Serbia - The replacement of Milosevic under the watchful eye of imperialism

Nov-Dec 2000

The ejection of Milosevic from power this autumn, more than a year after imperialist-led war against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, is the result of a convenient combination of circumstances.

Following NATO's bombing, the feeling of weariness and resentment towards the clique which had held power for 13 years, the protests against the general ruin of the country and the aspiration for change had increased among a large section of the population. And the sudden and unexpected emergence of a coalition of the opposition , united behind a seemingly new figure, created the hope of a possible alternative to the autocrat of Belgrade.

An opposition under patronage

The most responsible leaders of the Serb opposition, more or less in collusion with the diplomats of the great powers, had been looking for a "saviour" of that kind for some time, but especially since the end of the war.

Various meetings and discussions had previously taken place in Hungary and Montenegro between the rivals of Milosevic and US and European representatives. Even the exiled prince and heir, Karadjordjevic, who is based in London, claims to have been in on the coup. In his estimation "it is now the time to crown democracy".... In fact supporters of a constitutional monarchy in Serbia are not in short supply, starting with Vuk Draskovic, and his Movement for Serbian Renewal.

It seems that everyone finally agreed (except Vuk Draskovic, who decided to stay outside of the coalition) and they chose Kostunica this July.

The ODS coalition which brought together 16 parties and opposition groups, announced at the end of July that it was going to present a joint list for the 24 September local elections. Then when polls favoured Kostunica's candidature, the coalition announced that he would contest the presidential election, announced by Milosevic for the same day. In other words, the political situation of the opposition had reached a critical point.

The known leaders of the opposition were already largely discredited: Vuk Draskovik, by his permanent hesitation between the opposition and a seat in Milosevic's government; his opponent Zoran Djindjic, because of his links with the US and the fact that he had sided with Milosevic's campaign against "traitors" and "sell-outs", and in particular because he had spent the period of NATO bombing in the holiday resorts of Montenegro. These men always showed themselves irresolute in front of the regime, because of their own positions. As one member of the opposition explained: "the most important leaders of the opposition have been in office for years and (...) they don't want to lose what they've got. Some exercise local power in Belgrade and other towns, and this is an additional reason not to take the risk of losing it." For example, Vuk Draskovic who controlled the radio station Studio B, and who had come to an agreement of sorts with Milosevic.

The oppositions's absence of real political will to change anything was shown, once again, last Spring by the apathetic campaign against the repressive measures of the government, which ended up in a fiasco. In fact, the student resistance movement, "Otpor" filled the vacuum. It had just appeared on the political scene and met with some popular support, thanks to a campaign of slogans and physical interventions, and it made a sharp contrast due to its dynamism. This was a new factor, helping to revitalise the opposition movement in Serbia, in the context of economic shortages, which fuelled more and more discontent.

On the side of the government, the ruling coalition was shaken by a series of internal conflicts: Milosevic's party, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS),entered into conflict with its partner, the Serbian Radical Party(SRS) of Vojislav Seselj, while a part of the former opposed the "unjustified" influence of a third part of the coalition, the Unified Yugoslavian Left (JUL), led by Mirjana Markovic, wife of Milosevic. An eminent member of the leadership of the SPS, Zoran Lilic, ended up resigning. The party of the neo-fascist, Seselj, started a virulent campaign, both against the SPS and JUL with the obvious aim of revamping its popularity.

This crisis only increased the population's disgust for the regime, and contributed to the popularity of a new candidate of the opposition, Kostunica, who was not compromised by having walked the corridors of power, and had a reputation for integrity. What is more, he led a campaign both against Milosevic and against NATO, denouncing the sanctions and the Hague Tribunal, etc.

However, Kostunica is evidently not a "new" man. He is part of the Serbian opposition which has been labelled as "democratic", but whose historical references are those of the "chetniks" of World War II. Though he remained up to now in the shadow of the Djindjics and the Draskoviks, his own past is that of a traditional nationalist. He is well-known as a critic of the autonomy granted to Kosova by Tito in the 1974 Constitution, and sided with those politicians who were hostile to the 1995 Dayton Accords on Bosnia because he considered these too unfavourable to the Serbian ultranationalists of Radovan Karadzic.

