Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Yugoslav Uprising 2000 - Coup or Revolution?

The Yugoslav Uprising 2000 - Coup or Revolution?

By Michael Karadjis

October 2000

The elections and popular uprising which ousted former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic have provoked varied reactions on the left. Central to the debate is the nature of the transfer of power.

Two overlapping events occurred. The first was a rearrangement of power within the ruling elite, replacing the highly tainted Milosevic with Vojislav Kostunica - a long time advocate of Milosevic's "Greater Serbia" project who had, however, stood aloof from the barbarous actions needed to create it.
The second was the dramatic entry of the masses - above all the powerful Serbian working class - onto the political scene, something not planned by the ruling elite and its western backers who wanted a smooth transition in order to maintain capitalist "law and order" and preserve much of the regime and its state apparatus intact.

Oddly, the nature of these two events has been totally confused by many on the left. Diana Johnstone, a long time apologist for Serbian nationalism, saw it this way:

"The "October surprise" was actually two events. One was a democratic election, made in Serbia. The other was a totally undemocratic putsch, made in the "international community" ... The democratic election would have been sufficient to oblige Milosevic to retire ... But the NATO-backed putschists wanted ... a dramatic media spectacle."

Calling the actions of hundreds of thousands of Serbian workers a "putsch" is the only way for the pro-Milosevic left to deal with seeing the working class oust a regime they, for reasons best known to themselves, consider to be "socialist." It also helps justify their odd theory that western imperialism is in favour of a working class uprising.

Scabbing on the Serbian working-class

For others thrown into deeper disarray by the downfall of their idol, the anti-working class language is more hysterical. According to George Szamuely, "throughout the country drunken mobs have been storming the offices of factories, coalmines, banks and universities and forcing people to resign ... The managers of Yugoslavia's largest gold mine and smelter were kicked out, as were the managers at Zastava, the country's giant carmaker. The Director of the Kolubara coalmining complex was thrown out, as was the Director of Yugoslav Coal Production."

He doesn't dare tell the reader that these "drunken mobs" driving out their corrupt, plutocratic "managers" all over the country are the long-suffering workers and their new strike committees in these enterprises. Louis Proyect, whose entire political purpose has crashed with Milosevic's demise, also claimed the occupation of the national parliament was carried out by "a drunken, pistol-waving pro-Kostunica mob." Johnstone likewise claimed the "unguarded building was systematically vandalized and set on fire, causing considerable damage to public property. The liberators then went on to smash shop windows and steal property in nearby shopping streets."

This bourgeois "law and order" talk sounds remarkably like Howard's description of the occupation of parliament house by Australian workers in 1996.

By "unguarded" she means that, after the police had fired tear gas at the masses, they became even angrier, so they simply overwhelmed the police, who gave up. No doubt these good "socialists" would have preferred the cops to have massacred the workers.

In view of what actually occurred, the best description of all this drivel is 'scabbing on the Serbian working class.'

The industrial working class was the key force in the uprising, the occupation of parliament and the continuing "instability." From September 29, the strikes and occupations and ousters of managers by thousands of miners at the Kolubara coal mines were the spearhead of the uprising. Tens of thousands of people from surrounding areas came to the defence of the workers when police attempted to attack their picket lines. No doubt Johnstone, Proyect, Szamuely et al would have again preferred the police to have done a better job and not left the Milosevic-era management "unguarded".

The working class uprising went far beyond Kolubara. According to Aleksandar Ciric in Podgorica "Every day a growing number of factories and enterprises were proclaiming that they were on strike demanding the true election results. On Thursday October 5, more than one hundred large companies were on strike, including the former giant industries such as chemical industries Nevena from Leskovac and Zorka from Sabac, parts of Bor mining and melting combine, hydro electric power plant in Bajina Basta, Trajal tire factory and chemical factory Merima from Krusevac, parts of Kragujevac Zastava, Pancevo fertiliser factory and petroleum industries, Electric Company of Serbia... Railway transportation between Belgrade and Bar was interrupted, and blockades of roads interrupted transportation in the country for a few hours every day."

