Saturday, August 13, 2005

Working class in revolt against Milosevic 1999

Working class in revolt against Milosevic

By Michael Karadjis

Unlike the protests of 1996-97, the current mass demonstrations against the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic have spread to the working-class towns of southern Serbia. However, the current demonstrations of tens of thousands are far smaller than the hundreds of thousands who mobilised in 1996-97. This is because the middle class of Belgrade has so far remained quiet.

The Serbian working class is saying no to a regime that has looted the state enterprises they “manage” while enriching themselves through their private concerns. The regime has distracted attention from this theft with state-orchestrated chauvinism, time and again marching its working-class victims off to fight ethnic wars against fellow workers in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosova.The ultimate insult occurred soon after the war: as Belgrade could find no money to pay destitute workers whose factories had been bombed, or soldiers returning from the front, Milosevic's son Marko added a private fun park costing half a million dollars to his business empire.

The mass revolt has broken out in the southern industrial cities of Leskovac, Uzice, Kragujevac, Kraljevic, Cacak, Krusevac and the northern city of Novi Sad. During the Kosova war, an anti-war movement flourished, in the same cities. Mass demonstrations of working people demanded that Belgrade “Bring our sons home” from Kosova. Hundreds of soldiers deserted.

The working class in these cities has long been impoverished by the policies of Milosevic's capitalist regime. A third of Yugoslav workers are unemployed, while many still “employed” are on forced leave with half or no pay. Independent working-class forces, such as the trade union federation Nezavisnost, have long challenged the regime's chauvinist ideology and recognised this is linked to its economic looting.

The workers in the Zastava car plant in Kragugevac have twice launched mass campaigns against Milosevic over the last few years, demanding the return of the factory to the workers. This factory was destroyed by NATO. In Cacak, Milisav Kovacevic, an unemployed factory worker, summed up the mood: “I am left without a job, and what do I get in return? Bogus patriotism from people who managed to get rich on other people's misery.”

Until recently, many workers in these regions have been taken in by the regime's ideology. Without access to the alternative media available to the middle classes of Belgrade, many swallowed the Serb-chauvinist propaganda of both the regime and the bourgeois “opposition”.

The Kosova war dramatically changed this. The regime sent a disproportionate number of soldiers from the southern cities and Novi Sad to the front. Better-off sectors of the population in Belgrade, with links to the regime or its bourgeois, pro-war “opposition”, were able to avoid being sent to the front.

Working-class conscripts were bombed by NATO, while back home their means of life were also being destroyed. Moreover, they were for the first time exposed to the regime's brutality and the true nature of Milosevic's war against the Kosovars. Hundreds of Albanian refugees have reported that ordinary Serbian draftees were less vicious than the regime's paramilitaries, and in many cases helped Albanians. There were many reports of soldiers deserting because they objected to the ethnic cleansing of Kosova.

The hatred of the regime has not translated into pro-NATO sentiment in the devastated southern towns. Dragan, a soldier taking part in protests in Kragujevac who had operated an anti-aircraft gun to defend the town, told the New York Times: “We hated NATO. We were defending our families here”.Another protesting soldier, Dobrivoje, said he hates NATO but added: “We were brainwashed for 10 years by Milosevic and his gang. I would gladly see Slobo go before a firing squad.”

Alliance for Change

Demonstrations have been led by parties which have joined an unwieldy coalition called the Alliance for Change. This alliance includes many organisations that have long resisted Milosevic and the Serbian nationalist ideology behind him.It includes the Civic Alliance, led by long-time oppositionist Vesna Pesic, the Social Democratic Party, led by former general Vuk Obradovic, anti-nationalist groups in Vojvodina that have worked to strengthen relations with the Hungarian minority, new groups that have developed in opposition to the war, particularly the civil leadership in Cacak and the New Serbia Party, and the independent trade union Nezavisnost.

The combination of opposition to Serb nationalism with a rejection of the regime's anti-working class policies is clearest in the case of Nezavisnost. As the organisation's May Day statement, issued at the height of the war, stated:“For eight years warmongering, nationalist and chauvinist songs and slogans were heard, for eight years [the regime] has divided us into Serbs and `others', while in the name of the working class it has closed down factories, sent workers into the streets and flea markets. NATO came at the end of the final act of the play. Workers whose factories were finally finished off joined the workers who have been out of work for years thanks to the adventurist, irresponsible and anti-labour policies of the Serbian regime.”
Bourgeois opposition

Such ideas are fundamentally different to those of the United States and other Western powers who are supporting the bourgeois elements within the Alliance for Change. Washington wants to replace Milosevic with forces from the same Serbian nationalist camp who will continue and deepen the austerity and privatisation begun by Milosevic.

Among the bourgeois forces within the alliance are the Democratic Party, led by Zoran Djindjic, who previously blocked with Bosnian Serb extremist leader Karadzic, and Dradoslav Abramovic, Milosevic's former head of the central bank, who recently claimed the NATO destruction of many old factories was “opportunity” because they were unproductive and no-one wants to buy them.Milan Panic, Milosevic's former president and a millionaire owner of a transnational pharmaceuticals company, is also active in the alliance.

Other key bourgeois opposition figures, not part of the alliance, include: Momcilo Perisic, Milosevic's long-time head of the Yugoslav army who was sacked last October for opposing the ethnic cleansing of Kosova; Dobrica Cosic, the intellectual “father” of Serb nationalism and former prime minister under Milosevic, who has a following within the nationalist intelligentsia; and Vuk Draskovic and his Serbian Renewal Party (SPO), the largest “opposition” party. However, the SPO has been part of Milosevic's ruling coalition since January and rules Belgrade's municipal government with the connivance of Milosevic's party.