But Kostunica's day had come: here was a simple man, uncorrupted, an unfailing patriot during the bombing, critical both of Milosevic and the Western powers. So if Milosevic, at the very beginning of July had hoped to cut short the operation against him by suddenly calling a federal presidential election, and a direct one, to be held on the 24 September, it turned out to be a miscalculation. But if the coalition of his rivals was able to seize the opportunity, it is thanks to the fact that they were strongly helped, if not pushed, by the Western leaders.

And if men like Djinjic allowed a less well-known figure to take the front of the stage, this was due to the weight of the imperialist leaders' pressure and no doubt the weight of their money. We know that the US gave a decisive help to the dissident regime in Montenegro, by meeting its vital financial needs. The European Union was already helping the municipalities held by the opposition since the local elections of 1996/7, to some extent. But the financial and material help to the Serbian opposition intensified over the Summer. Money and technical means flowed in to help the "independent" media (newspapers, local television channels...) against the regime's propaganda, and to help the network of non-governmental organisations in order to prepare for the electoral campaign and control over the balloting. US foundations also contributed and market research institutions brought their know-how...

The haste with which the imperialist powers rushed to hail the victory of their protege against Milosevic, as early a 25 September, speaks for itself! Whether the developments taking place were democratic or not was not their problem. It was enough for them to be able to show the appearance of a "democratic change" - the replacement of Milosevic by Kostunica, regardless of what was really behind this. Thereafter, in the space of ten days, everything happened, scene by scene as if according to a script. Kostunica, bypassing Milosevic's denunciation of the ballot by Milosevic, planted his feet calmly in the shoes of president elect, then called for a campaign of "civil disobedience", which above all precipitated the miners' strike of Kolubara and demonstrations in various towns and culminated, on the afternoon of the 5 October in the farcical "assault" on the federal parliament in Belgrade.

The simulation of an insurrection

he essential facts of this "coup" have since been revealed. It was an operation which had involved careful preparation and organisation - with attention to the smallest detail, in agreement with at least a section of the police leadership, the mobilisation of the student movement Otpor (Resistance), and supporters of the mayor of Cacak, who came well-prepared to Belgrade, not to mention the supporters of the "Red Star" football club (led by the famous ultra-nationalist paramilitary Arkan before his murder). Cacak's and the "Red Star"'s heavyweights were necessary to give the whole affair a popular flavour.

So everything, according to the testimony of the organisers, such as this mayor of Cacak, Velimir Ilic, was duly planned and perfectly executed on the 5 October, without any risk of things getting out of control (there was some minor looting), nor was there any real violence. The whole scuffle did not last more than an hour or two.

Once more, as after the 24 September election, the imperialist leaders rushed to make their approbation known. Hardly had the power been switched over in Belgrade, than Vedrine, in the name of the European Union arrived for an official visit - indeed, the whole affair was all they could have hoped for - from the obligatory ballot boxes, up to and including the fake "seizure" of parliament.

The fact is, that despite this democratic appearance, which was a mere swindle, the retirement of Milosevic from the scene was really the result of an about turn on the part of the top spheres of the state and of an agreement between them and Kostunica.

At the summits of power, the army and the police dropped Milosevic. Their allegiance to him had already started to show signs of weakness during the last weeks; polls indicated that the majority of the votes were going to Kostunica (it is true that the opposition already had support amongst the top brass and that there was already dissent in their ranks during the 1996/7 demonstrations.) Kostunica's words, addressed particularly to them, for instance on the 27 September, when he asked why an army "which courageously fought against NATO should tremble in front of one man, Slobodan Milosevic?" could only please them.

The agreement which ensured the neutrality of the army and the police was simply sealed publicly during the investiture of Kostunica, when he reaffirmed the appointment of the army's chief of staff.

