Coup in Belgrade Offers Nothing to Serb Workers

Neither Milosevic nor Kostunica

The following article is translated from Bolschewik, January 2001, German journal of the International Bolshevik Tendency.

Following the downfall of the despised Milosevic regime comes the news that arch-privatiser George Sorros and his "Open Society Foundation" intend to set up shop in Belgrade. Milosevic's replacement by the supposed "democrat" and "moderate" nationalist Vojislav Kostunica is gratifying for western imperialism but is no cause for celebration on the part of the working class. Kostunica, an avowed free-marketeer, has made it clear that he wants to speed up the privatisation of state industries and introduce market reforms. Serbia is about to be subjected to the kind of IMF/World Bank shock therapy that has previously been meted out to Serbia's neighbours to the north and elsewhere around the world.

While we do not cheer Kostunica's victory, neither do we mourn Milosevic's defeat. Qualitatively there is little difference between the two men, who diverge only with regard to the precise shape of the capitalism each favours. Milosevic, an aggressive Serb chauvinist, along with competing nationalists such as Karadzic and Izetbegovic in Bosnia or Tudjman in Croatia, led the capitalist counter-revolution against the Yugoslav deformed workers' state. These men spearheaded the fragmentation of the multi-national Yugoslav proletariat along nationalist lines. In the early 1990s western imperialists, casting avaricious eyes over Yugoslavia's industry and productive wealth, favoured these nationalisms as levers of counter-revolution. Now these same competing nationalisms provoke hysteria in the bourgeois press and crocodile tears from Clinton, Blair and other imperialist leaders.

Milosevic and Imperialism: A Fraught Relationship

The destruction and dismemberment of the deformed workers' state in Yugoslavia was a massive defeat for the working class. An era of mass unemployment was initiated in the Serb-dominated rump Yugoslav Republic, which saw average incomes dropping by three quarters. At the same time, chauvinist hysteria was fanned into a conflagration as the competing forces of capitalist restoration in the different Yugoslav republics, each wanting to assert mutually irreconcilable territorial goals, sought to mobilise mass support.

The strangling of the collectivised economy and restriction of national rights by the Yugoslav Stalinist regime provided an excellent springboard for these nationalist campaigns. From the beginning, Milosevic's relationship with western imperialism was contradictory. As a Serbian nationalist he wanted to reconstruct a Yugoslav republic with Serbia as the dominant core. However this did not suit the imperialists, in particular newly-united Germany. Although the US initially favoured the continuing unity of Yugoslavia, the fait acompli of Germany's unilateral recognition of Croatia’s secession quickly led to an imperialist consensus in favour of dismemberment of the old Federal Republic.

The pace of economic "reform" in Serbia soon began to frustrate Western investors. A large state-owned sector remained, its enterprises largely distributed as keepsakes to Milosevic's "court". Co-operation with the International Monetary Fund was limited, and IMF functionaries were continually refused permanent visas. Nonetheless at the time of the Dayton "peace" accords a compromise was reached. Milosevic's willing acceptance of his assigned role as strongman and guarantor of regional stability earned him enough brownie points to prolong his imperialist patronage. However the appearance of neo-liberal and pro-Western elements in the mass protests following the municipal elections in 1996 whetted the appetite of the imperialist vultures for a more pliable Yugoslav client. Over time Milosevic’s political credit with imperialism ran out and he found himself in the "debit column". The West hypocritically turned a blind eye to atrocities carried out against Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia while denouncing similar atrocities by Serbs, and Milosevic was made over as a paragon of evil. No longer a "man to do business with", as at Dayton, he was now painted as a rogue dictator who had not broken sufficiently with his Stalinist past - unlike the leaders of Slovenia, or Tudjman whose nation building rhetoric emphasised Croatia’s pro-Nazi Ustasha tradition.

Hostility towards Milosevic Increases

The crisis in Kosovo presented an opportunity for the imperialists to apply the screws. In February 1999 at Rambouillet the imperialists laid down the law to both Milosevic and the Kosovan Liberation Army delegation. While they offered little to the majority Albanian Kosovars, refusing to even place their just demand for the right to secession on the agenda, the imperialists presented Milosevic with an offer tailored to ensure his refusal. Had Yugoslavia signed the insulting "peace" provocation it would have completely handed over its sovereignty to Nato, and agreed to direct economic control and a virtually open-ended imperialist military occupation.

