Temperature rises in Belgrade

Serbia has begun the new year with a bang. A massive anti-government demonstration took place on Monday - which happens to be Christmas Eve in the Orthodox calendar - in Belgrade. This was attended by over 250,000 protesters and brought the city to a standstill.   

This was not the first such display of anger directed against Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian Socialist Party, but it looks like it was the biggest. The Monday demonstration was the ‘culmination’ of 50 days of consecutive marching in protest at the blatant vote-rigging which has been carried out by the ruling regime - and the marches, protests and demonstrations are set to continue without rest. So far the demonstrations have passed relatively peacefully, but one of the student leaders, Dusan Vasiljevic, has warned that Serbia will “explode” if Milosevic’s police force continues to prevent marches. Confrontation and violence is in the air.

The level of anger and resentment on show is hardly surprising. After losing several local elections - the opposition won nine of Belgrade’s 16 municipalities - in November, the SSP promptly refused to recognise them and the election results were ‘annulled’. It is clear that the SSP was convinced that the elections were safely in the bag prior to then. So much so that it arranged for sympathetic local radio stations to provide live coverage of the election results as they came in, sending out over a dozen reporters with mobile phones to the various polling stations - thus publicising its own weakness. Demonstrators made straight for the streets when Milosevic declared the ‘annulment’ two days later.

From that date ignominy has piled upon ignominy for the beleaguered regime in Belgrade. The Serbian courts, in a rare display of independence, urged the local electoral commission to recognise the true results - it did not, of course. Then some senior SSP members all but admitted trying to rig the result through ballot-stuffing. The opposition Zajedno(Together) coalition has even claimed that Branislav Todorovic - a figure closely associated with Milosevic and previously regarded as a ‘loyalist’ - has offered to do the dirty on his colleagues in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

As if that was not bad enough for Milosevic, the Orthodox Church has also turned on him. Last week the governing synod denounced Belgrade for being a “communist, godless and Satanic regime”. A bit of a hypocritical conversion really, when you consider that from 1991 onwards the Serbian Orthodox Church has staunchly applauded this “communist, godless and Satanic” regime in its wars against the Croats and the muslim-dominated regime in Bosnia. Now, however, it appears that the Church thinks that Milosevic is not up to the job.   

Not even the army is looking reliable - in fact, it looks distinctly ‘dodgy’. General Momcilo Perisic, army chief of staff, spoke to the demonstrators on Monday for more than an hour at his Belgrade headquarters and later issued a statement calling for a “democratic solution” to Serbia’s seven-week political crisis. He also emphasised that there would be “no repeat of 1991”, when army tanks brutally crushed anti-government protests in Belgrade.

From this perspective the writing does seem to be on the wall for the reactionary Milosevic regime - though diplomatic sources in Serbia say that Milosevic has had his suspicious eye on the army and the church for some time, and has planned in advance to rely entirely on the 80,000-strong police force (backed up by the state media and semi-criminal elements in the business groups). If Milosevic and his corrupt cronies were to be toppled, communists and democrats would not shed a single tear for him. The ‘socialist’ regime in Belgrade is a parody of ‘official communism’, which itself was a grotesque parody of genuine communism.

Having said that, Marxists are well aware that the political landscape, and language, in this region has been poisoned by nationalism and chauvinism. Proletarian internationalism has withered away and any sort of working class agenda in the ‘anti-Milosevic’ movement has been hard to detect. Indeed, judging by all the accounts which have reached us, the most bitter and fervent critics of the Belgrade regime have come from the right - some of which has a fascistic character. Ironically, for some perhaps, the regime has not been slow to capitalise upon this. In December, Ljubisa Ristic, a government member, denounced the demonstrators as a “Cetnik assault on Belgrade” (quoted in The Guardian December 17 1996) - a reference to the rightwing nationalist movement in Yugoslavia during World War II which vehemently opposed both the Nazi occupation forces and theTito-led anti-fascist partisans.   

A closer look at the demonstrations reveals that some of the most prominent figures in it have emphatically non-leftwing credentials. As Socialist Review, the theoretical journal of the Socialist Workers Party, puts it, “The street protesters were not led by leftwingers”, pointing the finger at Vuk Draskovic, the “most conspicuous spokesman of the Zajedno coalition” (January). The SWP is certainly correct on this point. Draskovic is the leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, which has far right associations. The SRM was in the vanguard of militant Serb nationalism during 1991, which saw Draskovic forming the Serbian Guard, an organisation dedicated to military strikes on Croatian territory. Even though he has managed with some degree of success to present his ‘liberal’ face to the west - he has recently been courted, gingerly no doubt, by US officials - his political orientation remains towards ‘romantic’ Serbian nationalism. People close to him say he is “obsessed” with rehabilitating the war time Cetnik leader Drazna Mihajlovic - not a good sign.

 Another high profile oppositionalist is Zoran Djindjic - the urbane, western-educated leader of the Democratic Party. Even though he may look the part, literally, he has been more than happy in the past to play the nationalist card. His admiration for Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb nationalist leader, is no secret and has demonstrated no sign of ‘repentance’ for his nationalist past. Indeed, he told western journalists at the end of last year: “Any politician in Serbia had to show solidarity with the Bosnian Serbs during the war. It is not our choice who their leaders are.”

But it is also clear that the demonstrations in Serbia are gathering momentum. As more and more people are drawn into the anti-Milosevic tidal wave, it is inevitable that some of the forces will not share the Draskovic-Djindjic ultra-nationalist agenda. These people will be opento politics of a progressive, anti-nationalist/chauvinist nature. There will be a sea for genuine communist ideas to swim in. Therefore, it is vital that revolutionaries are with the masses against the anti-democratic Belgrade regime, precisely in order to win them away from reactionary chauvinistic ideologies. If it is left to spontaneity and hot-headedness, the demonstrations - and the passions which fire them - could go down a dark alley. This would be a tragedy and represent a massive setback for the masses in this volatile and dangerous region.

Socialist Review indicates that there are grounds for cool optimism. It quotes the words of a journalist who has recently returned from Serbia:

“Several students I spoke to said they hated Draskovic and thought the Zajedno leaders were little better than Milosevic. But who else was standing up for change? If there had been some other force calling for revolt, it could have grown quickly. Drakovic rests on middle class support, not the mass of people” (January).

The Guardian recently commented:“Yes, the main opposition leaders are more nationalist than democrat” (January 7). It is the job of revolutionaries, in Serbia and outside, to champion the cause of democracy in an unflinching and unbending manner. This is the best way to combat nationalism - whether it be in the streets or the government chambers in Belgrade.

Eddie Ford