Serbia on the brink

As we go to press, Yugoslavia, and Serbia in particular, is wracked by an apparently sporadic, but accelerating strike movement.

There are mass street protests and the threat of total paralysis by striking miners, oil workers and many others. These workers support the opposition against Slobodan Milosevic's desperate bid to hold onto office despite electoral defeat. Power reductions and cuts have already taken place in Belgrade.

The recent presidential election has pushed the 11-year-old, ultra-chauvinist regime of Milosevic to the brink of collapse. The pro-western, 'moderate' nationalist opposition bloc, Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), headed by Vojislav Kostunica, gained 48.96% of the vote even according to the state electoral commission, which was appointed by the Milosevic regime and made little pretence of impartiality. The commission admits that Milosevic failed to achieve 40% of the vote. And that was despite a boycott of the election by the supporters of the anti-Milosevic, pro-western government of the tiny remaining Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, which undoubtedly deprived the opposition of a good many votes. The opposition credibly claims massive electoral fraud by the regime in a bid to buy a second round of the election, giving Milosevic the opportunity to try to fix things again.

Milosevic went on television on Monday evening and vowed to fight on - meanwhile the country teeters on the edge of a massive upheaval and potential civil war. Even the nationalist Serbian Orthodox Church has recognised his defeat and Kostunica's victory, and Milosevic's smaller governmental allies, notably the fascistic ultra-chauvinist Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj, are beginning to grovel to the DOS, echoing their accusations of electoral fraud. It all conjures up visions of rats making ready to leave a sinking ship.

Simple arithmetic tells us that in a fair and free presidential election, Milosevic cannot win. The fact that he was forced to concede such a first-round shortfall is probably terminally damaging for his pretensions to represent the Serbian people, which have always been pretty dubious in any case. Yet it is also true that, largely because of its organisational continuity with the former Yugoslav League of Communists, or at least its dominant Serbian national organisation, Milosevic's Serbian Socialist Party is still the most organisationally coherent political machine in Serbia.

Thus, at a time when attention was focused on the presidential election because of its decisive importance for the future of Milosevic, in fact in the parliamentary elections the Socialist Party did better than the usually fractious 'democratic' and nationalist opposition parties. While routine electoral fraud certainly played a role here also, the fact that the opposition was unable to mount the same kind of challenge in the much less prestigious but also crucial parliamentary elections is a sign of weakness - and underlines the fact that the Socialist Party has a political apparatus that is so far unmatched by the 'democratic' parties that aspire to lead Serbia to international 'respectability' and possible future membership of the European Union.

There is a whole complex of issues swirling around this election. For Milosevic, and the clique around him, what is at stake is not just their portfolios and sinecures, but rather their freedom and perhaps their lives. Milosevic, of course, has been subject to an indictment by the war crimes commission at The Hague, and faces the prospect of a long term of imprisonment if he falls into the hands of the 'human rights' imperialists. Equally to the point is that he has a lot of deadly enemies in the region itself, as his regime has committed atrocities against virtually every nationality in the former Yugoslavia - and, as the elections demonstrate, even his 'own' people no longer support him.

It is widely believed that a number of Milosevic's own former partners involved in crimes against the other peoples of the region have been murdered by his men - the notorious warlord Zeljko Raznatovic, or 'Arkan', is believed to have suffered such a fate after trying to cut his own deal with the war crimes investigators. Arkan had many fanatical and violent followers - and an out-of-power Milosevic could be in danger from such elements, as well as his victims such as Kosovar Albanians and Bosnian Muslims.

For some misguided leftists, Milosevic is some sort of 'anti-imperialist', albeit one of dubious pedigree and consistency, and his opponents are more or less crudely regarded as imperialist puppets. This sort of nonsense is not new, of course: it was broadcast far and wide by both hard-line Stalinists and orthodox Trotskyists during the 1999 Kosova war, and even exerted its influence over the SWP, who usually pride themselves as being the most consistent opponents of Stalinism. It is true that the opposition is bourgeois and pro-western in its overall thrust and, flowing from that, as one would expect, they openly acknowledge financial aid from like-minded political parties in the west. However, the allegation that they are some sort of foreign stooges, alien to the finer 'anti-imperialist' sentiments of the Serbian people, is belied by the evident popular revolt that has led to Milosevic's electoral defeat.