The US/Nato attack that followed the Rambouillet farce unleashed the full force of imperialist wrath against Serbia. While the bombs rained down, Washington scraped up a motley crew of Milosevic's opponents as a "democratic" alternative. They hoped that the combination of the terror bombing and this opposition could topple Milosevic, but these elements were too deeply divided, and too compromised by their association with Nato and the US, to be of any use.

So the Clinton-led campaign changed tack. Washington and the governments of the European Union signalled to Belgrade's ruling elite that rather than getting rid of Milosevic's regime wholesale they would settle for the replacement of the president and his closest supporters in a more limited palace coup. The emergence of a united opposition, under the leadership of Vojislav Kostunica, fitted the bill.

Through a combination of imperialist-imposed sanctions and the regime's bureaucratic corruption the Milosevic clique had become immensely unpopular. Milosevic's attempt to hold onto office through electoral fraud angered the clear majority who had voted for Kostunica and this anger gave rise to a tide of popular unrest which intersected the frustration of workers over their continually worsening standard of living.

The electoral impasse, as it developed, allowed for every sector of society to express its opposition to the regime and its support for Kostunica as an allegedly moderate democratic alternative. This opposition included workers' strikes in key industries. Revolutionaries had a duty to defend these strikes and the strikers who were arrested, while at the same time pointing out that Kostunica did not represent a real alternative.

As the imperialists hoped, the elections and the surrounding political crisis - while provoking a great deal of civil unrest including the mobilisation of key sectors of the working class through strikes and demonstrations - did not constitute a "revolution". By all accounts the reason for Milosevic's sudden and unpredicted resignation was that the officer corps of the military demanded that he go. The subsequent disputes between the new president and the old elite concern how much house-cleaning at the palace should be permitted.

Imperialist Meddling

Vojislav Kostunica was the preferred candidate of imperialism. Any doubts on that score should be laid to rest by the reaction of various imperialist governments to Milosevic's post-election manoeuvres. Germany's social-democratic chancellor Schröder lost no time in trying to isolate Belgrade from Moscow, putting pressure on Russian President Putin to declare that Kostunica had won the elections outright. Britain's Labour minister of foreign affairs, Robin Cook, warned Belgrade that the considerable Western military presence near and around Serbia should “send a message to president Slobodan Milosevic" (Berliner Zeitung, 27 September 2000). Underscoring this sabre-rattling, Tony Blair dispatched the British aircraft carrier Invincible and the helicopter carrier Ocean to the Mediterranean to rendezvous with a US fleet. In a cynical move of the highest order, imperialist agencies offered to subsidise the wages of Serbian workers as a thank you for having helped to bring down Milosevic. Workers beware! As the saying goes: "Tell me whose bread you eat, and I'll tell you whose song you sing."

Before the elections, the imperialists made clear to the Serbian people the advantages of electing Kostunica. Sanctions, they said, would be lifted if Milosevic were voted down, and there would be substantial aid packages available for the rebuilding of Serbia's war-torn and sanction-ravaged economy.

But the imperialists won't have it all their own way. They may like to portray Kostunica as a moderate nationalist but the new president's nationalist credentials are worthy of a Milosevic. As a young academic, Kostunica was fired from his post at Belgrade University because he denounced as "anti-Serbian" a new constitution granting autonomy to Kosovo. After the break-up of Yugoslavia, Kostunica maintained his vision of a greater Serbia, incorporating Montenegro, Kosovo, and parts of Croatia and Bosnia. His only criticism of Milosevic was that he failed to achieve this. In 1992, Kostunica split with Zoran Djindic's Democratic Party on the grounds that it had departed from a hard nationalist line, and formed his own Democratic Party of Serbia. The year before the war in Kosovo, in full paramilitary uniform and brandishing a Kalishnikov, this "moderate" nationalist visited Serbian forces to assure them of his support.

Money on Kostunica

Already Kostunica has signalled several differences with imperialism. He does not favour giving Milosevic up to the West to be tried for war crimes, nor does he want to see Kosovo secede from Serbia. The imperialists are happy with Kosovo’s continued subordination to Belgrade - they were never keen on independence for the Albanian Kosovars because of the unpredictable effects that redrawing the border would have on other regional disputes. And Milosevic can probably wait.

Kostunica's long record as a dedicated anti-communist and his commitment to a free-market economy makes him the man to put money on, at least for now. Kostunica is more likely to compromise and go along with Western overtures because he understands that greater-Serbian ambitions can never succeed if opposed by the West. He genuinely seems to want Serbia to join the "happy family" of Europe. Unlike Milosevic, this diamond might actually get his rough edges smoothed off.