The "deal" - because one cannot call this a "gentlemen's agreement" - included a secret bargain with Milosevic himself. Kostunica had immediately paid him a very long visit, under the supervision of the chief of the army, who also must have provided the main framework, at least, of the compromises between the leaders of pro-Milosevic parties on the future of Serbia, which was now presented by Kostunica as "liberated".

The handing over of power, at the investiture ceremony, was done in the presence of the deputies of all these parties (with the exception of Mirjana Markovic ). The new prime ministers at both national and federal levels all turned out to be members of pro- Milosevic parties.

At the most, one can talk of plastic surgery at the top of the Serbian regime.

Which popular mobilisation?

Having said that, the fact that these events had nothing to do with a "mass insurrection", even less a "revolution", does not mean to say that this operation did not correspond to the wishes of a large section of the population.

The movement which brought Kostunica to power was heterogeneous, bringing together many different aspirations: from those of the vengeful, ultranationalists who blame Milosevic for the loss of territory which they consider Serbian; to those who simply sought democratic freedoms against the judicial and police repression, which had been intensified by the regime over the last months - all this however against the background of a deeper discontent as a result of poverty and economic bankruptcy. The Milosevic clique was more and more openly discredited, thanks to the young militants of Otpor who accused them openly of being a bunch of thieves. Thet had robbed the country's wealth, the currency reserves of former Yugoslavia (hidden in Russia and Cyprus), the main industries and businesses, and now, they were stealing the popular majority's vote.

The gatherings which occurred in several provincial towns as well as in Belgrade, mobilised impressive numbers.

Workers contributed in their way via the miners' strike of Kolubara, and this strike had even more political significance as the miners were considered by Milosevic as a pillar of his regime and their action had no objective other than to confirm the electoral victory of Kostunica - who then did his bit by visiting Kolubara. Despite the presence of police, some of whom were trying half-heartedly to penetrate into the occupied mine, a crowd of 10-20,000 people gathered to support the miners and the policemen left. This was significant, according to the testimony of General Obradovic, a member of the opposition, because this Kolubara affair was a "test", and according to Velimir Ilic, a "dress rehearsal"...

Since 5 October, the press had reported, to borrow a headline from the French newspaper, le Monde, "the supporters of the new Yugoslavian president are taking over factories." Kostunica himself declared to the American press, "there are lots of people using extra-legal means to take control of companies and factories", adding "they're doing that in my name. I want to say that they have no right to do this in my name, and I cannot endorse what is happening." (Interview quoted by the International Herald Tribune ). The Washington Post for its part, wrote without any qualms: "It is not often that employees at the bottom of the ladder in big institutions and big factories dictate a letter of resignation for their boss. This is something which has become normal today in post-revolutionary Yugoslavia, where those who are at the bottom of the social ladder are in the process of getting rid of those who are at the top."

The examples just given took place in the towns of Leskovac and Nis, and such reports were enough for a number of groups on the Left to claim that "Serbia erupts in revolution" adding that this was " a genuine working class uprising from below in defence of freedom and democracy." (Socialist Review, monthly published by the Socialist Workers' Party, November issue)

In reality, there has undoubtedly been a series of relegations of supporters of Milosevic's regime who were at the head of "entire branches of the local economy" in the town of Nis as reported by le Monde - and maybe this occurred in other places as well. But that has nothing to do with a "proletarian revolution".

The state apparatus in Serbia and the apparatus of its ruling political party was for a long time closely intertwined. The leaders used to rotate from one post to another, the leader of a mine becoming a leader of a local council, and vice versa, etc... This tendency increased during the 1980s and finally the control of all the large projects, main enterprises, state banks came under the control of the SPS of Milosevic and the JUL of Mirjana Markovic. So the fact that the local councils held by the victorious ODS coalition are rushing today to dismiss the old guard in order to replace them with their own men is only logical.

