The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

A Reactionary Opposition Confronts a Reactionary Regime in the Name of Democracy

Feb 8, 1997

The president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, once again is facing an opposition protesting in the streets. Neither the violently repressed demonstrations of March 9, 1991, nor those of March 9, 1992, appeared to threaten his power as much as those which have been taking place every day since they began on November 21st.

Milosevic, a former leading member of the Communist League, became the head of the Serbian Republic when Serbia was only one of six republics in the Yugoslav Federation, which at that point also included two autonomous regions. He was able to remain in power, despite the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, keeping his rivals at bay by imposing an ultra-nationalist and authoritarian rule. Milosevic even succeeded in emerging as a "man of peace" from a war that he had been instrumental in instigating.

However, the current crisis appears to constitute a serious threat to his own personal power. What will result from his acquiescing to the opposition, accepting their victory in the municipal elections he had tried to nullify? That remains to be seen. But right now, no one can say whether it will put an end to the political crisis which has swept Serbia.

From Opposition to Milosevic’s Decree to Opposition to Milosevic Himself

The Dayton Accords the American dictate which put an end to open warfare in Bosnia without solving any of the problems which caused it had made Milosevic the official negotiating partner of the major powers. It also lifted international economic sanctions.

On November 3, 1996, Milosevic won the federal legislative elections in the rump Yugoslav Federal Republic consisting of Serbia and Montenegro. Despite mass abstention, this success opened up the way for Milsoevic to alter the Constitution in order to extend his power. Apparently, he was intending to amend the constitution either to enable him to stand for a third term of office as president of Serbia or to reinforce the powers of the ruling body of the small Yugoslav Federation, so that he would lose none of his power by exchanging the Serbian presidency for the federal presidency.

But the results of the local elections held just two weeks later were a snub to Milosevic. The opposition coalition, called "Together" ("Zajedno"), had been formed the previous spring in order to contest these two elections, and it carried off a victory in the local elections which surprised even its own leaders. It won thirty-eight local councils. Although there are 189 local councils in all, the 38 in question were in major towns, including the capital, Belgrade.

In themselves, these election results were not sufficient to provoke the current political crisis. Milosevic has as much experience as the head of any other dictatorship in falsifying or denying a result which it didn’t want. Indeed, the regime’s first move was simply to cancel the results.

This time, however, there was opposition to the maneuver. The demand to recognize the results of the local elections provided the ill-assorted opposition groups a common denominator and unifying aim.

The street demonstrations which began on November 21, 1996 continued, with some ups and downs, but with no overall decline in intensity. In Belgrade they brought together tens of thousands of demonstrators every day, with numbers exceeding 100,000 on some occasions. They sometimes even reached 200,000. Major demonstrations also took place in several provincial cities.

There are two kinds of demonstrations: those of the students the main social category mobilized and those organized by the opposition. They may not be coordinated organizationally, but they merge into a single movement marked by the political slogans of the opposition, whose leaders are striving to take over the leadership of the movement.

The movement of the students and the "Together" coalition is by no means radical in its methods, and even less so in its aims. Nevertheless, the movement continued, and that shows a certain determination. This has shaken the main props of Milosevic’s power one after the other. The leaders of Montenegro have distanced themselves to such an extent that institutions common to Serbia and Montenegro may become paralyzed. Their federation may break up. The Orthodox Church has publicly dissociated itself from the regime. Much more dangerous to Milosevic, the military chief of staff assured the opposition that the army would not resort to repression after several regiments had stated publicly that they would not obey orders from Milosevic to crush the demonstrations.

Encouraged by developments, some opposition leaders are now calling for Milosevic to go. The leadership of "Together," however, has shown itself ready to make any compromises which would let it benefit from its local election gains. But even if Milosevic succeeds in hanging onto his position as head of state, his personal power will be considerably shaken as a result of this crisis.

What changes might the Serbian population see as a result of the current mobilization?

Will Milosevic go? This could be one possible result of the movement.

