Issue 246 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

World in revolt

'The revolution has to continue'

Under the banner of the Otpor! flag, the Serbian people take over the streets
Under the banner of the Otpor! flag, the Serbian people take over the streets

Lindsey German

The Serbian Revolution has all the marks of previous democratic revolutions. It contains echoes of the great revolutions of 1848, when upheaval against the old autocratic regimes rocked Europe. It resembles the people's power which shook the Philippines in the 1980s and Indonesia over the past two years. And it is repeatedly claimed as the completion of unfinished business in 1989, when the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were overthrown as a result of mass protests from below.

Like all of these, it was a mass explosion of power from ordinary people. Crucial to it were two groups--Serbian workers, especially the miners of Kolubara, and the mass student movement Otpor!, which, through its bravery and repeated defiance of the regime, acted as an inspiration to the wider movement. All of them made the revolution in the teeth of threatened state repression, massive censorship and election fraud.

Some like to portray this revolution, however, as one in favour of capitalism. It was nothing of the sort. The Serbian people have more reason than most to hate the west and the system it represents. The country was bombed for nearly three months by the Nato alliance last year. The same workers who struck against Milosevic's election fraud were the ones--like the Zastava car workers--who were bombed by Nato. Their experience helped to strengthen Milosevic's position initially, and despite widespread opposition following the war he was able to crush it. His strongest card then and during the election campaign was his claim to defend Serbia's borders against western invasion. The strongest ideological argument of the Milosevic supporters was that any attack on him would play into the hands of the west and would be seen as an attack on all Serbs.

All the opposition leaders of recent years who have supported the west or pro-western policies at various times have been discredited precisely because they were not sufficiently distanced from the west. Vojislav Kostunica's success lay in two things--that he was regarded as principled and above the opportunism of most established opposition politicians, and that he fought his campaign in opposition to Nato and western involvement in Kosovo. He opposed the indictment of Milosevic at the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague, and demanded that the US and its allies should be indicted. He could not have won the election without taking this position as statements from the streets of Belgrade after the revolution made clear. A shop assistant, Srdjan Drobnjakovic, declared, 'It was the Serbian people who got rid of Milosevic, not Nato, and it is for the Serbian people to punish him.' A woman argued that 'you Nato people were never punishing Milosevic. He was hidden underground, his children were away somewhere safe. We were the ones you punished.'

Change from below

None of this stops Robin Cook, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and their allies on the Guardian claiming credit for Milosevic's demise. So Hugo Young wrote, 'No Nato leader is more gratified by what has happened in Yugoslavia than Tony Blair. The deposing of Milosevic is the vindication of a strategy for which he risked more than anyone else in the west. He was the moral, if not the military leader of what saved Kosovo, and has now led to the despatch of the tyrant.' People in Belgrade could be forgiven for questioning the rewriting of history which makes Tony Blair the despatcher of tyrants while the estimated million people on the streets on 5 October, or the miners and supporters who defied the police at Kolubara, are consigned to the role of stage army. The evidence points in the opposite direction. Despite Nato bombing and sanctions, the revolution was a conscious and brave act of workers and students who were fed up with the lack of democracy, the poverty and misery at the bottom of society, and the repression and corruption emanating from the top.

During the war many people opposed the bombing but felt they had to support Milosevic's corrupt regime because to do otherwise would play into the hands of the west. Recent events show they were mistaken to do so and that there was an alternative. Many on the left who supported the war did so because they believed Nato was the only force which could beat Milosevic. They ridiculed the notion that the working class could do so, saying in effect that there was no serious opposition and that the Serbs were one reactionary bloc. Now that the Serbian people, led by the working class, have in fact ousted Milosevic, they simply deny it and claim credit for themselves. The thread of elitism and disdain for ordinary people runs through both positions. Those of us who argued against both Milosevic and Nato can be proud of the fact that we fought western imperialism and the terrible consequences in the Balkans, while also arguing that change had to come from below, and that the regime could not consistently fight against the west but would also turn on its own people.

