The knot tightens

Michael Malkin discusses the growing threat to the Milosevic regime in Serbia

“Milosevic is history: it is just that he does not realise it yet.”

This confident assertion by Goran Svilanovic, leader of the Civic Alliance of Serbia and a prominent member of the opposition umbrella group, Alliance for Change, sounds somewhat premature (The Times July 9). Certainly, the Milosevic regime is under serious and growing pressure, both from without and from within, but the immediate future appears to hold little prospect of decisive change.

The external threat to Milosevic is both political and economic. Politically he is a pariah, an indicted war criminal with a $5 million bounty on his head and no place to hide - unconfirmed reports suggest that Russia, China, Libya and South Africa have all rebuffed tentative approaches for political asylum (The Times July 12). Economically, the imperialists have made it clear that so long as Milosevic remains in power, “not one red cent” of capital investment will be forthcoming to assist Serbia in making good the estimated $30 billion of damage sustained by its infrastructure during the Nato bombing offensive. Belgrade’s coffers are already so depleted that the government does not even have the cash to pay the wage arrears of the troops who fought Milosevic’s bloody war in Kosova, let alone provide social security to the scores of thousands of Serbs who are now jobless as a result of the conflict. In short, Milosevic’s Socialist Party has nothing to offer the Serbian people.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising to learn that Milosevic has opted for his favourite diversionary tactic of stirring up yet another potential war - this time, in Montenegro (the only other remaining constituent republic of the rump Yugoslav federation), which took a pro-western stance during the Nato campaign. The Belgrade regime has begun a recruitment drive to reinforce its armed police militia in Montenegro, an ideal fifth column capable of working alongside the still formidable regular Yugoslav army and Serbian nationalists in the republic. In this case, the casus belli will inevitably be Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic’s demand for independence, due to be tested in a plebiscite by the end of this year. As the arch Serb-chauvinist Vojislav Seselj remarked to western journalists, “[secession] cannot happen without war, because the Montenegrins are Serbs” (The Independent on Sunday July 11). For Milosevic, the risks raised by yet another internecine conflict are clearly high, but he has nothing to lose.

Another possible diversionary scenario is presented by the northern Serbian region of Vojvodina, with a population comprising some 350,000 ethnic Hungarians (around 20% of the inhabitants). As a recent recruit to Nato and a key salient in the imperialists’ new eastern front, Hungary has now demanded full autonomy for Vojvodina, an autonomy to be enforced, if necessary, by western military intervention. It is understandable that Hungary should wish to benefit from Milosevic’s isolation and growing unpopularity, but attempting to whip up a political and diplomatic crisis over Vojvodina at this juncture might be a serious mistake. Not only could the Hungarian (and the Montenegrin) demands give some comfort to Milosevic; they also place the Serbian opposition in an acutely embarrassing position: even in war-weary Serbia, the flames of nationalism and chauvinism can still easily be rekindled; no putative successor to Milosevic - from either the fragmented bureaucratic elite or the proto-bourgeoisie - however committed on paper to ‘democracy’, can afford to countenance the possibility of allowing either territory to secede.

At least Milosevic may be able to take some small crumbs of comfort from another aspect of the external threat, namely reports to the effect that president Clinton has authorised the CIA to remove him. The record of the agency is not exactly glittering when it comes to disposing of clients who are of no further use to Washington. According to Time magazine (July 12), the CIA is to engage in bizarre cyber warfare against Milosevic with the aim of hacking into his many foreign bank accounts and stealing his money. In addition, Langley is to step up its funding and recruitment of Serb opposition figures and dissident elements in the armed forces - a recipe for allowing Milosevic to claim that his political enemies are traitors in the pay of foreign intelligence.

Turning to the internal political situation in Serbia, those who wish to see a democratic end to Milosevic’s black reactionary nationalism and bloodlust have some grounds for hope, but as always the main problem is the fact that the opposition is in the main dominated by conservative and liberal hucksters who cannot even put aside their personal rivalries and hatreds. Historically this has been Milosevic’s greatest asset. He has used it skilfully and will no doubt try to do so again.

 Perhaps the most encouraging portent on the domestic front is the fact that the series of protest rallies and demonstrations that have taken place in the Serbian provinces over the last 10 days are drawing the masses themselves into politics. Not only the Alliance for Change, representing some 30 parties, but the trade union movement, the Serbian orthodox church, and the limited but important free press in the form of the Blic tabloid are all supporting the demand for Milosevic’s resignation voiced by municipal authorities, workers, army reservists and other broad sections of the population. Unlike the large-scale demonstrations that took place in the winter of 1996 under the aegis of the official opposition’s Zadejno (‘together’) movement, the current wave of protest is driven to a significant extent by momentum from below, in a spontaneous manner that has actually caught the official Serbian opposition unawares.

Two examples will suffice. First, the remarkable case of the TV technician Ivan Novkovic in the so-called ‘red town’ of Leskovac. In the middle of a sports transmission on local television, Novkovic broadcast a home-made tape appealing to the citizens of Leskovac to take to the streets demanding the removal of the city’s Socialist Party boss, Zivojin Stefanovic. Some 20,000 spontaneously answered his call, and as a result Novkovic was sentenced to 30 days in prison on a charge of organising a demonstration “without previously informing the authorities” (The Independent July 8). The paltry charge and derisory sentence in themselves say much about the irresolution of the SP-dominated authorities. Interestingly, Novkovic’s imprisonment served to intensify local protest, with a demonstration on July 5 of some 30,000 citizens. The number may sound small, but it represents around one in eight of the town’s inhabitants - the equivalent in London of a spontaneous gathering of about one million people.

