National Sections of the L5I:

Serbia: the next stage of the Serbian revolution

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The results of the Serbian elections on 23 December confirmed and sanctified what had already been decided on the streets of Belgrade and other cities during the country’s October revolution: that the Stalinist-nationalist bureaucratic rule of Milosevic’s Serbian Socialist Party (SPS) was over.

The period between October and the elections in Serbia were used to get the masses off the streets and direct them to the polling booths.

The Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) won a landslide victory. The SPS was reduced to 10 to 15 per cent of the popular vote. This average vote for the SPS is even worse when you realise that it while it gained 40 per cent of the vote among some of the poorest rural areas it was completely rejected by the workers and youth of all the main towns and cities.

This is no surprise given the central role the students and the workers played in the revolution. The role of the masses was crucial both in the demonstrations and even more so in the strikes, the occupations and finally the storming of the parliament.

The students acted as the key force in starting the movement. OTPOR, a diverse movement to bring down Milosevic, in a sense the DOS “from below”, became the main force in the movement. However, it was the workers' strikes, pickets, demos and occupations, and their role in the attack on the parliament, which finished off Milosevic.

This was a revolutionary crisis, not a Western-inspired stage managed coup. The ruling section of the Serbian capitalist class and its bureaucratic allies could not rule as before; the masses were not prepared to accept this rule. In all the crucial actions against the government the opposition parties, their leaders in particular, only appeared on the political scene once the success was secured by the masses.

The spontaneous revolutionary fervour of the workers and students was able to push things forward at the decisive moments of the struggle. They established control of some areas and built local or factory wide organs of power. But there was no national centre for this alternative power to coalesce around during the relatively brief revolutionary crisis.

The workers and students were able to force the regime to give in, they were able to force the repressive apparatus to retreat, but they were not able to build alternative organs of their own power and use these to smash the old state and build a new, workers' state. Spontaneity was not enough for this task.

The mass movement in Serbia was an alliance between various classes who fought the Milosevic regime for different reasons: the working class, various parts of the middle strata, peasants, the ”democratic” nascent bourgeoisie. It is not accidental that OTPOR (”Resistance”) was the main force in the revolution, since it expressed both the dynamism of the masses and their illusions in a cross class united opposition.

The task of a revolutionary party in such circumstances is to build unity under the leadership of the working class; to break the workers, the students, the peasants from the alliance with the open bourgeois forces and from the leadership of these forces. Tragically no such party exists in Serbia. But it can be built today by winning those who have learnt the lessons of the October revolution and are prepared to act on those lessons.

Some in the bourgeois opposition who spurned the push for "unity", like Drascovic, were politically annihilated. Kostunica and Djindjic, the main leaders of the pro-imperialist bourgeois camp, realised that, if they wanted to gain presidential and governmental power, they needed to respond the masses' desire for unity. Otherwise they would be left behind.

All this helped the opposition leaders, despite their own differences, demobilise a large part of the movement. OTPOR began to disintegrate soon after the revolution. It was a brand, a label, and a loose organisation which drew together all opposed to Milosevic, but fell apart the moment he was overthrown and people started the think of the future.

The demobilisation of the movement was also made easier because the revolution was not bold enough. The fact that the repressive apparatus was still intact led Kostunica and Djindjic to argue that in order to get "control" over this apparatus, the masses needed to vote for DOS as the only trustworthy democratic "controller".

Even more important is the question of Serbian nationalism and Kosova. Serbian nationalism is the main and strongest ideological weapon to bind the workers and peasants to this or that bourgeois force.

Not only are Kostunica and Djindjic open Serbian nationalists, whose chauvinist rhetoric easily rivals that of Milosevic, the whole question of the nationalism, war crimes, repression of the Kosovars was set aside by the opposition movement. This meant that Milosevic himself could not use nationalism to slow down the defection of the masses from supporting his regime.

The only party which offered a limited challenge to this nationalist consensus was the social democratic SDU, which campaigned on behalf of Albanian prisoners in Serbia. But even this not did not prevent it from eventually supporting Kostunica.

The Stalinist legacy of Milosevic's bureaucratic rule means that the masses have considerable illusions in bourgeois democracy and the market. People are quite aware that there will be further attacks on their standard of living and are aware that a market economy means exploitation of the workers. Nevertheless, they hope that at least they will receive a wage regularly, unlike under Milosevic’s "socialism" where wages were not paid for months on end.

