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

World in revolt

Serbia erupts in revolution

'He's finished' was the slogan that heralded the end of the Milosevic regime. Dragan Plavsic examines how the revolutionary process took hold in Serbia.
Andreja Zivkovic looks at the recent history of opposition, while Lindsey German argues that the revolution must continue for workers' demands to be met
Storming the TV station

When Slobodan Milosevic came to power in the late 1980s, a still intact Yugoslavia was wracked by economic crisis and mass strikes. Workers were taking to the streets demanding wages withheld because of the crisis. When one such march arrived at the federal parliament in Belgrade, 20,000 strikers refused to move until Milosevic came out to see them. He listened nervously to their grievances. Then he spoke to them of the need for Serb unity. When the Serbs had been divided, he said, they had suffered at the hands of their enemies. In a final flourish, he told the strikers to go back to their jobs for the good of all Serbia. The strikers listened and then left. As one commentator observed at the time,'The workers arrived at the protest as workers but they left as Serbs.' The nationalist card had been played. The road to war was now open.

The Serbian Revolution, which culminated on 5 October with the dramatic storming of the same federal parliament in Belgrade, proves that the revenge of history is sweet. Sweeter still was the central and decisive role played by the Serbian working class in Milosevic's overthrow, as demonstrated by the prominence of mass strikes and barricades in the struggle. This time the workers were not to be deflected from their task by nationalist myths.

On 27 September the Federal Electoral Commission declared that, contrary to all the evidence, Vojislav Kostunica had not gained more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round of presidential elections, and that a second round was necessary. At a rally held the following day Zoran Djindjic, head of the Democratic Party and the opposition's campaign manager, declared a general strike for Monday 2 October to force the regime into accepting the true result. Secondary school pupils were among the first to pour out onto the streets, often led by activists from Otpor! the student organisation whose clenched fist symbol appeared everywhere together with their slogan, 'He's finished!' In Nis some 5,000 pupils occupied the town centre.

Over the following week a trial of strength ensued between the Milosevic regime on the one hand, and the opposition and the Serbian working class in insurrectionary mood on the other. Central to that trial of strength was what happened on Friday 29 September. At 6.30pm the massive Kolubara mining complex, employing 7,500 workers and producing more than 50 percent of Serbia's coal, went on strike. This one event, in a region hitherto loyal to the regime, did more damage to Milosevic than all the opposition demonstrations of the last decade. The panic it wrought was immediate.

The strikes spread

The workers of Serbia achieved in a few hours what Nato was unable to do in weeks of bombing--remove Milosevic
The workers of Serbia achieved in a few hours what Nato was unable to do in weeks of bombing--remove Milosevic

On Saturday senior mine managers and the federal minister for energy began talks with the strike committee demanding the strike was called off. But news of the strike had already spread. Workers at the oil refinery in Pancevo, repeatedly bombed by Nato during the war, organised a one-hour warning strike announcing the beginning of an all-out strike starting on Monday. The Sevojno copper mill stopped working and the union called a meeting to decide whether to go on general strike from Monday. In Uzice the local media were inundated with state and private companies wishing to inform them that they were now on general strike.

On Sunday, the regime suffered a further blow-- 4,500 miners at the Kostolac pit, which neighbours Kolubara, struck in solidarity. By Monday it was clear to everyone that the success of the Kolubara strike would be crucial for the success of the revolution. As one Kolubara miner said, 'This is a second Gdansk.'

On Monday afternoon Vojislav Kostunica visited the mine. His visit was followed by the dramatic arrival at midnight of the head of the Yugoslav army, General Pavkovic, a hero to many Serbs for extricating the army relatively unscathed from Kosovo during the war. This crude attempt to play the nationalist card was seen by the miners as a sign of the regime's desperation. A member of the strike committee commented, 'We didn't expect Milosevic already to play his ace.' Pavkovic's negotiations with the strike committee lasted until 3am. He got nowhere, despite threatening the miners with conscription. With the failure of his visit, the regime's stance hardened.


