Issue 232 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
To paraphrase the US general in Vietnam, the west has once again destroyed a country in order to save it. 'Fascism in Europe', we are told, has been defeated and the prospect of peaceful coexistence has been extended to the people of the Balkans. According to Javier Solana, Nato secretary-general, as a result of the west's victory in Kosovo, Slobodan Milosevic will 'dissolve like a sugar cube', toppled amidst discontent in Serbia.
A Serbia brought to its knees by Nato is unlikely to solely blame Milosevic for its predicament. Indeed, Milosevic will be able to claim with some justification that Nato is responsible for the devastation and grinding poverty that the majority of Serbs will now endure. Unable to understand why the bombs were raining down on them, many will accept the regime's claim of an international conspiracy against the Serbian people. 'Smart bombed' out of their jobs, like the Zastava car workers, those that saw in Europe a model for Yugoslavia's future may now exchange one myth for another, taking refuge in national chauvinism. And faced with further international isolation, ordinary people might look to Milosevic, or even the fascist Seselj, as national saviours in catastrophic times. So where is Milosevic's Yugoslavia going?
On the eve of war, the Serbian people were thoroughly disgusted with their leaders, with 69 percent declaring that they did not trust the government of national unity. Milosevic's personal rating had slumped to an all time low of 20 percent. Nor did the regimes attempt to whip up a chauvinist mood over Kosovo to divert attention from the impending economic collapse cut any ice. Nato's war then enabled the regime to get back on its feet by rallying the people against the 'enemies of the nation'. Under cover of emergency measures, the independent media was silenced and a hunting season declared against the real opponents of nationalism. Despite the chauvinist hysteria being pumped out by the state media, few believed that Kosovo was worth dying for. Thousands of men went to extraordinary lengths to avoid the draft and, in private, people increasingly began to blame Milosevic for dragging them into war. This mood was encapsulated in graffiti that appeared in Belgrade: 'In the sky Nato, on the ground Milosevic!'
Terrified that this anger would lead to open revolt in Belgrade, the regime targeted southern Serbia--where it has in the past drawn the majority of its popular support--for the majority of army reservists. This tactic spectacularly backfired when less than a month into the war reservists on short leave, who had previously been promised a partial withdrawal from Kosovo, were ordered to return. Southern Serbia exploded into riots and demonstrations led by reservists and their families demanding 'peace not war' and chanting, 'The dead do not need Kosovo.' And when several thousand reservists deserted, the regime was forced to use repression to contain the protests. Although the protests did not challenge Serb rule over Kosovo or call for Milosevic's overthrow, in refusing to die for Kosovo thousands were breaking with the logic of Greater Serb nationalism and its wars against the people of the region. It is this dynamic within Serbian society that Nato's war has cut short. Indeed, the west has provided Milosevic with a credible scapegoat for a decade of defeats, misery and humiliation for the Serbian people.
The peace deal concluded after 77 days of war was only partially a defeat for the regime. To be sure, Kosovo will become a Nato protectorate cordoned off from Yugoslavia, but unlike the previous diktat presented at Rambouillet, the Nato mandate cannot be extended to Yugoslavia itself. Furthermore, Rambouillet's promise to the Kosovan Albanians of an international meeting after three years to decide the fate of Kosovo has now been rescinded. The army lost few of its men and managed to keep a formidable proportion of its armour, artillery and mobile air defence systems intact, contrary to Nato propaganda. The generals believe they have won a great victory not only in surviving Nato's onslaught but also in preventing a potential Nato occupation of Yugoslavia.
As a result the ruling class remains relatively unified--a shattered country and the loss of control over Kosovo being a small price to pay for maintaining an iron grip over the rest of Yugoslavia. This explains the impotent posturing of the pretenders to the throne. Vuk Draskovic, sacked as deputy prime minister of Yugoslavia for criticising the regime during the war, is now apparently reconciled with Milosevic. Vojislav Seselj, whose Serbian Radical Party resigned from the government over the peace deal, has promised not to oppose the regime. The entire political elite is cowering behind the government of national unity, afraid of the reaction of the people to its capitulation to Nato.
Ordinary people initially reacted with joy and relief that the war was over. The regime has been selling the deal as a victory against Nato aggression that has enabled a solution to the Kosovo problem under the auspices of the UN. The agreement will be supervised by UN peacekeepers and Kosovo will remain part of Yugoslavia. The people have yet to grasp that they have suffered a brutal war only to see the same Nato domination of Kosovo that was presented at Rambouillet. The flight of more than 50,000 Kosovan Serbs from KLA reprisals and Nato 'protection' is at present being hidden from the people. For the moment, a mood of despair and resignation predominates as workers survey their ruined factories and communities.
The west has reduced people to the most primitive struggle for survival, thus providing the regime with the breathing space it needs before discontent begins to surface. Milosevic is preparing a new wave of repression against designated 'fifth columnists' and may well be tempted to scapegoat the remaining ethnic minorities of Yugoslavia. However, despite a revamped repressive apparatus, Milosevic will be unable to reconstruct Yugoslavia's decimated economy and infrastructure. Western leaders have declared that aid will only be given to a democratic, free market Serbia that has handed Milosevic over to the International War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague. Milosevic's vision of a prosperous Serbia reconciled with Europe will turn out to be a nightmare of mass unemployment--up from 40 percent to 50 percent of the working population as a result of Nato bombing--and there will be the struggle against food shortages and hunger.