It is difficult to know the extent of this phenomenon but it can only be facilitated by the fact that the workers are pleased to see the back of those corrupted bosses who enriched themselves - "red bandits" as they are called by some - even though, in the end, this will change nothing.

For the occasion, some more seasoned oppositionists are even coming up with phrases such as those which were used in the Tito era, such as "social property" and talk of "renewal through workers' control". This allows the pretence that it is workers themselves who would really decide on and control what happens in the sphere of local power.

In fact, behind the "last walz" of the "old" directors from whom Kostunica distances himself, what is taking place under everyone's eyes, is the joyful jig of the new leaders of the municipal councils - members of the new coalition in power who are rushing to add to their own positions those of directors of these companies. And given this is all taking place in the context of anticipated privatisation which has been called for by the economic advisors of opposition, it is all the more necessary for these aspiring "directors" to ensure that they secure these strategic positions for themselves. The preparation for privatisation is in fact one of the major themes of the opposition's economic programme, linked to the opening up of the country to Western capital.

One could conceive that on the other hand, the masses place some hopes in the lifting of the embargo - which they were the first to suffer from - and that they expect that US and European financial and economic help will relieve their suffering, especially since the new president has the support of the Western leaders. These hopes are, to some extent, illusions, even though they were a factor in the popular mobilisations.

Under the greedy eye of Western capital

The imperialist powers are not really concerned with the future of the population, nor even with "restarting the economy" in Serbia. What they are interested in, is the resumption of business and contracts for the multinationals. In all the remaining components of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia is the most interesting for them, because it has the largest population. Slovenia was integrated long ago into the German companies' sphere of influence, like Croatia, although to a lesser extent. As to Bosnia, its situation is still too unstable for profits to be made there.

Since the end of the war launched by NATO, many imperialist companies were becoming impatient at the delay in resuming business with Serbia and they were putting pressure on political bodies to speed up things. For these companies, a country in which over 60% of the road and rail infrastructure, power stations, refineries, etc.. have been destroyed, was very attractive. So as soon as clearance was given, the European Union rushed to declare the end of economic sanctions. On the evening of the same day - 9 October - a representative of Renault, the French car manufacturer, explained that his company was ready to resume immediately an old trucks contract.

The regional economic projects put together by the international institutions - such as, for instance, the Balkans' Stability Pact, which dates back to July 1999 - are undermined by the rivalry between multinationals. Thus, each state tries to get more out of these projects for its own capitalists than the others - resulting in protracted bargaining. Besides, since Kosovo and Montenegro are not independent states, they cannot, at least in theory, receive loans from the financial international institutions. There are numerous obstacles like these. Another one is the fact that the same institutions require that Serbia should sort out its financial situation both with respect to its assets and with respect to the debt it inherited from the former Yugoslavia. Serbia lost its membership of the IMF and of the World Bank in 1992-93, but the IMF still holds it responsible for a debt in dollars that it is meant to pay before being able to get any new loans.

But this does not prevent scores of companies from seeking possible contracts with Serbia. France, in particular, already took great interest in Yugoslavia in the days of the pre-World War II monarchy. In 1989, the French foreign minister, Roland Dumas awarded a high distinction to the chief executive of the Franco- Yugoslav Bank in Paris, who was a personal friend of Milosevic. At the time, the German press denounced Mitterrand's "Serbian soul". It is clear that, as the French daily Le Figaro writes today, "the French will have to be careful to avoid being overtaken by the Germans."

In other words, the race for profits is back on track in Serbia and the humanitarian statements which will be made at the various summits which are planned - such as the summit between the European Union and the Balkans countries which is to take place in Zagreb at the end of November - will hardly conceal a bitter struggle over markets and contracts.

The main advantage that the capitalists expect to gain from resuming normal business with Serbia, is the possibility to exploit a low-paid, skilled labour force. In fact wages are not just low but extremely low, at around £18 to £27 per month. And if the imperialist states take upon themselves the burden of rebuilding the most vital infrastructure, this will mean a huge bonanza for the capitalists of the building industry and other sharks.

