Try Milosevic!

The mass popular insurrection that overthrew the regime of Slobodan Milosevic on October 5 brings to an end a bloody chapter in the history of the Balkans. Milosevic's 11 years in power brought nothing but ruin to the region, to the non-Serbian people of the former Yugoslavia, and ultimately to the Serbian people themselves.

The mass popular insurrection that overthrew the regime of Slobodan Milosevic on October 5 brings to an end a bloody chapter in the history of the Balkans. Milosevic's 11 years in power brought nothing but ruin to the region, to the non-Serbian people of the former Yugoslavia, and ultimately to the Serbian people themselves.

Milosevic's regime sprang up as an outgrowth of the disintegrating Yugoslavia of Tito's League of Communists - which had up to Milosevic's ascendancy been probably the least malevolent of the east European Stalinist regimes. Milosevic was a strange composite: on the one hand, his was the type of ruthless bureaucratic elite which presided over the anti-socialist freak social formations that usurped the name of 'communism' after the defeats of the Russian working class in the 1920s and 1930s; on the other hand, it represented all that was most venal about traditional Serbian chauvinism.

Now Milosevic has gone, to rejoicing in many quarters. For western governments, a troublesome, if fairly minor, enemy has been removed, and an opportunity has presented itself to impose an imperialist stability on the tinderbox that is the Balkans. They hope in the not too distant future to be able to withdraw the costly military forces, which are employed in the attempt to prevent a giant, Lebanon-style disaster that could even have had serious effects on the western half of Europe - certainly bad for business!

For the non-Serbian peoples of the western Balkans, the fall of Milosevic means that the immediate likelihood of being drawn into renewed inter-ethnic wars has receded considerably. With the overthrow of the tyrant by a genuine popular revolt, the image of the 'ugly Serb' - which has been the recent experience of those on the receiving end of the drive for 'Greater Serbia' - has been greatly moderated.

For communists, then, assuming the newly elected regime of Kostunica shows even a minimal degree of rationality in its dealings with the other nationalities of the region, it is possible that at least a start can be made by genuinely progressive, socialist and working class elements in dissipating the poisonous national hatreds whose chief (though not only) architect was Milosevic.

His downfall comes only a matter of months after the long-overdue death from cancer of Milosevic's Croatian equivalent, Franjo Tudjman, and the subsequent electoral defeat of Tudjman's own vicious and unsavoury nationalist party by a liberal/social democratic coalition. It appears that the masses in the former Yugoslavia have let it be known that they have had enough of murderous nationalist fratricide.

Yes, there are enormous illusions in western bourgeois democracy, making the working classes of the ex-Soviet bloc willing accomplices in their own exploitation at the hands of profit-greedy globalised capitalism. Nevertheless, in the case of Serbia, Marxists can only warmly welcome the intervention of the masses - both through the electoral process and on the streets - to throw the ultra-nationalist and reactionary swine out of office. This political revolution represents not the rebirth of real class consciousness (that is a far more complex and profound process), but at least an overcoming of the extreme atomisation and despair that laid the basis for the likes of Milosevic and Tudjman to come to power in the first place.

In that sense, the imperialist media, who crow that what has happened in Serbia is simply a continuation of 1989 and the fall of the Soviet bloc, are trying to stretch things too far. While Milosevic's regime maintained some elements of organisational continuity with the pre-1989 Stalinist party, the fact is that massive ethnic conflict, forced population transfers and attempts to wipe out whole peoples because of their being of the 'wrong' ethnicity was not the characteristic feature of the pre-1989 Stalinist regimes.

The truth is - and the peoples of the region know it - that both Milosevic and Tudjman were products of 1989, of the disintegration of the genuine, if fundamentally flawed, attempts by Tito to solve the national question in the western Balkans by means of a nationally egalitarian federal state. Milosevic and Tudjman stood for the opposite of those things, for the exacerbation of ethnic conflict through the mass expulsion of 'inconvenient' populations, and the creation of ethnically 'pure' mini-states. Their social base is among the kind of ex-bureaucrats turned spivs and 'entrepreneurs' that also play the major economic role in Russia - gangster capitalism, to be blunt.

The upheaval, whose details are too fresh in the minds of readers to need repeating here, has underlined many things. It has once again exposed the bankruptcy of much of the left, on the central question of democracy, democratic demands and the defence of democratic rights. As an extreme example, a delegation from Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party went to Belgrade during the elections, and came back with a glowing report as to the 'fairness' of Milosevic's election process.

According to Mick Appleyard, Liz Screen and Ian Johnson, "It was only in Montenegro that we observed ... irregularities: the so-called democratic opposition, which boycotted the elections in Montenegro, nevertheless gathered outside polling stations there in clear violation of election procedures, using intimidating behaviour towards prospective voters; we received many first-hand reports from people who stated they had been threatened with the loss of their jobs if they turned out to vote."

Nice one! In reality without the Montenegrin boycott there would have been even more votes cast against Milosevic. His grotesque rigging provoked such an enormous outburst of popular anger that the whole charade turned to dust within a couple of days. Unfortunately for comrades Appleyard, Screen and Johnson, their report was posted on the internet a matter of hours before their words were exposed by life itself as the lies of diplomatic prostitutes. Similarly, the Morning Star consistently backed Milosevic and Condemned those who stormed the Belgrade parliament as a "drunken pro-western mob".

