Issue 246 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
The meaning of any great social transformation is always fiercely contested. The Serbian Revolution is no exception. For the publicists of the western bourgeoisie the democratic revolution, caused by the 1999 Nato war, is a pro-western one and will eventually reintegrate Serbia into the European family of liberal-democratic, capitalist nations. For some sections of the western left, Kostunica has been 'imposed' by the west to dismantle the Serbian state and lead Serbia into the colonial embrace of western capitalism.
Both positions start out from the delusion that it was the war 'wot won it'. But this kind of analysis simply will not do. The war was no doubt one tragedy too many for the Serbian people to endure. But the vast majority of them in the period preceding the war had come to the conclusion that it was high time for Milosevic to pack his bags. The Nato war actually strengthened Milosevic as people united behind the regime.
More damagingly, this argument whitewashes the symbiotic relationship between imperialism and nationalism in the Balkans. The west has always played the double game of both backing and punishing Slobodan Milosevic. At the outset Milosevic was the man to inherit Tito's mantle and hold Yugoslavia together for the edifying purpose of repaying its $20 billion debt. The rights of the different nations under threat from Milosevic's vision of 'Serbo-slavia' were simply ignored.
When Yugoslavia fell apart and Milosevic made his push for a Greater Serbia in Croatia and Bosnia he was vilified, and sanctions were imposed on the Serbian people. Then at Dayton in 1995 he was accorded the role of defender of an iniquitous colonial settlement to the Bosnian war. Milosevic continued to be 'our man in the Balkans' until it became clear in late 1998 that the low-intensity war he was conducting against the Kosovan Albanians was going to blow the security system imposed on the region at Dayton wide open. Milosevic has never been some kind of bulwark against imperialism in the manner that some claim but has consistently sought western support for his power plays, and he has been happy to accept colonial government in Bosnia--and also in Kosovo. For what Milosevic objected to at Rambouillet was not so much a colonial protectorate in Kosovo but one run by Nato that could be extended to the rest of Yugoslavia if a suitable pretext occurred.
Thus imperialist intervention is the real reason for the longevity of Milosevic's bankrupt regime, and it has consistently served to dissolve the deep class divisions in Serbia. Sanctions enabled Milosevic to blame mass unemployment and poverty on the west and keep recycling the rallying cry that swept him to power in 1987: 'Only unity will save the Serbs.' In the same way the shadow of western interference justified the repressive, authoritarian state that secured the regime from popular dissent. Consequently it is the society forged in the years of war and sanctions in which the roots of the democratic revolution lie. Far from being some kind of socialist paradise it was, according to Jonathan Steele of the Guardian, a kind of 'crony capitalism' like Suharto's Indonesia, involving a network of state-controlled or state-sponsored monopolies linked by the system of 'unregulated capitalism'. Privatisation did take place, and its beneficiaries were a clique of politicians, trade union leaders, generals and factory managers in the higher echelons of the Socialist Party and the United Left (the party of Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic).
It was no wonder, then, that the people periodically rose up against this hated system. In 1991 a revolt in Belgrade against state repression and for an open media was only subdued by army tanks. In 1996-97 there were three months of daily mass demonstrations in the main cities of Serbia against the refusal of the regime to recognise the results of local elections in which the opposition had swept the board. Milosevic survived, partly due to the tame legalistic strategy of the opposition, but also because the regime presented itself as the defender of the 'socialist' legacy of Tito's Yugoslavia. This meant little more than a social security system designed to mitigate the worst effects of mass unemployment, but it was enough to make sections of the working class hesitate. For was not Slobodan right in warning that a vote for the opposition meant a vote for the free market and the suffering that had taken place in eastern Europe before their very eyes? This did not stop many workers from demonstrating as individuals during the heady winter of 1996-97, but it prevented any collective strategy of change from emerging. Three more years of exploitation and abuse down the line and Milosevic's insulting election con provoked a revolution.
This time the driving force of the revolution lay in a massive revolt from below. Thus it is quite misleading to call this a capitalist revolution simply because Kostunica and the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) would like to see a rapid integration of the Serbian economy into the financial and trading structures of global capitalism.
The rise of the mass youth movement Otpor! helped prepare the ground for the 5 October insurrection in Belgrade. Inspired by a critique of 'official politics' and an outright rejection of leaders, Otpor! is in reality much closer in outlook to sections of the anti-capitalist movement that rocked Seattle and Prague than it is to the East European student circles of 1989. The meaning of the Serbian Revolution lies in a revolt against the lack of democracy and accountability of 'socialism' Milosevic-style, and the massive inequalities, corruption and suffering it produced. Behind it is the ideal of a more egalitarian, democratic society subject to the will of the people. If some people now equate this with the free market, others equate it with a system of 'self management' of factories controlled by the workers. This kind of demand, surging forth from the struggle in the factories, stands in direct contradiction to the logic of the free market. Kostunica and the IMF may well have the future of Serbia mapped out in orderly fashion, but history has by no means been written yet.