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Issue 41, September 1999

Opposition grows in Serbia

IN EARLY JUNE the television broadcast of a basketball match between Yugoslavia and Germany on a local southern Serbian station was unexpectedly interrupted. Ivan Novlovic, a television technician, commandeered the airwaves and issued an appeal for people to join a protest in the town of Leskovac.

Twenty thousand turned out, shouting 'Go away Slobo' (Slobodan Milosevic). This ignited other anti-government demonstrations, in mainly southern Serbian towns. Unpaid army reservists joined protests and blocked roads. Ten thousand marched in Uzice town demanding free elections. Nis University students held rallies. The opposition controlled council in Novi Sad, Serbia's second city, the Orthodox Church, and the Serbian trade union federation, all called for Milosovic to resign. The new 30-party strong opposition front, the Alliance for Change, organised a rally of 7,000 in Cacak and 10,000 in Novi Sad. This was followed in August by the biggest opposition rally in Belgrade since 1996.

Watching these developments the Western governments have, as much as possible, attempted to encourage the anti-Milosevic opposition along 'safe' (and pro-Western) channels. They have no interest in promoting genuine democratic rights in the Balkans. They run corrupt, undemocratic 'protectorates' in Bosnia and Kosova and ignore the abuses of the reactionary Tudjman regime in Croatia. Until the Kosova conflict the Western powers were also prepared to play ball with Milosevic's regime. But now they want rid of the troublesome Milosevic and his replacement with a more pliant government.

The Serbian opposition 'leadership' has been largely made up of elements equally as anti-working class and reactionary as Milosevic. In power they would also curb democratic rights if they felt it necessary and could get away with it. The pro-Western wings of the opposition, which make up the vast majority, want to make peace with imperialism. They are prepared to open up the Serb economy further for the ruthless plundering and exploitation of international capitalism.

  The ultra-nationalists, like Vojislav Seselj, want to move further in the direction of war-mongering nationalism and ethnic cleansing and forge closer alliances with the reactionary regimes of Belarus and Russia. Seselj has been careful not to come out fully against Milosevic, fearing at this stage it could open the way for the pro-Western parties to come to power. In the long run Seselj clearly hopes to form a government, a prospect that fills imperialism with dread and would mean more futile conflict for the masses.

The regime around Milosevic has its own agenda, to maintain as much territorial and state independence in the region as possible, and to accrue wealth, privilege and prestige through the market economy. Deputy prime minister, Dragon Tomic, for example, has promised a programme of 'swift privatisation'.

All the opposition leaders are also pro-market. They only dispute how the loot is to be shared out amongst themselves and their cliques. They offer no alternative whatsoever for the working masses. The market economy for workers means further impoverishment, unemployment, crime and conflict.

Unfortunately, the workers' movement in Serbia, as throughout the war-shattered Balkans, has suffered enormously from years of divisive blood-letting. Prior to that, for decades under the Tito regime, no genuine independent self-organisation of the working class was tolerated by the ruling Stalinist bureaucracy. The ideological confusion following the collapse of Stalinist Yugoslavia and the move to embrace the market economy by ex-Stalinist bureaucrats like Milosevic, made more difficult the task of re-building an independent workers' movement with a clear class position. In the present protest movement, rather than raise their own separate class banner, the trade unions in Serbia have meekly followed the right-wing opposition leaders and their agenda. Seeing no real alternative the majority of Serb workers have not yet become involved in the post-war protests.

  This does not rule out the mass of workers coming decisively into struggle. On the contrary, class exploitation and the conditions of a ruined economy will lead to mass working class revolt - possibly even in the near future and, initially, due to the chronic delay in the building of a clear mass working class alternative, under the 'leadership' of the opposition parties. Socialists of course welcome workers struggling to finish off the regime. In fact, only a mass movement of the working class, drawing in behind it other layers, can ensure the successful carrying out of this task and go on to change society. But, unfortunately, workers' aspirations will be sold short should any of the various colours of the right-wing opposition leaders assume power on their backs.

In contradistinction to the last opposition movement in 1996-1997, the 1999 summer protests have, to date, been relatively small. Three years ago hundreds of thousands were involved, including in the main urban areas like Belgrade. Zoran Djindjic, a former mayor of Belgrade and now a leader of the opposition Democratic Party, called in June for increased protests leading to a general strike to remove Milosevic. But nothing like this happened. The right-wing programmes of the fractious opposition parties have not inspired millions of workers to go into all-out struggle against the ruling party at this stage. Indeed, Djindjic was a former leader of Zajedno (Together), the 1996-1997 opposition movement, but proved unable to mobilise workers in a broader effort. In the end Milosevic was able to divide the fragmented and venal opposition leaders, bringing some like Vuk Draskovic of the Serbian Renewal Movement into government and clamping down on others.

During this summer's protests Milosevic has tried a number of manoeuvres to thwart the opposition. At first he kept the police at bay, hoping the parties would fall out and the protests dwindle. Then he ordered brutal police action and attempted to mobilise pro-government counter-rallies, as he did three years previously. He may again move to incorporate sections of the opposition into his government in order to split their forces. It has been mooted that Seselj may be offered a post such as head of the RDB, the security services.

  Milosevic is also aided by the constant in-fighting amongst the opposition leaders. Varying little in social and economic policies, the opposition parties are divided along personal lines and clique loyalties. They are motivated by the desire to outdo the competition in the rush to enrich themselves and their fellow Mafia-capitalist cronies. One leading figure, tipped as a possible Serb president, is Dragoslav Avramovic, the ex-governor of the Central Bank, and a 'pioneer' of market 'reforms'. Milan Panic, another leader of the Alliance, is a chemicals magnate who made his fortune in California.

The rotten nature of these parties is revealed by the cynical opportunism of their leaders. Vuk Draskovic, for example, was kicked out of Milosevic's government for making overtures to the West during Nato's war. He at first refused to actively support the opposition movement this summer, no doubt waiting to measure its chances of success. Now he has belatedly got on board and is fighting for the leadership position.

Milosevic may be able to weather the Serbian opposition for a period and maintain his rule. However, he also has to deal with other powerful opposition forces within the rump Yugoslav 'federation'. The pro-Western government of Montenegro, the other smaller 'republic', has signalled its intention to break from Belgrade's control. The Montenegrin government supported Nato's war and has for a period refused to participate in the federal parliament.

The imperialist powers do not favour complete Montenegrin independence at this stage, fearing it could lead to the further break-up of Balkan states and a new conflict with the Milosevic regime. They are alarmed at the prospect of civil war yet they are largely the authors of the new potentially explosive situation. Many of the people of Montenegro consider themselves not fundamentally different to Serbs and were in solidarity with their 'Serb bothers and sisters' during the Nato attacks. The Montenegro state forces are also divided between those loyal to the republic's government and to the federal regime. Serious attempts to move in the direction of outright independence, perhaps triggered by a Montenegro government-sponsored referendum, could result in armed conflict.

On the basis of capitalism and capitalist parties, the Serb masses and all the Balkan peoples are assured only of impoverishment and further wars. The task of rebuilding a workers' alternative is key to providing a way out.

Niall Mulholland

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