Of these bourgeois opposition forces, only Djindjic has tried to “lead” the mass protests. Most of the others have been trying to prevent the situation from getting “out of hand”. Perisic has warned of the “danger of civil war”.Almost identical words were mouthed by Draskovic at his first rally in Kragujevac. He has opposed demonstrations and is attempting to maintain Milosevic in some “figurehead” position. Most prefer a deal among the ruling elite that allows Milosevic to “honourably” stand down. They oppose having him stand trial at home or abroad for “war crimes”. Panic is soliciting countries that may be willing to grant him asylum.

Behind these positions is concern at the dangers of a popular uprising to oust Milosevic. Such a development would make it more difficult to restore stability for a future bourgeois regime.

Perisic has important contacts within the military high command and is also close to sections of Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party, particularly Yugoslav deputy prime minister Zoran Lilic, with whom he has proposed setting up a new party. Draskovic is also close to sections of Milosevic's party who were shunted aside in recent years to make way for people handpicked by the party of his wife Mirjana Markovic.

When Draskovic's party took control of the initially spontaneous street protests in Leskovac, attempts by protesters to force the organisers to call for Milosevic's ousting were blocked by the SPO. Significantly, it was US envoy Robert Gelbard who pressed Draskovic to join the protests in order to have a “united opposition” -- and keep them within safe limits.

Perisic and Draskovic are also close to Montenegrin leader Milo Djukanovic, leader of Milosevic's nationalist movement in Montenegro. In recent years, Djukanovic's Party of Democratic Socialists has distanced itself from Milosevic's more extreme policies. This led to a split when the Milosevic loyalists, led by Momir Bulatovic, formed an opposition party.

A constitutional deadlock developed when Milosevic named the Bulatovic opposition as Montenegro's representative in the Yugoslav federal government, rather than Djukanovic's ruling party, as required by the constitution.The US rulers have declared support for Djukanovic to replace Milosevic. Senior US officials have declared that Djindjic is not favoured by Washington and criticised the Alliance for Change as hopelessly divided.

Djukanovic's party represents a major split within the pro-Milosevic ruling party. The US prefers this kind of leadership change because it affords maximum continuity and stability.

Smooth transition

The quest for a smooth transition which would prettify the regime while leaving the main levers of power intact is of considerable interest to both the local bourgeoisie and imperialism. Despite the US hostility to Milosevic, there are shared class interests between Washington and the Serbian elite.

US and European imperialism want to stabilise south-eastern Europe and know that key to that is a stable Serbia, the country that straddles the heart of the region and occupies the major road, rail and Danube River transport links between western Europe, the Middle East and the Black Sea region. A stable Serbia needs a stable Serbian ruling class.

The US dictate that it will not provide reconstruction money to Yugoslavia until Milosevic, as “an indicted war criminal”, steps down is aimed at encouraging a rearrangement among the ruling parties. By focusing on the individual, it gives the ruling class and its regime the option of making a minor change. The bourgeois opposition is gambling that the ruling parties will see the futility of hanging on to Milosevic when the ruling class desperately needs the reconstruction funds.

The Serbian ruling class is bound to the Milosevic regime directly through the two ruling parties of Milosevic and Markovic, as well as via the wealth it has accumulated through corrupt state connections. The Serbian ruling class rose in the late 1980s by exploiting the ideology of Serbian nationalism fanned by Milosevic.

All the bourgeois “opposition” factions vying for control of post-Milosevic Serbia came out of the Milosevic-led Serb nationalist movement and retain its ideology. However, they understand that when Serbian expansionism reaches its practical limits, pushing beyond can only lead to suicide.

Fear of the masses

In mid-July, opposition leaders shelved plans to organise a million-strong march from provincial centres to Belgrade. One reason for this is the fear among the conservative leaders of unleashing the power of the mass movement; while demonstrations are an important form of pressure on the Milosevic regime to accept the need for a “facelift”, a movement that size may get out of their control.Another reason is that anti-Milosevic movement does not appear to have the crucial support of the Belgrade population, as both Djindjic and Draskovic admitted on July 18. As was widely reported during the war, NATO's bombs bolstered the nationalism which Milosevic's power is built on, particularly among Belgrade's middle classes.

When they mobilised in 1996-97, Belgrade's middle classes did not oppose Serb nationalism but Milosevic's “failures” on this front. Much of this section of the population, the natural base for the bourgeois opposition, see the dealings of people like Djindjic with the Western governments as treachery. They do not have the class reasons for opposing the regime that exist in the southern cities. That is why people like Draskovic have tended to stay closer to the regime, as they have read the mood of their social base.

Milosevic is bargaining that the importance of Serbia to the region will split the Western powers on the issue of reconstruction. Already there have been visits from various Italian chambers of commerce which have expressed interest in financing the reconstruction of industries. Italian finance committee chairperson Sergio Rossi declared support for financial cooperation and the establishment a joint Yugoslav-Italian bank.

In early July, Greece and Russia announced joint projects for the reconstruction of the power grid, communications and infrastructure. German companies are also making arrangements to invest in expanding production in Vojvodina.Vice-president of the European Investment Bank, Wolfgang Rot, has spoken out against the US dictate on reconstruction, claiming it is necessary to immediately begin the reconstruction of Serbia, especially clearing destroyed bridges from the Danube which are preventing traffic along the river and hurting the economies of Western Europe, particularly Germany, Austria and Italy.

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