Capitalism has some big projects in the pipeline for south-east Europe and therefore requires stability. The establishment of the Deutschmark as a second official currency in many parts of Eastern Europe, including Montenegro and Kosovo, created the economic framework for increased trade and investment, while the June 1999 "Stability Pact for Southeast Europe" set up the political framework (Junge Welt, 15 September 2000). The imperialists' pay-off for supporting Kostunica won't only be collected in Serbia - there is a lot of Western capital and only limited opportunities provided by the Serbian economy - but Yugoslavia is pivotal to control of the Balkans. All the major supply routes run through Serbian territory - which is why all the capitalist think-tanks recognise that the development of regional trade requires the integration of Belgrade (Junge Welt, 11 May 2000). The sticking point was Milosevic, whose lack of co-operation and maintenance of statised property was an obstacle to the free reign of both international and local capital. It is not only multi-national capitalists who have a stake in the region: fledgling enterprises in Hungary and other neighbours also welcome the new openings heralded by Kostunica's election.

Who Loses?

Ethnic Albanians who dominate the "province" of Kosovo know that Milosevic's removal has largely robbed them of their bargaining power. As PDK (formerly KLA) general secretary Krasniqi bluntly admitted, "A victory for Milosevic would improve our position because his crimes are known to the whole world" (Berliner Zeitung, 30 September 2000). Now they are going to get the bill for their trust in imperialist "humanitarianism".

Thousands of Balkan refugees, who are particularly numerous in Germany, will also be big losers. With the imperialist certification of the "stability" of the region after Milosevic's removal, they lose their status as "civil-war refugees" and will be subject to rapid deportation. The German workers' movement must take a strong stand against the forcible deportation of refugees.

The biggest losers will be Serbian workers. They will face increasing poverty and hardship as Serbia is subjected to the IMF recipe of price deregulation, privatisations and factory closures. Kostunica has called on the West to deliver economic aid on the scale of the Marshall Plan after World War Two, but such assistance will not be forthcoming. The Soviet threat no longer exists, so the price Serbia commands today is far less than Europe did in 1945. In the short term the lifting of sanctions, coupled with the aid already promised, may initially soften the blow. However as the IMF/World Bank's "market reforms" bite, price rises, declining wages and mass redundancies will erode any temporary improvements. Serbian workers should have no illusions.

Lessons of Struggle

In the struggle against Milosevic workers have had a rare taste of success in the use of direct action. To the extent that the strike mobilisations played a part in toppling Milosevic, workers have experienced the kind of political victory which can make them a force to be reckoned with in the days ahead. However the consequences of the anti-Milosevic struggle is a government that, despite its democratic veneer, is likely to be to the right of its predecessor. What is required if the working class is to win in future is a complete break from this pro-capitalist lash-up. An assertion of working class political independence during the September events could have turned the mass strike organisations into a base for a struggle to sweep away all the rotten bourgeois-nationalist free-market crap, and establish the rule of the workers and oppressed. This goal can only be realised through forging a multi-national revolutionary party in the Balkans with the internationalist class struggle perspective of Lenin and Trotsky's Third (Communist) International.

While revolutionaries would have defended Serbian workers against repression, they would not have supported demands to put Kostunica into office. The fake-revolutionary British Socialist Workers Party and its affiliates in the International Socialist Tendency (IST), however, pretended that the mass mobilisations to replace Milosevic with Kostunica constituted a partial "revolution": "The revolution needs to go far deeper, and spread." (Socialist Worker, No 1718, 14 October 2000). In fact there was no revolution. The problem with this popular protest movement in support of a free-market nationalist is not that it didn't go far enough, but that it was heading in entirely the wrong direction. To call on workers to put Kostunica into office is to mislead them — to divert them from the kind of programme necessary to wage a revolutionary struggle against capitalism and nationalism. While the IST sought to strengthen the influence of the working class on the opposition movement, what was essential was to break the working class from Kostunica & Co., so that workers could impose their own social agenda through socialist revolution.

The numerous imperialist troops in Bosnia, Kosovo and Nato’s new "Partners for Peace" constitute an important and dangerous obstacle to genuine revolutionary struggle by workers in the Balkans. It is vital that class-conscious militants in the West link the struggle to defeat the class enemy at home with opposition to the imperialist presence in the Balkans. The road forward for Yugoslav workers does not lie through subordination to the IMF and other imperialist agencies, but rather through a perspective of international class-struggle aimed at integrating a socialist Balkan federation into the United Socialist States of Europe.

No to Privatisation!
Hands Off Yugoslavia and the Balkans!
Neither Milosevic nor Kostunica!
Workers to power!

Published: 16 January 2001