Notably, many of these plants were savagely bombed by NATO last year, particularly Zastava and Pancevo. It is the height of arrogance for the Milosevic bandwagon to write that workers bombed by NATO are now rallying to NATO's cause because their leaders are allegedly being offered a fistful of dollars. These same industrial plants and industrial towns were already the backbone of the upsurge against Milosevic last year following the end of NATO's war, an upsurge betrayed by the very leaders now pretending to have led the current revolt.

It is similarly offensive to claim, as Proyect does, that coal miners, suffering under western sanctions, "closed down the mine in order to get rid of the enemy of Washington" to get sanctions lifted. Leaving aside his belief that only sanctions, not the multi-millionaire plutocracy that did fantastically well from sanctions, caused their wages to fall, it avoids the issue of why sanctions don't work like this in other cases. Washington's 40-year total embargo on Cuba, far more stringent than the selective sanctions on Yugoslavia, have not encouraged Cuban workers to "get rid of the enemy of Washington." Likewise, the genocidal total embargo on Iraq has not encouraged Iraqi workers to rise up against "the enemy of Washington." And in this case, the Hussein regime is a capitalist regime as brutal as that of Milosevic. The difference is that the Iraqi masses understand they are being punished for daring to threaten imperialist control of the oil-fields, and as part of keeping down the Arab nation so as to protect Washington's colonial client Israel. In the Balkan's this is reversed, with Serbia playing the Israeli role of ethnic cleanser of the region. Serbian workers have rightly decided there was nothing to be defended about a regime which had continually sent them to slaughter their fellow non-Serb workers throughout the region.

Working Class and Kostunica Regime: Clash of Interests

Far from the upsurge having been organised by a conspiracy involving Kostunica and the US government, it is precisely the working class that is trying to more fully destroy the vestiges of Milosevic's crony capitalist tyranny, while Kostunica's US-backed regime desperately tries to salvage as much of it as possible and keep the movement under control. Workers strike committees have become "crisis committees" pushing more than just industrial demands, many stating their only interest is the "well-being of the collective."

The description by Jonathan Steele in the Friday October 13 Guardian reveals much about this conflict of interests. According to Steele, at the large Trudbenik construction company, the workers posted their own guards in the accountant's office. "We need to prevent documents being removed," explained Predrag Jelic, a member of the crisis committee. Workers with arms checking the books? Terrible to Kostunica, US imperialism and pro-Milosevic "left", but otherwise a page straight out of Lenin's "State and Revolution."

A similar account is made by Argyris Malapanis in the US Militant: "Engineers and production workers (in the largest state-owned oil company) have now formed a commission of inquiry to look into the practices of the old management ... If they find any evidence of embezzlement or other pilfering of company resources, the commission will bring charges against those directors."

Kostunica and Milosevic are in complete agreement on all this: both vigorously condemn the "chaos" and "anarchy" of the factory occupations. Kostunica has attacked this process of restructuring "from the bottom up," insisting that change come through state institutions after the new "transitional government" is created. "Some of these actions are from people who are in connection with or appear on behalf of DOS or even myself, which is not true. But all together, it's something that worries me," said Kostunica."

According to Steele, Kostunica sent Nebojsa Covic, who leads one of the parties in DOS (Democratic Opposition of Serbia, the Kostunica-led coalition), to visit factories, "urging workers to get back to work and trust DOS to bring change," but the strike committee at Trudbenik is having none of it. "We don't need political support, and we won't accept any demands for restraint from Covic or anyone else from DOS," stressed Jelic.

According to Steele, "the strike committee wants to be sure that the new rulers from DOS do not just reproduce the old system by imposing so-called democrats on factories ... (it) wants a proper system of accountability in the company, credible financial public accounts and no further role for party politics in factory appointments."

The strike committee has taken over the enterprise - when managing director Dusan Djuraskovic attempted to take back control with a mixture of threats and promises, workers asked "Excuse me, who invited you here?"