Perhaps an even more significant event occurred in Prokuplje on the evening of July 8. In an effort to replicate the sort of internecine violence that served Milosevic so well in 1996, the local Socialist Party organisation declared that it would stage a counter-demonstration to one planned by the Alliance for Change. In the event, however, the SP stalwarts were overwhelmed by their opponents and left their half-erected platform in disarray. This was undoubtedly a profound humiliation. For a time, when the local SP boss fired pistol shots at the crowd from the balcony of his villa, it seemed that violence might yet ensue, but the demonstration continued peacefully, with renewed calls for Milosevic to step down.

A growing boldness and confidence characterise the general tenor of recent activities by broad-based opposition forces. This is evident, for example, in the burgeoning petition campaign and in the determination of some key regional and local authorities to move openly against Milosevic. ‘Many reasons - but one demand: resignation’ is the slogan at the top of petition forms signed by many thousands. Petitioners give not only their names but their ID numbers, a sign that the climate of fear and repression is changing radically. Of course, just as one would expect, the grounds given by people for supporting the opposition movement are wide-ranging: some condemn Milosevic for starting the Kosova war; others for losing it. Most seem motivated by economic discontent, either because they have no jobs as a result of the war, or because they have not been paid for doing the job they are lucky enough to have.

It may come as a surprise to some readers, as it did to me, to learn that some 90% of Serbian municipalities are actually under the control of opposition parties (ibid). It would therefore be a mistake to imagine that Milosevic can automatically rely on support from key levels of local government. The city council in Novi Sad, the northern industrial hub which suffered considerably from Nato bombing, was the first to pass a motion calling on him to resign. In another important Danube regional centre, the city of Nis, the council has appealed direct to the European Union for economic aid.

Although relatively few Serbs are regular churchgoers, the influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church under patriarch Pavle must not be underestimated. Not only has the patriarch called for Milosevic’s resignation, but also his trial as a war criminal. He even went so far as to instruct all orthodox parish priests to denounce Milosevic for his atrocities against the Kosovars from their pulpits on Sunday July 4. One wonders what the ‘Yugoslav defencists’, who have placed such stress on orthodoxy and Slav brotherhood, will make of Pavle’s intervention on the side of truth?

In general, though as yet only in embryo, there is a palpable feeling that the Serb masses are increasingly no longer prepared to tolerate being ruled in the old way; the weakened and demoralised Socialist Party apparatus, at least in the provinces - as is proven by Prokuplje - seems unable to rule in the old way too. At present the widely diverse streams of opposition support among the working people are searching for a figurehead capable of uniting and leading them. To draw a historical parallel, we are in the pre-Father Gapon phase of a pre-revolutionary situation.

Neither of the main contenders for misleadership has an unblemished record or inspires much trust in the population at large. Zoran Djindjic, whose Democratic Party has come to dominate the Alliance for Change, fled Serbia in the early days of the war and exiled himself in pro-western Montenegro. Technically, he could be arrested at any time - a development that would no doubt serve his cause, and one which Milosevic is therefore unlikely to pursue. Since his return to Belgrade on July 4, Djindjic has been at the forefront of the protest movement, calling for a general strike by Serb workers and denouncing Milosevic as a criminal: “Nobody in Serb history has done so much evil in so short a time” (The Independent July 7). He has also taken the bold step, for a Serb politician, of specifically denouncing Serb violence against the Kosovars, stating:

“It is clear innocent people were killed. It is no justification that Albanian extremists also killed. They are individuals. Here it is the state” (The Independent July 6).

The other principal contender for the succession to Milosevic is the mercurial pet of the western media, Vuk Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement. In the eyes of many Serbs, Draskovic has been discredited by his closeness to the Milosevic regime. In February this year he accepted the post of prime minister, only to be sacked in April for his ambivalent attitude to the Kosova war. As recently as last week, Draskovic was characteristically trying to keep all his options open by steadfastly refusing to cooperate with the Alliance for change or come out with an outright call for Milosevic to resign. This latter stance he excused on legalistic grounds - when the Belgrade city council proposed a resolution calling on Milosevic to go, Draskovic withheld the support of the Serbian Renewal Movement by claiming that the motion was in contravention of the council’s statutes.

Over last weekend, however, Draskovic finally decided to come out in favour of opposition, but not by combining his forces with those of Djindjic and the Alliance for Change. Instead, he has promised a “parallel campaign”, one that will be “completely different” and will fill the programmatic vacuum which he claims characterises the approach of the Alliance for Change (The Times July 12). Boastful as always, Draskovic threatens that he is “ready to paralyse all life in Serbia” through street protests (ibid). It is, however, interesting to note that when Serbian Renewal Movement activists tried to jump on the Leskovac bandwagon set rolling by Ivan Novkovic, they were rebuffed by the people.

Against this background of suspicion and the mutual antagonisms and ambitions of leading figures in the opposition camp, it is sad to note the complete absence of any consistent, principled working class politics. This may, in part, be a result of our reliance on the bourgeois media, but one suspects that a viable socialist alternative organisation, capable of galvanising the Serb masses, simply does not, as yet, exist. It remains clear, however, that only healthy socialist forces, committed to winning working class hegemony over the struggle for democracy, offer any prospect of a progressive solution to the country’s mounting political and social crisis.