On Tuesday 3 October it announced that 'every subversive activity' would 'be prevented in accordance with the law'. The Belgrade public prosecutor's office then sought the arrest of 11 of the leading Kolubara strikers. A judge refused to grant the warrants and was sacked. His replacement issued them. Nevertheless, the situation spiralled further out of Milosevic's control. Around 3,000 workers at the large Majdanpek copper mining complex in eastern Serbia joined the general strike. All roads to Majdanpek were blocked as barricades went up. Belgrade's city public transport workers went on strike for the second day, and police arrested the head of their union. The postal workers' union announced that it would mount a warning strike on Wednesday. The gathering momentum enabled Zoran Djindjic to announce a national demonstration in Belgrade for Thursday 5 October together with the demand that Milosevic resign by 3pm that day.

The regime now had to act quickly. On Wednesday the police and armoured vehicles moved in on the Kolubara complex, taking over sections of the mine. This desperate attempt to break the strike served only to provoke a mass display of solidarity from Belgrade and other local towns in response to a call from Otpor! activists. When the protesters arrived they smashed their way through the police cordon, joined the striking miners inside and ended the attempt to break the strike.

The regime's position was now hopeless. On Thursday the constitutional court's declaration that the presidential election results were null and void only added to the anger. Convoys from across Serbia converged on Belgrade for the demonstration. The largest, from Cacak, was led by its mayor, Velimir Ilic. Made up of 200 lorries, 40 buses and other heavy vehicles, the 20 kilometre long convoy smashed its way through police blockades to reach Belgrade. When it arrived, the convoy's members played a leading role in the storming of the federal parliament. Police lines crumbled as the furious outburst of revolutionary power finally brought down the Milosevic regime after 13 years of death and destruction.

The nature and sequence of these events demonstrate that the Serbian Revolution was neither an imperialist plot nor a pro-capitalist adventure, but the culmination of a genuine working class uprising from below in defence of freedom and democracy. The manner of its success contrasts starkly with the failure of Nato's bombardment last year. The revolution achieved in 11 days what Nato never came close to achieving in 78 days of bombardment. Not only did it overthrow Slobodan Milosevic, but the revolution crippled the very same Yugoslav army that withdrew so triumphantly from Kosovo last year relatively unscathed by Nato's onslaught.

Nato's bombardment killed 890 Yugoslav citizens-- 503 civilians, the rest soldiers and policemen. If we include the Kosovan Albanians killed by Serb paramilitaries during the bombing, we have a total toll of some 3,500 deaths. By contrast, the revolution cost three lives.

Nato's bombardment provoked the temporary ethnic cleansing of almost 1 million Kosovan Albanians, followed by the permanent ethnic cleansing of some 200,000 Kosovan Serbs and Roma. By contrast, the revolution ethnically cleansed no one.

Nato's bombardment caused at least $50 billion worth of economic damage to the infrastructure of Yugoslavia. By contrast, the revolution brought Yugoslavia to a standstill without damaging one car factory, one bridge, one hospital or one school.

Nato's bombardment cost us billions that could have been spent here on a decent health service, a decent minimum wage and decent pensions. By contrast, the revolution has cost us nothing.

Stunning hypocrisy

But the revolution also dealt a fatal blow to the imperialist and racist lie propagated by many pro-war liberals, that freedom and democracy had to be imposed on the Balkans by force from the outside. On 29 April 1999, one month into the bombardment of Yugoslavia, the Guardian published an article by Harvard academic Daniel Goldhagen--the author of Hitler's Willing Executioners, in which he claims that most Germans bore personal responsibility for the Holocaust. After stating that the Serb nation had 'sunk into a moral abyss from which it is unlikely, any time soon, to emerge unaided', Goldhagen added, 'The majority of the Serbian people, by supporting or condoning Milosevic's eliminationist politics, have rendered themselves both legally and morally incompetent to conduct their own affairs.' He concludes, 'Occupation [by Nato] is the prerequisite for producing a thoroughgoing democratic transformation in Serbia.'