Will there be a change of political language? This too is possible, even without Milosevic abandoning power. He has, in changing circumstances, been capable of switching from his original pseudo-Marxist jargon to ultra-nationalism, then of getting rid of his most embarrassing ultra-nationalist allies to pose as a defender of stability within the framework defined by the Americans.

But beyond that?

What are the aims of the current mobilization? And what policies do the opposition organizations which have led it propose?

The Political Basis of Milosevic’s Ascension

It is fashionable to lay all the blame for the disastrous situation in Serbia on Slobodan Milosevic. The fact remains, however, that Milosevic has succeeded in hanging onto power, at any rate in Serbia, because he has represented the policy broadly or even unanimously shared by all the privileged layers of the population: former apparatchiks of Tito’s party and state apparatus, like himself; officials and members of the petty bourgeoisie who have got rich; businessmen; and also members of the intelligentsia who contributed considerably to his propaganda and to establishing him in power.

The major powers helped to created Milosevic’s dictatorship. According to an American professor of political science who came from Yugoslavia (quoted in Le Monde Diplomatique), "The Serbian dictator is simply the product of an era, a product manufactured as much in Washington and Paris as in Belgrade." (In which, one should add, he is no different from the Croat Franjo Tudjman or the Bosnian Izetbegovic.)

Yugoslavia was wracked by a profound crisis, both economic and political, after Tito’s death 1980. Social tensions rose, as the standard of living of the working masses collapsed; a wave of strikes affected in varying degrees all sectors of the economy and all the Republics. In this situation, the leading cliques, each with their own base of support in one of the Republics, pursued a symmetrical policy of increasingly antagonistic nationalist demagogy.

In 1987, when he was still a member of the Communist League, the single party in power, Milosevic inaugurated what was known as the "Serbian revival." He used a populist demagogy, calling for an "anti-bureaucratic revolution" against the privileges and abuses of the "incompetent" and the "corrupt." And he launched a campaign of Serbian nationalist demonstrations aimed at removing autonomous status from the province of Kosovo, with its 90% Albanian population.

Carrying out repression against the Albanian population in Kosovo, Milosevic encountered no opposition, neither from the leaders of the other republics nor from within the Serbian republic itself. He established himself as the strong man of Serbia aided by the atmosphere of Serbian nationalism, encompassing not only all privileged milieus, the Orthodox Church and the far right, but also virtually all intellectuals. When, after the first elections of 1990, circumstances demanded, he renamed the Communist League of Serbia as the Socialist Party of Serbia, but he made no other pretense of change, even in the formal sense.

When Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence and the Yugoslav Federation broke up in 1991, the different opposing nationalist policies led to war. Under the pretext of defending Serbian minorities living in Croatia, Milosevic sent the army, which was still formally a Yugoslav institution but which was under his control, against the towns of Croatia. Later he was to do the same thing in Bosnia- Herzegovina.

In the decisive years, the ruling class and its political representatives gave Milosevic general consent for his policy of warlike nationalism. There were of course student demonstrations in 1991 and 1992, but in no way did these demonstrations protest against the government’s ultra-nationalist policy.

More recently, opposition to Milosevic has grown up among his earlier allies: in Serbia itself from ultra-nationalist or quasi-fascist groups and militia leaders like Vojislav Seselj; and in the Serbian "autonomous republics" in Croatia and Bosnia from the leaders of these "republics" such as Karadzic who had at one time been a rival to Milosevic for power in Belgrade.

Many of these opponents tried to outflank the regime in the area of "pan-Serbian" nationalism. But leaving that aside, the opposition took the form, at best, of small fluctuating circles, particularly in Belgrade. Certainly, many middle-class young people showed their opposition to the war by deserting or going into exile. The opposition circles were motivated in the case of some politicians by hostility to Milosevic. But they were also motivated by an anti-war pacifism and/or by a nostalgia for the "old Yugoslavia." These latter aims were no doubt sincere, but they were devoid of political perspectives.