Likewise bourgeois democracy. It may be limited but compared with the total lack of democracy under the old regime many believe that it at least offers some rights.

The accumulated experience of war and privation in the 1990s, and the illusions that grew up in the absence of a revolutionary socialist alternative, led to a situation where the revolution was fairly easily derailed in the elections.

However, the fact that Milosevic has been ousted and new rulers installed and legitimised has led to a change in the pattern of activity of the workers and students. For many years their political thoughts were occupied with the question "Who rules?", and the Milosevic regime was seen as the main problem.

Now they want to see improvements in their daily lives delivered by a regime that they helped install. They are preoccupied with working conditions, the future of their own company, wage agreements, payments, privatisation, student living conditions and so on.

The idea which guides many workers or students is clear: “We have overthrown Milosevic, we have a new government. We don’t know what new economic policy will emerge, but we want at least some material gains from the revolution. So we must fight/negotiate for improvements, for substantial reform."

And many are under no illusion how difficult this fight will be. The IMF has already put forward its demands for welfare cuts, price rises and privatisation of industry. The government wants to be more cautious because it fears resistance on a local and regional level, since there still exist in some places quite far-reaching elements of workers’ control in the enterprises.

This is a big problem given the most important element of the coming attacks will be to enforce mass layoffs, restructuring or closure. Privatisation will be more important in the infrastructure and energy.

Workers are likely to resist lay-offs or closures. Resistance against privatisation is less likely, particularly, if enterprises are sold to well-known international firms, which will be expected to "invest".

The coming year will be vital for an emerging left in Serbia. The IMF will keep up the pressure for market reforms that will spell job losses for many. During this fluid period a revolutionary left can get a hearing and grow provided it defends the elements of workers’ control won during the revolution.

The left must hammer own the idea that this control will only work and make sense if relations between the factories are organised around a democratic national plan. Allowing the market to develop and dictate priorities for investment in the country as a whole and to govern relations between enterprises will lead, sooner or later, to the end of workers’ control inside the plants and mines.

Meanwhile, the DOS can be expected to split, sooner rather than later, into different blocks as the proto-factions within it start to elaborate their own specific programmes. This also means that new elections are likely at the end of 2001/beginning of 2002.

The arguments for an workers’ party can gain more of a hearing; the pro-business agenda of most of the parties will become clearer as the rhetoric of unity against the SPS fades. If a workers' party can be built, at least in part based on the organisations of the new and growing unions, and attract the best elements of the students gathered around SUS, if it can lead a fight against the IMF and Nato while championing the national and democratic rights of the Kosovars, then revolution will soon reappear on the streets of Serbia.

The union and student movement after Milosevic
In recent months there has been a significant growth of the independent trade union Nezavisnost from 150,000 before the overthrow of the regime to 500,000 or so at the end of 2000.

While the old official trade union formally still organises "100 per cent of the workers", it has actually fragmented into a pro-SPS wing and a pro-DOS wing. It is passive inside the factories, mines and offices. In addition the old unions are unpopular because they organise a number of the hated managers who have plundered the work places.

There has also been a split from Nezavisnost in the region of Kragujevac, a 200,000 strong industrial town. This split has about 50,000 and is the most militant union at the moment. The main reasons for the split were the bureaucratisation of Nezavisnost central leadership in Belgrade, the monopolisation of contact with international unions by the leader of Nezavisnost, and the question of drawing up a programme for a political party of workers (to orient towards building a social democratic party).

Some leaders in Kragujevac started to draft such a programme, but were prevented from putting it forward, probably due to pressure from the AFL-CIO which is opposed to the formation of a social democratic party in Serbia.

A similar development, albeit on a smaller scale can be seen at the universities with the growth of the Student Union of Serbia (SUS). It has 30 sections in the faculties, the largest at the Economic Faculty in Belgrade. SUS is more of an assembly of student activists at the faculty or university than a union.

Branches exist in all university towns in Serbia (Belgrade, Nis, Novi Sad, Kragujevac). Most of its activists have been/are in OTPOR, but are now focusing on SUS, on the question of recognition of the union, on reform of the education system, student living conditions, equipment of universities.

These developments point a process of continuing political evolution in Serbia. The election might be over, the struggles aren't.