A key working class force both in ensuring the electoral ouster of Milosevic and in now keeping the mobilisations on guard against the new regime is the 200,000 member independent trade union federation Nezavisnost, which last year vigorously condemned the barbarism of both NATO and the Belgrade regime. Its May Day 2000 message revealed its working class politics went beyond "factory politics" but extended to strong internationalist opposition to the Serbian nationalism which the rule of both Milosevic and Kostunica is based on:

"All of us who support ourselves from honest work must jointly and decisively stand up to terror applied against the world of labor for over a decade ... Milosevic's hand of nationalistic evil has seized us and removed us from the factory machines, from our fields, our classrooms, university amphitheaters, and our offices. Wrecked and stripped of our identity, which is created through work, with only our national omen he sent us off to destroy all those who do not belong to our nation and our religion."

In an October 6 uprising message, Nezavisnost president Branislav Canak called on "all members of Nezavisnost and all employees in Serbia, particularly those on involuntary leaves of absence, to return to their factories, to organize workers' watches, to prevent SPS and JUL managers from entering the firms and to protect the property from any attempt of destruction."

"We demand from all employees, members of other trade unions ... to begin today to support their own interests ... the interests of free and autonomous workers' movement, the world of labor which makes the decisions about its fate autonomously."

Kostunica regime: Clone of Milosevic regime

It is notable that, in Steele's account above, the person Kostunica sent to rescue the Milosevic-era management was Nebojsa Covic. In looking at who Covic and others in the Kostunica camp are, much is revealed about the new regime:

Covic is the former long-time Milosevic-party mayor of Belgrade, the third most senior person in the party, becoming an "oppositionist" from 1996. While in "opposition" he has remained managing director of a profitable tin can company.

Close to the regime is former army chief of staff Momcilo Perisic, who played the key role in Milosevic's Bosnian war, being the general in charge of the 1995 massacre of 8000 Moslem captives in Srebrenica. He became an "oppositionist" in late 1998 due to his view that the Kosova policies of Milosevic and Seselj were suicidal. He still maintains considerable influence in the military.

In an identical position is Milosevic's former head of internal security, Jovica Stanisic, who also went into "opposition" in 1998 while maintaining powerful influence.

Kostunica has strongly defended maintaining the position of Milosevic's current army chief of staff, Nebojsa Pavkovic, who headed the Yugoslav army's depredations in Kosova last year, against attempts by others in DOS to oust him. Significantly, the western controlled war-crimes tribunal left him off the list of those to be prosecuted.

Kostunica has appointed Predrag Bulatovic from the pro-Milosevic forces in Montenegro, as federal prime minister, despite the 80 per cent success of the election boycott called by the anti-Milosevic Montenegrin government.

The Serbian republican government (where their were no elections) is being reorganised, with DOS coming to an arrangement for a transitional government with Milosevic's party, while excluding the fascistic Serbian Radical Party (Milosevic's former coalition allies) and ousting the Interior Minister, Vlajko Stojilkovic, who had advocated force be used against the masses and who has been indicted by the Hague - a "clean-up" act.

The Serbian Orthodox Church, a bastion of Serbian nationalism, has welcomed Kostunica, as has Milosevic's state news agency, Tanjug.

For Kostunica to restabilise the capitalist regime, he is going to need Milosevic's armed forces to control the working class movement - even though the ranks may not be as keen as the officers. "This lawlessness has not escaped the attention of the Yugoslav military," according to Szamuely. Kostunica met the Yugoslav Army General Staff, where "concern was expressed over certain events in the country that are not in accordance with the Constitution and the laws, and the position and role of the Yugoslav Army in resolving problems had also been considered." To anyone familiar with the role of armed forces in suppressing workers' struggles, this is hardly surprising. Yet Szamuely, good socialist as he is, concludes "Sounds like a clear warning to Kostunica not to engage in mob rule."

With Kostunica's circle consisting of former chips off the Milosevic regime, and with Kostunica trying to maintain intact as much of the former regime, state apparatus and economic "management" bodies as possible, the essentially similar nature of the two regimes is obvious. In a word, both are regimes of the Serbian capitalist class.