Thus Milosevic was able to impose himself and maintain his position as the all-powerful spokesman of Serbian nationalism, including warlike nationalism. He was seen as the obvious man to carry out a policy which in fact suited all the dominant layers of society. The majority of the population, meanwhile, was never offered different perspectives by any political force.

The Disastrous Results of Nationalist Policy

Today, one year after the end of the war, the disastrous results of this warlike nationalist policy are there to be seen.

Most of the student youth of 1996 have known little other than the atmosphere of war and chauvinist propaganda.

How many uncounted dead has this war left behind; how many victims at all levels, people wounded, mutilated, exiled or separated from their family; how many victims among the Serbian fighters who went, or were sent, to make war on the Croatian and Bosnian populations; how many victims among the Serbian populations driven out of Croatian Krajina, eastern Slavonia and various areas in Bosnia, forced to take to the roads? Even if the price paid by the Serbian population was less heavy, in this sinister reckoning, than that paid by the Croatian and especially the Bosnian Muslim population, more than four years of war have left terrible scars on all these populations.

And this policy has also resulted in the abject poverty in which most of the poorer classes have now to live.

In his first years in power, between 1987 and 1989, Milosevic spiced his nationalist demagogy with the promise of a "Swedish style" standard of living. Today, the economy is in ruins: many big factories have stopped producing, or are producing at only 10 to 20% of their capacity; wages have fallen from approximately $800 a month to often less than $100 (according to the International Herald Tribune); 60% of the active population is unemployed with the most beggarly benefits; the standard of living has fallen disastrously; the refugee population is between 600,000 and 700,000. A whole people is reduced to survival conditions, particularly in the towns.

What is more, in the face of this poverty, there is a minority which has gotten rich: the arrogant war profiteers, the black market nouveaux riches and the corrupt elements in the circles surrounding the government.

The "Socialist-leaning" populism of Milosevic and his wife, who is the leader of the second organization in the government coalition, the Union of the Yugoslav Left, masks unbridled trafficking linked to the holding of power. Of the 29 ministers of the Serbian government, 13 are chairmen of semi-public or private companies. Contraband, the arms trade and trafficking of all kinds fuel a largely mafia-controlled economy.

A Movement with Mixed Aspirations

It is difficult to assess how this state of affairs is perceived by the masses, and how it is translated into their feelings and consciousness.

The current movement, which essentially involves the urban petty bourgeoisie, particularly the student youth, started when Milosevic moved to suppress the election results. This apparently triggered a movement of more generalized discontent against the regime.

It is understandable that the absence of political freedoms, and particularly the threats against the media not linked to the government, seems less bearable now that the war is over and there is no longer any justification for imposing silence in the name of national unity. But the duration of the movement and its relatively mass nature testify to the fact that it is basically the power of Milosevic himself which is the target.

The general demand emerging is for "democracy" and a "legal state," but these are expressions which cover diverse or even contradictory aims. What characterizes this movement is its very composite and disparate nature, in terms of the aspirations it expresses.

The student demonstrators have put forward "corporatist" type demands, such as the resignation of a particular university rector. They obviously want to distance themselves from the political opposition grouped in "Zajedno." The "Declaration of the students of the University of Kragujevac," makes the following protest: "We are not attached to any political party, but we are against this government which forces us, once we have obtained our degrees, to go and beg in other countries’ embassies for them to give us visas with permission to work. We must oppose this government which is incapable of providing us with the minimum conditions for our education."

More political tendencies are emerging. Some condemn the war waged against neighboring peoples, either in simple pacifist terms, or sometimes calling nationalist policies into question. But others reject Milosevic today for the opposite reasons. Ever since he rallied behind the policy of the western leaders which led to the Dayton Accords, he has been accused by ultra-nationalists of betraying the cause of the war and of the union of all Serbs in a single state; of having abandoned the Serbs in Krajina in the face of the Croat Army offensive in the summer of 1995; of being ready to hand over eastern Slavonia to the enemy in Zagreb, and so on.