It is not often that an argument is so stunningly refuted by the course of events. But the pro-war liberals are not put off so easily. Their latest gambit, provided by the Guardian's Hugo Young and Francis Wheen, is to argue that, by causing Milosevic's defeat, the bombardment of Yugoslavia was in fact responsible for the revolution.

The truth is Milosevic was critically weakened not by the bombardment, but by political developments elsewhere in the Balkans. In December 1999 President Tudjman of Croatia died. In January his HDZ party was heavily defeated at the polls, losing power for the first time since free elections in 1990 to a centre-left coalition. In February one of Tudjman's fiercest critics, Stipe Mesic, defeated the HDZ candidate and became president. Mesic has since sacked seven nationalist generals for opposing him and arrested Croats accused of war crimes against Serbs and Bosnian Muslims. In early April the Bosnian nationalist ruling party of President Izetbegovic suffered some stunning defeats in local elections at the hands of the left-leaning Social Democrats. The effect in Serbia was immediate. In mid-April the largest ever anti-Milosevic demonstration was held prior to the revolution.

During the last decade the terrible nationalist twins, Milosevic and Tudjman, were able to mutually reinforce themselves in power by warning of the grave danger the other posed. The disappearance of one twin from the political scene, together with the electoral defeat of the regime he created, signalled that the end for the other twin was near. With the lessening of nationalist tensions with Croatia, the Serbian people took their chance and voted for change.

What next for the Serbian Revolution?

At the moment, a bureaucratic purge from above of the most prominent members of the Milosevic regime is taking place. Kostunica is using those parts of the state he controls on the Yugoslav federal level to force out adherents of the old regime. Meanwhile the old regime is battling to recapture the political initiative by exploiting those parts of the state it still controls on the Serbian republican level. This also includes the army, where General Pavkovic remains in charge.

Kostunica is clearly reluctant to continue to rely on the workers' power that brought victory. As Zoran Djindjic has said, 'We could make a revolution but it wouldn't be good. It would create too much instability.' In this situation shoddy compromises with the old regime will become appealing. In the weeks ahead, however, Kostunica will have to reckon with the growing mass pressure from below. Across Serbia workers are taking it upon themselves to remove hated company directors and other state officials tainted by their association with the old regime. In Smederevo workers at the local steel plant that employs 11,000 threatened to go on strike unless their manager resigned. In Nis workers stormed the state-run textile factory, Nitex, demanding the management be fired. In Belgrade workers attacked the head of Genex, Serbia's largest state-run import-export operation, who then resigned. The new regime is unhappy and its representatives have been visiting factories urging workers back to work.

As socialists we must support all actions against the bosses, but we should also argue that workers should not only elect their new managers but also take over the functions previously performed by the management. This is crucial not just for sound democratic reasons. Kostunica's economic policy is a free market one that will entail a reduction in workers' rights if it is to succeed. Foreign investors will arrive to take advantage of privatisation. Workers will be in a stronger position to resist the free market and privatisation if they are able to exploit the current political situation by extending their rights within the workplace in a radically democratic direction.

Such demands should not, however, be limited to the workplace. Soldiers should demand the right to elect their officers. Journalists and other workers at Radio Television Serbia should demand the right to elect the new director. Students and workers at Belgrade University should demand the right to elect the new rector.

The tide of change that has swept the Balkans in this momentous year reflects the fact that people can increasingly see that the petty statelets created over the last ten years have not brought prosperity but poverty. They have not brought independence but dependence on one or other of the foreign powers. Bosnia and Kosovo are glaring examples of Nato's new colonial role.

From the 19th century on, Balkan socialists have argued that the Balkans, divided into small statelets ruled by nationalist cliques competing with each other for economic and political power, would be easy prey to imperialist intervention. They concluded that the only way of transcending national conflict whilst keeping imperialism at bay was to work for the establishment of a Balkan-wide federation based on working class democracy.

The victory of the Serbian Revolution is proof of our belief--as socialists--that it is the working class which has the power to shake the very foundations of the modern state in the interests of democratic and progressive change. Whether the revolution will progress in a radically democratic direction that has implications for the Balkans as a whole will depend in part on whether socialists will be able to push the struggle forward.

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