Date: Tue, 22 Apr 97 11:16:22 CDT
Protests In Serbia Counter Nationalism And U.S. Drive To Restore Capitalism
By Argiris Malapanis, Militant, Vol.61 no.16, 21 April 1997
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia - On March 20, students at the University of Belgrade and other campuses throughout Serbia ended their daily protests after 119 days, having scored another victory. The dean at the university had just resigned, one of the main student demands.
The student marches lasted six weeks longer than the daily demonstrations called by the Zajedno opposition coalition, which ended in mid-February. The wave of protests was set off when President Slobodan Milosevic annulled municipal elections November 17. The daily mobilizations by both Zajedno and the students forced the regime on February 11 to concede electoral victories for the opposition in 15 of the republic's 19 largest cities.
After a visit here in late March, it is clear that this protest movement - unprecedented in duration, size, and geographic spread in Serbia for at least two decades -had a number of intertwined results. It increased the self- confidence of working people and youth and lessened their fear of the police and other repressive institutions. It greatly diminished the effectiveness of nationalist propaganda used by Milosevic - as well as his rivals in the state bureaucracies in the various Yugoslav republics - to justify the 1992-95 war, objectively aiding those who favor reunification of the country. It encouraged similar resistance to antidemocratic measures and government austerity throughout the Balkans - especially in Bulgaria and Albania. And it erected new obstacles in the imperialist drive to restore capitalism throughout Yugoslavia.
Students score second victory
"Our main demand was recognition of local election results," said student leader Nikola Petrovic in an interview here March 26. "We won that a while ago. Our two other demands were the firing of the rector and a student co- rector. These people trampled on the democratic rights of students. They invited the police to break university autonomy and invade the campus in Belgrade on February 3 and 4. They tried to prevent us from exercising the right to free speech. They both resigned on March 19."
"We are now electing a student parliament through democratic ballot so we are better organized to get back out into the streets next November," said Milos Milcic, another student leader. Elections for the new student body took place March 27. The idea came out of the Initiative Committee, the organization formed November 26 to coordinate the student protests. Two students from each department at the University of Belgrade made up that group. Later, student leaders from five other cities joined in the committee's nationwide conferences.
Beginning in Belgrade November 22, student marches spread to campuses in Nis, Novi Sad, Kragujevac, Subotica, and Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, where the overwhelming majority of the population is of Albanian origin. The daily marches and rallies in Belgrade ranged from 5,000 to 50,000 students, Milcic and Petrovic said.
In addition to citywide demonstrations, the young protesters often organized other actions. About 100 students marched 50 miles from Novi Sad to the Yugoslav capital in December. A similar action that received the most nationwide attention took place the same month, when 17 students marched all the way from Nis to the Yugoslav capital, covering the 150 miles in a few days. "These young people became ambassadors for our cause, even in the rural areas," stated Milcic. Peasants offered them a roast pig on the way as an expression of solidarity.
The student marches were "the greatest thing that happened in Serbia recently," said Dragan Pejanaj, a taxi driver who was on strike along with 14,000 other taxi and truck drivers here March 26. Many other working people interviewed by Militant reporters expressed a similar view.
One of the reasons for the popularity of the student actions is that they kept their marches separate from Zajedno rallies and distanced themselves politically from the opposition. Of the 17 students who marched from Nis, only two declared affiliation with any political party. "It's great that we are neutral," said Uros Bobic, 20, a drama student from Belgrade. "We want to show we are citizens of this country with the right to vote and choose. We also want to show the opposition that the moment they start acting like Milosevic we will rise up again."
"A lot of students didn't care much for Zajedno, but wanted to show our opposition to the trampling of our democratic rights by the government," said Petrovic. "So we kept our demonstrations separate, even though some of us went to the Zajedno rallies."
Milcic noted that students maintained contact and sought solidarity from student groups and others throughout the Balkans, especially Bulgaria, the rest of Eastern Europe, and several capitalist countries, including the United States. During the four months of protests in Serbia, student groups organized picket lines and solidarity rallies outside Yugoslav embassies in Prague, Czech Republic; Bucharest, Romania; Budapest, Hungary; Sofia, Bulgaria; and Athens, Greece. Students in Bulgaria were later at the forefront of protests against the Socialist Party regime in Sofia, fueled by a catastrophic economic crisis there, forcing the government to call early elections this spring.
One of the initiatives Belgrade student leaders took was to meet with Yugoslav army commander Momcilo Perisic on January 6. The meeting received widespread publicity. The general promised the students the army would not intervene, there would be "no repeat of 1991," according to Dusan Vasiljevic, another student leader. In 1991 and 1992 Milosevic ordered army troops with tanks onto the streets of the Yugoslav capital to crush antigovernment protests against the war in Croatia and Bosnia initiated by Belgrade.