This is what motivates them, above all considerations. But this does not exclude a more global political advantage that imperialism would see in the prospect of stabilising the Balkans by stabilising Serbia - since its army and police are the largest in the region (in fact its police is as large as its army and includes more or less parallel militias). At the Biarritz European summit, on 14 October, Kostunica went along with the wishes of the participating leaders by promising that "tomorrow's Serbia will guarantee the stability of the Balkans."

An uncertain future for the region

However, the new developments in Belgrade do not mean that all the problems and tensions are about to be resolved in the region, not even the problem of the stabilisation of the Serbian regime itself, let alone that of the Balkans.

Kostunica's strength is based on a consensus, partly imposed by the imperialist powers, which may well be only temporary. He owes his present position to agreements he has made with various forces - whose content is mostly secret. In particular with the top spheres of the repressive forces - with which the far-right ultra- nationalist currents have links as well as currents harking back to a Greater Serbia - not to mention the ruling political parties of the Milosevic era, with their bellicose past. The support of former militia chiefs and ministers of Milosevic such as Draskovic and Seselj, come at a price. All this involves heavy compromises for the new power. Most of the forces of Milosevic's regime are still there. They retain the means to destabilise the regime, if only due to the fact that Milosevic is still in Serbia, but also thanks to large funds safely stashed away, with people in high places in the administration, not to mention their thugs, even if, for the time being, they keep a low profile.

Within the ODS coalition itself, the rivalries have not disappeared. For his campaign, Kostunica has had to depend on Djindjic and other smaller groups belonging to the ODS and he still needs their support. Some of these people are probably waiting for the right time to push their own cards forward.

In such a context, the threat of nationalist overbidding may re- emerge brutally, especially if there is no improvement in the present catastrophic economic situation. It is not a coincidence if the comments made about Kostunica's victory, in Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro, were full of suspicion. And Kostunica has done nothing to allay this suspicion, at least not for the time being - rather the opposite.

His first official visit outside Serbia was to Bosnia. But instead of visiting Sarajevo in order to re-establish links with the Bosnian government, he went to the fiefdom of the nationalist supporters of Karadzik, in the separatist Serbian part of Bosnia, where he met Karadzic's wife and the entire general-staff of his party. The pretext of this ceremony, which was portrayed as "personal and religious" was the burial of the ashes of a poet (who died in 1943!) who was known as a champion of Serbian nationalism. This was a deliberate political gesture designed to stress the political continuity of the Serbian regime, including the continuity of its contempt for the UN leaders who, in principle, are still the patrons of Bosnia, and for the theoretically joint presidency of Bosnia based in Sarajevo.

With regard to Sarajevo, however, he declared his intention to break with the Milosevic's policy - that is to seek an agreement rather than to fuel tensions as Milosevic did. This attitude is obviously in his interests, both from a political but also an economic point of view, to avoid losing any influence in this respect over Montenegro. Indeed, at the time when the Serbian army was blockading the borders of Montenegro, the dissident leaders of Montenegro had diverted their trade and trafficking towards the other republics of the former Yugoslavia, thereby resuming links that existed before Milosevic, when 80% of Montenegro's trade was with these other republics. Today Belgrade is putting pressure on Montenegro to re-establish a single market and a single custom system with Serbia.

Kostunica is said to have considered ditched the Yugoslav label given by Milosevic to Serbia's federation with Montenegro - a federation which was an empty shell anyway. He suggested to replace this label with that of "Serbia-Montenegro", which still remains somewhat ambiguous. But on the other hand, Montenegro's leaders have probably no interest in rejecting Kostunica's proposals if this jeopardises the support they get from the imperialist powers.