The anti-government movement thus contains all kinds of elements, ranging from students with no future to disappointed and frustrated nationalists; it includes people opposed to the war and a few anti- nationalists, or those who simply aspire to greater freedom of expression or who see Milosevic as the leader of an anachronistic "Communist government" which refuses to make the "transition." What the relative weight of these different elements is, or what degree of sympathy the different ones enjoy in the population as a whole, and on what basis, we do not know. But, in any event, it’s clear that the mobilization is no more a unanimous expression of anger against the Serbian president’s past gung-ho policies than it is conversely a unanimous expression of anger against the "betrayal" of the cause of Greater Serbia. The only unanimous mobilizing factor is anti-Milosevic feeling, at least among the petty bourgeoisie and young people.

It’s also clear that, up to now at least, the working class has remained outside the current movement.

Workers have every reason to be discontented with the present government. But they also have many reasons to be reserved about the opposition which currently is taking center stage politically.

A report published in the International Herald Tribune, December 6, gives a few interesting indications on this subject: "Workers interviewed in Novi Sad, Belgrade and in the mining town of Bor often expressed sympathy for the coalition’s demands. Many said that they voted for the opposition, adding however that they do not have enough confidence in its leadership to risk their jobs... The leaders of the opposition are not people we can count on to stay on our side if things got really tough’ declared one worker in Belgrade, who asked to remain anonymous. And none of us has much sympathy for the students. When we went on strike earlier in the year, these students offered us no support, and now they would like us to go out and march with them in the streets."

The political past of the opposition leaders is indeed enough to arouse suspicion.

A Divided Opposition which Offers No Prospect for Change

A brief look at the pasts of the opposition’s three most prominent leaders is very revealing. Vuk Draskovic, who is the leader of the "Movement for Serbian Renewal," and who is trying to impose himself as the "first among equals" in this trio, began his career as a prominent politician opposed to Milosevic by claiming to stand for the Chetnik and royalist tradition. In the early nineties he worked with Seselj, the present leader of the Serbian far right, for a "Greater Serbia." Draskovic formulated the demand that Serbs should own "all territories where there are Serb cemeteries." He then did an about-face, asserting that he was opposed to the war in Bosnia. When Seselj flirted for a while with Milosevic and placed his militias in Milosevic’s service, in the name of "national interests," Draskovic remained firmly in the opposition but in that section of the opposition whose monarchist "democratism" boiled down to a demand for the "anti-democratic Bolshevik Milosevic" to go.

His rival, Zoran Djindjic, the leader of the "Democratic Party," has also engaged in ultra- nationalist demagogy, distinguishing himself by trips in support of Karadzic in Pale. Vesna Pesic, the leader of the "Civic Alliance," has long been opposed to nationalism to the extent that she has been the target of threats as a "traitor to the country" and a "foreign mercenary." But her organization is marginal, and in any case she chose to offer her support to her two rival comrades in opposition.

By comparison to Milosevic’s Socialist Party and the Yugoslav Left (JUL) of his wife, Mirjiana Markovic, this coalition of convenience appears to be more pro-western and in favor of a clearer break with the Yugoslavia of Tito and a more rapid privatization policy. What it would do once in power is another matter. In any case, no one is formulating a program or promises, and everyone is hiding behind the demand for recognition of the local election victories of November 17.

In other words, on the social level, the opposition offers not the slightest hope for positive change to the poorer classes. From time to time the press reports the support of "independent unions" for the demonstrations. But in addition to the fact that these unions do not seem to have any significant influence among workers, even with regard to elementary material demands, they do not defend the interests of workers any more than do the official unions under the control of the regime (a legacy of the Tito era).

It would even seem that at least parts of the poorer classes fear that their situation will get worse if the opposition were to win. Despite his policy of Great Serbian chauvinism and the way in which he has distanced himself from the Tito era, Milosevic is still seen as the political leader who most embodies continuity with Titoism at least, out of all the political leaders of the states which have emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia. The agrarian reform came during the Tito era, and Milosevic still seems to benefit from this in rural areas. The fact the opposition is not winning the support of workers may be partly linked to their fear of losing even the few minimum social protections which the regime continues to maintain through the official unions. These unions are among the mainstays of power of Milosevic, husband and wife.