Those contrasting a rabidly pro-capitalist Kostunica with an allegedly socialist Milosevic fail to explain how this could be possible when the entire political-economic apparatus is the same.

Certainly, western imperialism has shown only too clearly that it was such minimalist change - the ousting merely of the tainted name Milosevic and a few close cronies - that was all they wanted. The fact that the sanctions imposed during and after the Kosova war - the air flight ban, the oil embargo and the refusal to grant reconstruction aid following the bombing - have all been lifted in a hurry is evidence enough of this. Meanwhile, the "outer ring" of sanctions - the ban on Yugoslav membership of the IMF and World Bank - are about to be lifted.

These sanctions criminally punished the masses for the crimes of the regime, and so their ending should be welcomed. However, from the point of view of western rhetoric, it is notable that no political concessions were demanded. According to the US-based intelligence group Stratfor, "The European Union also showed little interest in linking a potential $2 billion aid package to the extradition of Milosevic to face war-crimes charges." Neither was the release of the thousands of Kosovar Albanian political prisoners still incarcerated in Serbian jails an issue.

Milosevic: Architect of Capitalist Restoration

In reality, Milosevic's capitalist regime enjoyed many years of collaboration with western imperialism. Far from being a socialist, it was precisely the economic liberal Milosevic who destroyed the old socialist system of workers self management, as demanded by the IMF, during his reactionary "anti-bureaucratic revolution" of 1988-89.

He called on the Yugoslav people to overcome their "unfounded, irrational and primitive fear of exploitation" by foreign capital and called on new profit oriented bodies which replaced the workers committees to "function on economic principles...strive to create profits and constantly struggle for their share and place in the market." While the process was slow, as in all of eastern Europe, a Serbian capitalist class came into being, closely connected to the regime.

For example, among Serbia's and the entire Balkan’s biggest capitalists are the Karic brothers, who started their fortune with Milosevic's political and economic "reforms" in Kosova, and now own a private telecommunications, banking, mineral and oil empire. Not surprisingly, Boguljub Karic was a minister without profile in the Yugoslav government until late last year.

Or take the case of Vladimir Bokan, who shared a house in Athens with Milosevic's son Marko. He owned assets in Greece worth tens of millions of dollars, the entire chain of kiosks in Belgrade and Vojvodina, a chain of retail clothing stores and a real estate company in Belgrade, a shipyard in Novi Sad, a sizable share in a chemicals and fertiliser factory and much more, while running Panama and Cyprus registered shipping companies. With so many mega-capitalists like these, how is it possible for some to still parrot on about Yugolsavia being more "socialist" than elsewhere in the region?

Following the Dayton Accord to partition Bosnia into Serbian and Croatian dominated halves - drawn up by Milosevic, Croatian leader Tudjman and the US State Department - Milosevic was seen as the "guarantor of stability" in the region. Foreign capital rushed in. The British firm Nat-West Industries, headed by former British Foreign Secretary during the Bosnian war, Douglas Hurd, signed a million dollar deal to aid the privatisation of Serbian enterprises. Following the new privatisation law of October 1997, which aimed to sell to 75 most strategic Yugoslav industries, Nat-West organised the sale of half of Serbian Telecom to Greek and Italian investors. The Trepca lead, zinc, silver, gold, cadmium complex in northern Kosova was also put on the market, with French and Greek firms buying in.

None of this leaves much room for "socialism", and there were clearly ample opportunities for western capital. Those seeing Milosevic's Yugoslavia as an outpost of resistance to the IMF or think western sanctions were imposed due to a "socialist" orientation of the regime turn reality on its head. Milosevic wanted IMF/World Bank money to complete the privatisation process; this was held up by Washington - making political rather than economic demands - after 1995 the only "sanctions" were precisely denial of IMF/WB membership by the US.