Beyond the question of Montenegro, it is likely that the emergence of Kostunica in Serbia is considered advantageous by the imperialist powers. Not only can it help to justify NATO's 1999 aggression, but it can pave the way for their withdrawal from Kosovo, since the pretext for the military occupation of Kosovo and its transformation into an imperialist protectorate, was the presence of Milosevic in power in Belgrade. And in fact this prospect is worrying the Kosovar politicians and intellectuals who have no illusions in Kostunica. All the more so because NATO and the Pentagon have, for along time been looking for a way to reduce their military presence on the ground in Kosova, if they have not yet, at least , been looking for way to get out completely.

The first statements made by Kostunica against the independence of Kosovo and demanding that the Serbs who left it after the war should be allowed to return soon, were not innocent.

Kosovo is more than ever a powder keg. The pro-independence feelings of its population are shared by all its rival political currents, and the fact that the parties linked to the ultra-nationalist UCK were defeated in the recent local election by more moderate currents probably reflects more the dislike of the electorate for the UCK's links with the mafia than for its politics. As to the Serbian minority which remains in Kosovo, there is still the possibility of a re-emergence of ultra-nationalism within its ranks.

Out of these 100,000 Serbian Kosovars, around half are grouped in and around Kosovska Mitrovica. And judging by the way their leader, Oliver Ivanovic, who is now aligned behind Kostunica, advocates the setting up of a mini Serbian republic of Kosovska Mitrovica (including its mining resources), it is clear that nothing is about to be resolved yet.

But Kostunica has no difficulties in using the UN itself to back up his position over Kosovo. He can use the argument of "international law", represented in this case by the UN Security Council's resolution 1244 which ended the war in June 1999. It reaffirms the "support of all UN members for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Yugoslav Federal Republic", and therefore for Kosovo to remain part of it. Having defeated Milosevic, Kostunica is therefore in a position to reclaim, as he did, "the sovereignty we have lost over part of our territory." And, on the basis of the same resolution, he can also demand that "an agreed number of Yugoslav and Serbian soldiers and police will be allowed to return to Kosovo" in order to, for instance, "maintain a presence in locations connected to the Serbian national heritage" or "maintain a presence at the main border checkpoints." On 12 October, Zoran Djindjic went a bit further when he said: "We request that a small part of the Yugoslav army and Serbian police should be stationed in Kosovo in the Serbian populated areas."

The imperialist diplomats who negotiated the withdrawal of the Serbian troops and the members of the Security Council were not short of cynicism. They thought about the protection of the "locations connected to the Serbian national heritage" and about the return of Serbian exiles, but not about the Albanian Kosovars who were jailed by Milosevic in Serbia during the war. There is not a word about their liberation! Yet, today, there are still a thousand Albanian Kosovars in Serbian jails, not to mention several thousands who have "disappeared". And so far, Kostunica has still not ordered that the prisoners should be freed. Even only from the point of view of democratic rights, this is a rather bad sign for the future.

Some democratic freedom may reappear in Serbia for a while, particularly in the operation of the media and the justice system. Even on the issue of Kosovo, Kostunica may have to make some concessions, at least in words. For instance, since Resolution 1244 - which Kostunica uses to back up his policy - declares that Kosovo should be part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, but not of Serbia itself, the official end of the Federal Republic could possibly pave the way for a form of independent Kosovo. However, the repressive forces remain intact and their existence will maintain the pressure on the peoples of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo.

For the imperialist powers, a mere revamping operation in Serbia was enough. It makes it possible to resume their "cooperation" with this country on the basis of the docility of its leaders and to res-establish their economic exploitation. As to the Serbian politicians, they showed that they knew how to use the "people" to help them up the ladder of power.

Nevertheless, one can still hope that, through these events, the workers and masses will have began to regain some confidence in their own strength and to learn the lessons of what is taking place. Milosevic's downfall may generate some hopes and encourage workers to put forward their own demands. The truth, unfortunately, is that over the recent past, the working class of the former Yugoslavia did not find a political force willing to, and capable of representing its class interests. But this working class has already demonstrated its ability to fight in difficult circumstances. In any case, for internationalist revolutionaries, the way to the future can only be in the camp of this working class, against the murderous nationalisms and against all exploiters.

4 November 2000