Issue 242 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
A tide of change is sweeping across the war-torn Balkans. In January, only one month after President Tudjman's death, his nationalist HDZ party was humiliated at the polls, losing power in Croatia for the first time since free elections were held in 1990. Croats voted in a centre-left coalition government. Then in February, Stipe Mesic, Tudjman's most vocal critic, was elected president. Across the border in Bosnia in local elections held on 8 April, the ruling Bosnian Muslim nationalist party of Alija Izetbegovic, the SDA, also suffered some heavy blows at the hands of the Social Democrats of Zlatko Lagumdzija. Most dramatically, the SDA stronghold of Gorazde, the scene of a bloody encirclement by Bosnian Serbs in 1994, saw the Social Democrats win 45 percent of the vote, up from only 6 percent in 1997.
This rejection of the nationalist parties most closely associated with the death and destruction of the last ten years has also revived opposition in Serbia. On 14 April, the largest ever anti-Milosevic demonstration was held in Belgrade. Some 200,000 protesters demanded Milosevic's resignation, early elections, and a halt to state terror of the opposition and the independent media. The loudest support was for Nenad Canak, leader of the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina, who had bitter words for Milosevic: 'We do not need the Hague... We will try you. We will take the scumbag out of his hideout and we will hang you here, right here!' Although called by the United Opposition, a coalition of 16 opposition parties, the demonstration was above all a reflection of the increasingly desperate pressure for change from below. But this pressure is also mixed with popular distrust of the opposition parties because of their quarrelsome opportunism and intermittent collaboration with the regime.
This distrust has led to the extraordinary growth of Otpor! (Resistance!), an organisation formed in 1998 by Belgrade University students angered by the betrayals of the opposition parties. Its activists are university and secondary school students who eschew the bureaucratic trappings of the political parties such as leaders, officials and spokespersons. As one opposition spokesman noted with unease, 'They're very young and radical towards everyone, including the opposition, but their main target is Milosevic, and we accept this.' Otpor activists have kept opposition to the regime in the limelight by mass flyposting and leafleting, spraying graffiti, and impromptu street theatre. Otpor's clenched fist has become a popular opposition symbol.
The regime's reaction has been swift. In March some 2,000 Otpor activists were arrested, many for putting up around 60,000 anti-regime posters across 67 towns to commemorate Nato's bombardment of Yugoslavia. Police interrogations and beatings are common, and the state media frantically denounce Otpor activists as Nato's pawns. Otpor's main weakness, however, is an ideological one it shares with the opposition parties--a programme that consists of a conventional mix of basic democratic demands plus market reform. Nevertheless, as Otpor continues to grow nationally beyond its student base, some of its activists may see the need to raise economic and political demands that appeal more directly to the Serbian working class, a class whose relationship with the opposition has so far been ambiguous. The unquestioned commitment of the opposition parties to radical market reform and privatisation, and the absence in their platform of a social programme based on workers' rights has meant that, although many workers have joined the demonstrations, their support has been volatile. Independent trade unions such as Nezavisnost are growing, but most workers are still members of the state trade unions. Many voted for Milosevic's Socialist Party whose rhetoric exploits the opposition's failure to elaborate a social programme.
But rhetoric is all it is. The regime has itself privatised large sectors of the Serbian economy. In 1997, 49 percent of Serbian Telecom was sold to Italian and Greek companies. In 1998 the Beocin Cement Works were sold to foreign investors. In 1999 the Pancevo Petrochemical Industry was ready for flotation on the London Stock Exchange until it was bombed during the war. The criminal corruption that lies behind both privatisation and the workings of the Serbian state has recently found expression in the spate of mafia-style slayings of prominent figures close to the regime. The killings are partly political but are also business related as sections of the ruling class, allied with elements of the mafia, fight it out to see who will benefit most from privatisation.
In January, Arkan, once Milosevic's favourite paramilitary, was assassinated, followed by Pavle Bulatovic, the defence minister, in February. In April, Zika Petrovic, head of the state airline, JAT, was gunned down ten days after announcing its privatisation. Then in May, Bosko Petrosevic, head of the Vojvodina regional government and a Milosevic loyalist, was shot dead at an agricultural fair. Petrosevic's death has provoked a fierce crackdown with the regime blaming the killing on Otpor though there is not a shred of evidence for this. In fact, the assassin was caught and has no links with the opposition. Nevertheless, hundreds of Otpor activists have been arrested across Serbia and the regime has closed down the independent Studio B radio and television station, a vital source of dependable news for many Serbs. At the time of writing, the situation is unclear but an informal state of emergency seems to have gripped Serbia. Belgrade is tense as many expect violent clashes.
These are now critical times for the opposition. It must be prepared to struggle uncompromisingly against Milosevic as he terrorises the growing mass movement with state power. A serious orientation on the Serbian working class will not guarantee victory but in any confrontation with state power, it is the mass power this class has which will make final victory at last possible. Our task is to support this struggle by demanding from Blair an immediate end to sanctions against Serbia--and that he leaves the future of the Balkans to the Balkan peoples themselves.