The revolution has triumphed in its early stages, but it has to continue if real gains are to be won, especially for people at the bottom of society. The success so far has been great, but the problems and dangers ahead are also great. The army and police are still very much intact, and are unwilling to relinquish power. They were prepared to dump Milosevic, and saw that the strength of protests were such that their intervention would result in civil war--a price they did not think would be worth paying. They will be doing everything to preserve their own position and have the new government act in the interests of the military. Kostunica is likely to be unable or unwilling to stand up to a lot of this pressure. He is conservative politically, committed to the same policies over Kosovo, for example, as the old regime. There is every sign that in the run-up to and during the revolution, Kostunica was timid and frightened to move without the approval of the army, and needed assurances that the army would not move against the people. His policies for Serbia offer greater integration into Europe--superficially attractive to many in a war-torn and economically isolated Serbia, but in fact offering austerity, job losses and attacks on workers' living standards as the price of being embraced by the west.

That is why the movement on the streets which overthrew Milosevic represents directly opposed interests to those of the western powers which claim they support it. Kostunica is at the head of that movement, but his policies too will ultimately betray it. Both he and the west will want as little future movement on the streets as possible for fear that those who took direct action for freedom and democracy will start fighting to defend their economic interests as well. There are very deep contradictions for a society where people have made a revolution for a better life but may now find themselves foisted with an IMF Structural Adjustment Plan.

There are also the many unresolved questions which remain from the war. Bosnia is effectively a western-run colony in the middle of the Balkans. Kosovo is run by a western administration which has presided over ethnic cleansing of Serbs and Roma by Albanians. The KLA resent Kostunica's victory since they believe they stood a better chance of winning independence if Milosevic remained in power. They are continuing fighting with Serb police in the hope that they can win independence by further destabilisation. Nationalists in Montenegro also want independence, which the west may be increasingly reluctant to grant. There is therefore still the danger of further wars in the region. Milosevic may have gone, but all the factors leading to war before--especially western intervention--are still there.

How then does the revolution go forward? Workers and students need to continue on the offensive, ensuring that their demands are met. The old bosses, administrators, army chiefs and politicians who propped up the regime should be removed by popular decision of workers and students, who have already started on this road. In the Portuguese Revolution of 1974 this process of saneamento (cleansing) was central to the weakening of the support of the old fascist regime. The free media needs to include workers' control of content as well as of working conditions. Workers have to put forward demands which extend their rights and improve their conditions, and use direct action to win these demands. There has to be control of the police and army from below. Unity of the different nationalities has to take place, not forced from above, but through an equal federation. Only then can the revolution really begin to confront the fundamental problems of Serbian society.

The Serbs were demonised during the war as nationalistic ethnic cleansers. Now they are praised by the same people as heroes of democracy. Neither picture is accurate. Serbs, like every other nation, are divided by politics and above all by class. Every revolution starts with wide unity as most people unite across classes to get rid of hated dictators and win basic democratic demands. Portugal in 1974 was known as the revolution of the flowers. Within a year it was polarised between those who wanted a social revolution and those who wanted to limit their demands. In 1848 Karl Marx described the February revolution in France as the beautiful revolution. Yet by June the workers were having to take to the barricades again to fight against the emerging capitalist class. As economic and class issues come to the fore, every revolution polarises on class lines. If workers are to succeed they need not just strength but an independent political organisation which can fight for their own interests and turn the democratic revolution into a social revolution.

Serbia in 2000 has already been better than the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe. As Misha Glenny has put it, it feels much more like a revolution, and the key difference has been the central role of the working class. Anti-imperialism and distrust of the west remains strong. People can see the effects of the market in eastern Europe. Indeed, there are many effects of the market in Serbia itself. The revolution also takes place against a background of growing anti-capitalism in the west--the lessons of Seattle and Prague cannot have been lost on Otpor!--which is causing growing unrest in the heartlands of imperialism. Serbia's October revolution may therefore be the beginning, not the end, of a process of change. We can show our solidarity in many ways--not least by fighting our own ruling class and ensuring those who made the revolution know there are many in the west on their side.


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