Milosevic is in no sense a lesser evil to these people in electoral terms - indeed those who regard him as a progressive alternative to the pro-western bourgeois parties have to try to play down or deny his coalition with the fascist Radical Party, which agitated for years for the expulsion of all ethnic Albanians from Kosova. Not to mention the fact that in 1999, given the opportunity by the Nato 'human rights' armed crusade of Clinton and Blair, Milosevic himself attempted what was implicit in his Greater-Serbian chauvinist programme from 1989 and before: to carry out Seselj's genocidal programme of Israel-style expulsion of the entire unwanted population.

For Marxists today in Serbia and internationally, confronted with two eminently unsupportable camps in these elections, the situation is nevertheless pretty clear. We seek to seize the links in the current situation that can push forward Serbia towards a mass struggle for democracy. Although Serbia/Yugoslavia certainly has its own peculiarities derived from its particular bloody history in the past decade, it shares one common feature with the rest of the ex-Stalinist bloc: class consciousness among the working masses is virtually absent today.

Instead, what you mainly have is a mixture of virulent Serbian nationalism, embodying a considerable degree of chauvinist hostility to the other peoples of Yugoslavia who have escaped from Serbian dominance, often with the dubious help of Nato, together with a longing for more democracy than prevailed under Milosevic's harsh regime. The naive desire of the masses for the wilder extremes of free market economics is now undoubtedly far less enthusiastic than in the eastern bloc in 1989 - after all, we have had over a decade to see the results and they are not pretty. But ultimately, no alternative to this is being presented other than black reaction, so in the last analysis this neo-liberal bourgeois programme is still hegemonic.

Confronted with the choice between Milosevic and Kostunica in an election, Marxists could not even consider supporting either candidate. Both of them appeal unashamedly to Slavophile chauvinism - after Milosevic went on television and denounced the opposition as trying to buy Yugoslavia on behalf of Nato, Kostunica responded by accusing Milosevic of himself being a "Nato mercenary" whose actions had made Nato's victory over Serbia possible. Such rhetoric by an individual who is generally acknowledged by informed observers to regard himself as a transitional figure to a western-orientated democratic regime is a measure of the depth of nationalism among the population, a poisonous legacy of Milosevic's failed attempts to carve a Greater Serbia out of the old multinational Yugoslavia.

Yet when it comes to an attempt by Milosevic to thwart the will of the Serbian people, to impose himself as leader against their will, socialists cannot be neutral. We support attempts to mobilise the masses to force Milosevic to accept the will of the electorate and step down. If he does not do so voluntarily, he should be toppled by mass action. Socialists would seek to push things further than the opposition forces, tied to the national interest and ultimately the interests of imperialist stability, are likely to want to go (indeed, the Serbian Orthodox Church, in recognising the obvious - that Milosevic had lost - appealed to Kostunica to take power "peacefully" and with "dignity"). Marxists, above all, want the masses to take matters into their own hands, to make the struggle for democratic advance a struggle of the masses themselves.

The evident discontent in the army is significant - it is reported that in many important military installations where conscripts were allowed to vote Milosevic was heavily defeated in the election. Socialists should seek to link the anger of those who were often brutally coerced to fight Milosevic's bloody wars with the discontent in the streets. The interests of democracy demand that Milosevic be sent the way of his kindred spirit, Ceaucescu, across the border in Romania.

The overthrow of Milosevic would not necessarily be, in itself, a class conscious act - the existing nationalist consciousness and illusions of the Serbian masses render that unlikely at the moment. But it would signal an independent, conscious blow for democracy struck from below, by the masses - a step in the right direction - and in these times when the infatuation of bourgeois economics has lost some of its sparkle, would be a point of inspiration for greater struggles to come.

It would help wrest the banner of democracy out of the hands of the imperialists, and destroy the dominant regional view of the Serbian masses as at best passively tolerating, and at worst actively perpetrating, the worst kinds of abuses of democracy and of other nationalities. It would help defuse the kind of murderous nationalism that has poisoned this region in the period since the fall of the old Yugoslavia.

Such a revolutionary democratic upheaval, even if its immediate outcome were to be a moderate bourgeois democratic nationalist government, could be a step towards the voluntary unity of the masses of the different peoples of the Balkans, a step towards the re-arming of the working class of the region.

Ian Donovan