Nor does the opposition represent a real change in the area of ultra-nationalist policies. It admittedly no longer uses the warlike language of the recent past. But then neither does Milosevic any more.

And the opposition changed its language more recently than did Milosevic. In their closing meeting of the election campaign, in November 1996, the leaders of the Opposition, Draskovic and Djindjic, again called for applause for the woman who officially replaced Karadzic as the stooge leader of the Bosnian Serb die-hards in Pale. It was only after the success of the street demonstrations, when their ambitions made them try to appear more presentable in the eyes of the western leaders, that the "Zajedno" coalition approved the Dayton Accords and the American peace (a year after they were signed). Like Milosevic, people like Draskovic are clever enough not to put all their eggs in one basket.

It goes without saying that such people are no more tender with the oppressed Albanian population of Kosovo than is Milosevic.

For the moment, the only thing that really distinguishes the opposition from Milosevic is simply the fact that it is an opposition to him. In the name of this opposition role, it is attempting, apparently with some success, to ride on the back of all forms of anger and resentment. Its emptiness ensures its unity. This emptiness, as much as the mobilization itself, explains why the state apparatus has acted with so much benevolence toward it. This also explains why the leaders of the major powers, as well as the western pseudo-democratic intelligentsia, are so favorably inclined toward it.

The Major Powers and the Political Crisis in Serbia

The policy of the major powers has mainly been to wait and see, even if the American leaders went so far as to issue a few verbal protests against Milosevic, talking about the "need to respect democracy." Probably their pressure has become more marked over the weeks, but it is still very vague. With Milosevic, the western leaders know with whom they are dealing. He is a partner they have been acquainted with for years. They knowingly established him as the strong man in the region. Milosevic is one of the pillars along with his acolyte Tudjman in Zagreb of the order and stability they are looking for in the Balkans.

Of course, if Milosevic’s power shows serious signs of being shaken, the leaders of the major powers would have no qualms about looking to this opposition which is so well behaved and so openly pro- western. But this opposition poses a problem for the guardians of the international order. It is split by rival ambitions. The major powers have good reasons to fear that the ouster of Milosevic will not put an end to the crisis, but will simply bring the rivalry between Draskovic and Djindjic to the fore. And if the situation became destabilized in Serbia, this would make the situation worse in Bosnia.

Once again, in the present situation, there is no positive policy being put forward by anyone on the basis of the interests of the workers and peoples of former Yugoslavia. The only visible political leadership of the movement not only does not represent the interests of the working population; it could not even propose a policy aiming simply at these different peoples living together. And this, despite the fact that a warlike nationalist policy has been seen to be such a bloody failure.

In all the countries of eastern Europe, "democracy" has been the key slogan under which the transition from regimes formerly subject to the domination of the Soviet bureaucracy to regimes subject to the domination and plundering of western imperialism has been carried out. This transition has, in many cases, not even resulted in replacing the villains in power by others; it has only perpetuated the power of the existing political caste, through a change in their political labels. The poorer class may have harbored some illusions about the changes. They did not have to wait long to see what the reality was.

It is possible that Serbia, the core of the former Yugoslavia, will now undergo, a few years and one atrocious civil war later, the transformation that its neighbors experienced earlier. The way things look at the moment, this transformation will be no different from that of its neighbors.

The most we can hope for in this crisis, whatever its outcome, is that it will enable some people, particularly among the student and working class youth, to reach political maturity, gaining useful experience from this movement whose only perspective is the possible replacement of one ruling team with another. When they look at the results of an aggressive nationalist policy, these young people might learn not simply to turn to pacifism or Draskovic-style "democratism"; they might, at least in some cases, succeed in breaking radically with nationalism. They might rediscover the aspiration to live in a society in which different nationalities live together fraternally. They might seek to achieve this by the only means possible, the class struggle for a society rid of exploitation.