Economic collapse and hyperinflation now await as the regime--without external aid--will be forced to print money to pay long overdue salaries. In the meantime, there will be rationing and a winter with only intermittent electricity. A future of extreme political instability beckons as increasing working class discontent begins to surface and the ruling class descends into more or less open internal warfare. Behind the scenes, various reactionary plots will be hatched to resolve the crisis according to the interests of different sections of the ruling class. Civil war may break out in Montenegro as Milosevic clamps down on the increasingly separatist, western backed Djukanovic regime. Even if he carries this off, Milosevic will find that his former lackeys in the political and business elite, no longer able to enrich themselves in a quarantined state, will plot against him. In this scenario, the search will be on for a suitable democratic frontman to act as a cover for an authoritarian lurch to free market reform. Waiting in the wings will be Seselj, hoping to benefit from popular discontent and an ever more reactionary political climate to launch his fascist programme of national renewal.
In the short term the chances for a progressive solution to the national question in the region look decidedly bleak. For the real opponents of the regime, speaking out against the present disaster means facing a spell in prison or even death. Despite this progressive organisations, from the independent trade unions to the anti-war Citizens' Parliament in Cacak, have opposed ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and called for a democratic solution to the national question in Yugoslavia. However, key political weaknesses have prevented them from having a wider impact on society. The legacy of Stalinism has meant that they have looked to a European model of liberal democracy and the free market as a solution to the crisis. But it is precisely the shift to the market that destroyed Yugoslavia in the 1980s as bureaucrats like Milosevic turned to nationalism and war to demobilise workers' resistance to the crisis and keep hold of power. Having experienced a traumatic decline in living standards in the wake of IMF imposed shock therapy, the workers have consistently turned a deaf ear to the liberal gospel.
In the absence of a credible alternative workers have looked to Milosevic to protect them in a time of war and economic collapse, while he has posed as the defender of the 'socialist' legacy. Thus the liberals are quite wrong in their claim that the regime rests on the pre-democratic mentality of the people, leading it to oppose the toleration of ethnic and political differences that is characteristic of liberal democracies. In fact western sanctions and now western aggression have prevented the deep class divisions in Serbian society from taking a coherent political form. Illusions in 'western civilisation' unfortunately persist amongst progressives, with some even calling for Nato to 'de-Nazify' Serbia and a 'Marshall Plan of the mind' for the Serbian people.
In the longer term, progressive movements will be aided by the fact that no section of the ruling class has any enduring solution to the crisis of Serbian society. Nationalism and repression are the only glue that bind people to their rulers. After a while, anti-western nationalism will no longer divert workers from the crisis of everyday life. Under these conditions, popular explosions can create the possibility of a political and organisational rupture between the workers and the 'socialist' elite. Whether or not this results in a progressive transformation of society depends on the development of a class critique of nationalism and a socialist alternative to the free market. Without such an understanding, the movement will surely be disarmed by a newly engineered 'national emergency', and barbarism will once again engulf the people of the region.
The current Bulgarian government came to office as an indirect result of the mass opposition that nearly brought down Milosevic in Serbia in the winter of 1996-97. Inspired by the pictures of three months of demonstrations, Bulgarians took to the streets of the capital, Sofia. Within weeks the Bulgarian government fell and there were fresh elections.
The issues in Bulgaria seemed on the surface to be different. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (successor to the former Communist Party) had not rigged the elections which had taken place over a year before. But the economic collapse which had brought them victory continued, the currency collapsed in value, and affordable bread became increasingly hard to find. This fuelled the movement and produced huge demonstrations.
Bulgaria's economy suffered a double squeeze after 1989. Its trade with Russia fell rapidly, and much of heavy industry was closed down, producing rocketing unemployment. But its trade with Europe depended to a large extent on transport through neighbouring Serbia, and the sanctions there have bit the Bulgarian economy hard.
This context is important in understanding why the government supported the Nato bombing despite massive opposition. Desperate for new investment, and finding the front door of EU membership closed to them, many of the states of the former Soviet bloc have looked to membership of Nato as the back door route to western money. This was a relatively uncontroversial policy until the war.
The opposition to the war in Bulgaria has received hardly any coverage in the British media. When Tony Blair visited Sofia in May and was pelted with eggs by Young Socialist students, the pictures shown were mainly of the welcome he got when he went to Albania on the next stage of his trip. The anti-war movement has been dismissed in a similar way to that in Greece.
The facile explanation is that the Bulgarians, like the Greeks, are Orthodox Christians, and this is why they support the Serbs. But a common religion did not stop Bulgaria and Serbia from going to war with each other in 1913. You do not have to be a Bulgarian nationalist to fear the prospect of a war.
The south western part of Bulgaria is home to a large Macedonian minority, and is disputed between the two countries. After the break up of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria was reluctant to recognise Macedonian independence. Many people rightly fear therefore that if war spreads to Macedonia, they would also be pulled in.
The growth of the anti-war movement marks a significant development in the politics of Bulgaria. Since the collapse of the Stalinist Zhivkov regime, anti-Nato feeling has mostly been the preserve of aged and undynamic ex-Communists. But the war saw student occupations of the square outside Sofia University and large numbers of young people joining demonstrations called by the reinvigorated Young Socialists. The question of support for Nato divided parliament.
The already weak economy has also been hit hard by the war. The River Danube is a vital transport route that has been effectively closed. The factories and oil refineries that were destroyed by Nato bombs have poured chemicals into the river. While there has been talk of a 'new Marshall Plan' to pump money into the countries of the Balkans, past experience suggests that this will remain just talk. In the three years since the end of the war in Bosnia, just $5 billion came into Bosnia out of a promised $20 billion Western leaders will agree on the need for pouring money in to rebuild the area until the time comes for them to say how much they themselves will contribute, and then they will promise more than they actually deliver.