The political demands centred on cooperation with the War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague - to hold together the fragile Bosnian Dayton Accord - and negotiations on Kosova - while not demanding a return to pre-1989 autonomy - to prevent the situation there exploding and destabilising the southern Balkans. Once Milosevic's barbarous tactics in Kosova led to a mighty upsurge led by the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA), NATO decided to get its own forces in to control the situation - including to ensure the defeat of the KLA's project for independent Kosova. Combined with other US concerns, above all to ensure its domination of NATO leading up to the 50th NATO Summit, a savage war was launched, in which Milosevic needed to demonised. As such, his removal and replacement by less tainted elements from the same capitalist elite became the main imperialist demand before sanctions were lifted.

In reality, "it is not just economics, stupid." Imperialist control of the world relies on a system of political and military control where sometimes short-term profits might have to wait if a political situation threatens to unleash instability and hence threaten profits further down the line. If imperialism only launched wars and imposed sanctions because regimes were following a socialist economic course, then the last twenty years would tell us that the right-wing Haitian junta, Somalia's heirs to Siad Barre, Noriega of Panama, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the Sudanese junta and the Argentine junta were all socialist regimes.

As for the talk of the need for economic "reform" in Yugoslavia, this kind of talk has been heard by imperialist leaders with reference to all kinds third world capitalist regimes, from Suharto's Indonesia to Turkey, where some 80 per cent of industry remains in state hands. This is where Yugoslavia fits: as Steele points out well, "Indonesia's crony capitalism under Suharto is a more accurate parallel than the state socialism of Ceausescu." Even South Korea has been chided for not going far enough with "reforms" in the post Asia crisis period, this allegedly being the reason for "slow recovery." This imperialist "reform" drive is about pressure on capitalist regimes to open their economies even wider to foreign imperialist, rather than local capitalist, control.

Having said all this, however, is there a case to be made that Yugoslavia had maintained a little more "socialism" than elsewhere in eastern Europe? Measuring the amount in state and private hands is not very reliable. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development claims some 40 percent of Yugoslav GDP is produced by the private sector; several years ago the World Bank complained that 60-70 percent of Croatian industry remained in State hands and the privatisation process "had virtually stalled." Does this mean Tudjman's Croatia was also "socialist"?

Slovenia was the last country in eastern Europe to adopt a privatistion law, yet is heralded as the key success story. However, according to Svetlana Vasojevic and Igor Mekina in Bijelina, following the mass handout of privatisation vouchers to former employees, "the sale of unprofitable stock became practically impossible ... The larger, unprofitable firms, wanted by no one, were mostly left to the state ... in larger companies, the percentage of stock given to workers was minimized, the larger part being turned over to citizens, various funds and the state. Government ... appointed its own people to head the funds (capital, compensation, and so on) ... the economy has only been "half-privatized" ... Notorious losses were revealed on the accounts of major companies such as TAM, Elan, Iskra, etc. Some were liquidated while the government still owns the others." According to Mladjan Dinkic of the G-17 Plus organization and a DOS leader, Yugoslavia's economy should be structured according to the Slovenian model.

Hence, the existence of a large state sector in countries like Yugoslavia where large numbers of mega-capitalists abound is hardly unusual. Firstly, someone has to want to buy the stuff Milosevic is trying to sell; apart from investors not liking to buy industries in war zones, the question of how much investment in modern equipment old unprofitable industries need is obviously a concern. Capitalists go where profits can be made fast, especially capitalist classes rising from the dust as in eastern Europe. In Yugoslavia's case this has meant giant import-export companies, construction, banking, oil and various booming black market industries in preference to renovating old industries.

Workers Confront Mafia Rule

But moreover, the co-existence of private and state firms under a highly corrupt and autocratic regime is the very model for the rule of the mafia - not just Serbia and Croatia, but Yeltsin's Russia and any number of crony capitalist regimes the world over are based on this model.

If you can "manage" a state firm via political connections, earn a giant salary regardless of whether the firm does well or not, and your brother owns a private firm, then you can strip the "state" firm of its assets and give them to your brother whose company makes mega-bucks selling it on the black market. If your brother owns a private bank, you can organise loans with ridiculously high interest to benefit the private bank at the expense of the "state" company. Because its all illegal, its hard to prove; but anyone familiar with Yugoslavia would know that stories of workers turning up for work at the car plant and finding no parts abound. The key ingredient missing, to prevent this happening, is democratic control by the workers themselves.