But many others, not so inept and brazen, will no doubt be squirming uncomfortably at the outcome in Serbia. In an internet contribution a veteran of several serious Trotskyist organisations compared the bourgeois press's evident joy at the fall of Milosevic with the support of the same press for Mosley's Blackshirts in the 1930s. But this is not the 1930s, and the imperialist press is not at this point inclined to support fascism. In the absence of a revolutionary workers' movement it has no need for such an extreme counterrevolutionary weapon.

The bourgeoisie sees the fall of Milosevic as an important milestone in making the Balkans safe for capitalism. It does not follow from that that Marxists should 'defend' Milosevic, any more than the evident bourgeois dislike of the kind of gangster capitalism that has taken root in Russia should lead us to 'defend' the Russian gangsters who are the butt of western hostility. Our job is to defend the democratic rights and capacity to struggle of workers and the oppressed against the capitalists - both the gangsters and the more 'normal' kind.

As part of the re-arming of the workers' movement, we communists must champion consistent democracy. The working class must become the hegemon of democratic questions and the most resolute fighters for the democratic rights of all the oppressed. We should have no hesitation in defending the rights of the masses in situations like Serbia, where remnants of the old Stalinist elite, rebranded as ultra-nationalists but retaining a certain 'socialist' aura, ruthlessly exploit ignorance and anti-democratic sentiments to entrench themselves in power.

Defeats of such regimes at the hands of the masses themselves, taking action from below, even where they have illusions in western democracy, are struggles that have the potential to go beyond their initial bourgeois-democratic limitations. And even if they do not, they leave a legacy of mass action that can be built upon in future struggles - struggles which may have a very different class dynamic.

Secondly, Milosevic's defeat is a vindication of the position of the CPGB during the 1999 Kosova war. We called for workers, both in the Nato countries and in Serbia, to uphold revolutionary defeatism - i.e., the defeat of one's 'own' country as a 'lesser evil' to its victory in a reactionary war, while unconditionally supporting the right of self-determination for the Kosovar Albanians. The dogma of the Trotskyist left, based on some extremely dubious analogies from the period of the world domination of the European colonial empires, is that it is obligatory to support any country outside the advanced capitalist 'club' which engages in military confrontation with the imperialists - irrespective of the country's regime or the issues over which the war is actually being fought.

We reject this dogma, which in 1999 saw 'revolutionaries' advising Serbian workers to support their own government, as it fought to expel two million ethnic Albanians from Kosova! Again, we only support wars where there is a concrete democratic or socialist principle at stake - and in some clearly defined circumstances this could mean supporting the government of a third world country against an imperialist power: for instance, if its right to self-determination or national existence was under threat.

But the right to self-determination and national existence of Serbia were not at stake in the 1999 Kosova war. The proof of this lies in the fact that the people of Serbia have just exercised their right of self-determination in the most dramatic way possible - by overthrowing a hated and reactionary government. This would have been much less likely had Milosevic won his bloody war against the Kosovars. On the contrary, these events have proved once again that the defeat of a reactionary government in a reactionary war is the mother of revolution.

Now that Milosevic has gone, the imperialists are in the process of lifting the economic sanctions imposed on Serbia, which were massively tightened after the Kosova war. Marxists in general oppose imperialist sanctions - whether against Serbia, Iraq or even against apartheid South Africa. (Many on the reformist left who today bitterly denounce the imperialist treatment of Serbia were very much in favour of the imperialists taking a stand for 'democracy' and 'human rights' yesterday - as long as it was against a regime they regarded as anathema.)

We oppose imperialist sanctions not out of any misplaced solidarity with the odious and vile regimes of Botha's South Africa, Saddam's Iraq and Milosevic's Serbia, but because the imperialists employ them only in their own interests, not in order to help the oppressed. The imperialists are the enemies of the oppressed, not their friends. We are in favour of independent working class action on an international scale, of strikes and labour boycotts of repressive regimes, of concrete acts of international solidarity and workers' sanctions when appropriate.

The imperialists are now demanding that Milosevic be handed over to the war crimes tribunal at The Hague, though Kostunica promised as part of his election campaign not to do this. We reject the 'right' of the imperialists - who are at root responsible for most of the exploitation, poverty and starvation, repression and human suffering in the world - to put their enemies on trial for crimes that, however bloody and brutal, are relatively small beer by the standards of the imperialist world overlords.

We have a better solution. It would be in the interest of the masses of the entire region to convene a revolutionary popular tribunal, at which all Milosevic's victims should be entitled to give evidence before the world. While Marxists are opposed to the death penalty as a measure of civil peace, the case of a bloody tyrant in the aftermath of a popular uprising is a different matter, a matter of popular justice in circumstances of civil war. Milosevic and his closest collaborators should face the same fate as tyrants such as Ceausescu, Mussolini and Nicolas the Bloody.

Far from bemoaning the demise of scum like Milosevic, revolutionaries should be seeking to build upon the upheaval that overthrew him in order to lay the basis for deeper revolutionary struggles, with a working class content, in the future.

Roger Dark