. He was now able to reassert control over the party and state apparatus.
However, the regime was increasingly riven by vicious faction fighting. Key figures in the ruling class openly criticised Milosevic's strategy in Kosovo, fearing that it would lead to a further spell of international isolation for Serbia. The economic and political system was imploding at an alarming rate with only the glue of the Kosovo campaign to hold it together.
By the time of Rambouillet in February 1999 the west had decided to impose a settlement on Milosevic, one which firmly rejected the right of the Kosovars to self determination but one which also cut the 'strongman of the Balkans' down to size. The sting in the tail was the deployment of Nato troops to patrol the agreement, something that Milosevic could only accept at the price of political suicide. From then on war was inevitable.
On the eve of war most Serbs were resigned to the loss of Kosovo and were unresponsive to the war mood being whipped up from above. An attempt by nationalists in Belgrade to mobilise people to defend Kosovo failed miserably, with only a few dozen turning up to march. Nato's bombs have allowed Milosevic to present Serbia as a victim of a plot by the international community. As the real opponents of the regime have testified, western bombs have undermined the fruits of a decade of anti-war, anti-nationalist and democratic opposition to the regime. Milosevic has been able to smash the last vestiges of the independent media in Serbia as well as silence any form of opposition with the assassination of the independent publisher, Slavko Curuvija.
We cannot predict how the war will end. At present, the west has neither the will nor the political unity to return the Kosovars to their homeland. More likely is a compromise deal followed by the partition of Kosovo. Sections of the ruling class and the army may well conclude that Milosevic must pay the price for this adventure. The army will almost certainly not accept another humiliation after its ignominious withdrawals from Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. Vojislav Seselj will certainly cry betrayal and might instigate a coup. But if Milosevic survives it will be the beginning of the end.
A postwar Yugoslavia will find itself in the grip of economic collapse and hyperinflation, its people reduced to starvation, its political system imploding under the weight of bloodletting within the ruling class. The bombs will for a time silence workers for whom unemployment is directly caused by the west. Whether workers are able to impose a class solution to the crisis or succumb to Vojislav Seselj's fascist programme of national renaissance, or are simply crushed by Milosevic, depends on the politics of the movement.
History will be merciless to those who are unable to free themselves from the nationalist past and develop a new socialist understanding of their problems.