Malapanis reports on the role of the insurgent workers in stopping this mafia-capitalist accumulation: "While workers at these (vegetable oil) factories received very low pay, managers organized in the last decade for most production to be diverted to the black market, where company officials and middlemen made a bundle from exorbitant prices.

As part of the rebellion, workers guards formed in these factories to stop this "diversion" of products ... From Monday, October 2, although the production was not stopped, our workers guards did not allow a single bottle to go out of the factory," Canak said.

Steele gives another example: "Political connections were vital ... for the company to get privileged access to capital, licences and subsidies ... In the early 1990s, as a crude market economy and phoney privatisation spread through eastern Europe, Mr Milosevic joined the bandwagon. He allowed large companies to break into smaller units and fix their own commercial contracts. Union leaders were as eager as managers to exploit the new chance of riches ... "The trade union secretary practically ran this company," said Mr Jelic (about Trudbenik). Under privatisation the trade union secretary formed a company called Sind which built upper-income flats in Belgrade." Sind paid workers DM5 an hour, while workers in the "state" enterprise got DM100 for a whole month.

When workers at the "state-owned" Genex trading giant ousted general manager Radoman Buzovic, they revealed he had been paying himself a princely salary of DM180,000 a month. The workers earn DM10.

By scabbing on the insurgent working class, the pro-Milosevic "socialists" oppose the very force that is capable of stopping legal and illegal privatisation of state assets, whether by the Milosevic or the Kostunica regime. According to George Skoric, "The (crisis) committees have been formed largely under this banner: 'To protect the state-owned property from robbery by the ousted criminal bureaucrats.'"

Of course, this applies not only to the ousted regime but also to the new one: Nezavisnost president Canak made clear that "[Kostunica's] economic program is seriously neo-liberal and I think, if nothing else, that would put workers and Nezavisnost in a confrontational position against him sooner or later ... We will warn him first and then we will start behaving as unions are supposed to behave when their basic interests are in danger."

While even under Tito's bureaucratic regime, the socialist revolution was thoroughly undermined, and was then assassinated by Milosevic's counterrevolution, the high points of the recent events has been this working class movement to resurrect - however briefly - the best traditions of that revolution and the system of workers' self-management.

Kostunica and Greater Serbia

Meanwhile, pro-western Kostunica is trying to put back together the pieces of Milosevic's Greater Serbia. His accommodation with the pro-Milosevic unitarist bloc in Montenegro has already been mentioned. The even more pro-western DOS leader Zoran Djindjic recently stated that 1200 Yugoslav troops would be back in Kosova by the end of the year. Kostunica, who was photographed with a Kalashnykov machine-gun in his hands in Kosova during the war in 1998 in the company of the para-military 'Tigers' of Captain Dragan, clearly agrees this is a good idea.

And while he was expected to pay a state visit to Sarajevo to offer recognition of Bosnia and apologise for Serbia's role in the genocide, Kostunica's first trip to that country was to the Republika Srpska para-state, to a reburial of a famous Serb nationalist poet who had died 60 years ago - a visit he had promised to the hard-line anti-Bosnian Serb Democratic Party.

Far from any of this annoying Kostunica's western backers, the removal of Milosevic will mean the return of more "normal" economic and political patterns in the region, where a Serb-dominated state has been the lynchpin of western policy since 1918. This is because, as Stratfor points out, "The trade corridor from Germany and Italy to Greece will gradually reopen, physically linking Greece to the rest of the EU ... the Danube - the region's economic artery - will be cleared. Debris from bridges destroyed during the Kosovo war has blocked the river for well over a year. Once cleared, the 10 states that sit on the river's banks will again be able to engage in large-scale trade. That very act will all but lock Yugoslavia into western Europe's orbit. Both of these routes - the region's two busiest - pass through downtown Belgrade."

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