"I am no longer the 'black sheep'"
"The student protests at the beginning of the war lasted about six months but failed to push back the regime,"" said Bojan Aleksov, 25, a history student at Belgrade University, in another interview. Aleksov took part in those antiwar mobilizations in 1992, unlike most of the students who led the recent wave of protests who come from younger generations. "Back then our demands were unrealistic - the resignation of Milosevic - and the students did not have a clear antiwar position. Many students were taken in by the nationalist demagogy of the regime and most opposition leaders in Serbia.
"Today, I am no longer the 'black sheep' at the university," said Aleksov who maintained a principled stance against the formal break-up of Yugoslavia and the Belgrade-initiated war. Aleksov has also opposed the capitalist "market reforms" put forward by Milosevic and government officials in other republics, as well as the more openly pro-capitalist measures pronounced by Zajedno leaders.
"I have been a big enemy of partition of Yugoslavia," Aleksov stated. "There were protests against it throughout the 1990s, but were limited mostly among students and intellectuals. For the most part, especially after 1992, Milosevic, [Croatian president Franjo] Tudjman, and [Bosnian president Alija] Izetbegovic were able to get grudging acquiescence, or submission through terror, for dividing the country." By the spring of 1992, the governments of Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Slovenia had declared secession from federated Yugoslavia.
"Today, I can say there is a definite change in the attitudes of the people," Aleksov said. "Millions lost their fear of the police and are more confident in what they can accomplish through their own actions. Milosevic and his wife are no longer seen by most Serbians as omnipotent, as they used to be perceived. This should lead to a democratization of society. That was the main goal of the majority of those who participated in the movement."
Nationalism has receded
"But one of the most important gains reflected in the protests is that nationalism has receded," Aleksov said. "Many Serbs feel abused and manipulated by the regime as to the reasons for fighting for a 'Greater Serbia,' and are willing to act on this conviction, even if they may not talk about their conclusions publicly right now."
This assessment was shared by a range of students, trade unionists, professionals, and others Militant reporters interviewed.
"For the first time we carried signs and shouted slogans opposing police repression of Albanians in Kosovo as part of demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of Serbians without being booed, hissed, attacked, or thrown out of the action," said Zorica Trifunovic in an interview March 26.
Trifunovic is an activist in Women in Black. The group held daily vigils of dozens, or up to a few hundred people, the first years of the war, blasting the "ethnic cleansing" by the Serbian, Croatian, and other regimes and demanding individual culpability for the atrocities. It continues to hold monthly demonstrations now opposing the partition of Yugoslavia and championing the rights of oppressed nationalities. Throughout the 1990s, it has campaigned in solidarity with the struggle of Albanians for autonomy in Kosovo.
Kosovo is a region in southern Serbia, where 80 percent of the population of 2.1 million is of Albanian origin. The region was granted autonomy in 1974. In 1989, however, after militant strikes and demonstrations for better economic conditions and recognition of national rights, the Milosevic regime cracked down, dissolving the local parliament and revoking Kosovo's autonomous status. A state of emergency has been in place since then. Belgrade has ruled the region through brutal police repression. Pristina was the city where Milosevic launched his nationalist tirades to justify grabbing territory and resources for the layer of the ruling bureaucracy loyal to him. Prejudices against ethnic Albanians, promulgated by the regime ever since, remain widespread among the population in Serbia today.
"The protests showed that these prejudices are no longer as deep," Trifunovic said. Women in Black took part in virtually every daily protest between November and February, raising their demands against discrimination of Albanians without major problems." We even got a positive response often," Trifunovic added, "while distributing our flyers." One such leaflet, dated February 5, exposed recent police attacks on students and others. "After this brutal violence in Belgrade do we wish to understand how the victims of repression felt in Bosnia-Herzegovina and how victims have felt for ten years already in Kosovo?" the statement asked. "The police clubs, tear gas, torture and killings that are used against others can just as well be used against us. Therefore, we can never again allow professional or other thugs and killers who carry out repression against others to do this in our name."
During a Zajedno rally of 100,000 December 24, a one- minute silence was held, announced from the platform, for an Albanian who fell victim of police brutality in Kosovo. "This was unprecedented," Aleksov noted.
On November 21, nearly 150,000 people demonstrated in Zagreb, Croatia, to protest the decision of President Tudjman to shut down Radio 101, a station independent of the government. The march was called after a spontaneous rally of 10,000 a day earlier, hours after Tudjman announced the decision. "The groundswell of opposition forced the government to back off, reversing the closure in one day," said Lino Veljak, a professor in Zagreb, who has also been opposed to Croatia's secession and the war from the beginning.
"Back in 1992, Tudjman was able to successfully appeal for 'national unity' against the 'Serbian aggressor,'" Veljak said in an interview, while he was visiting Belgrade. "That's no longer true. Many more people today oppose Zagreb's expansionist plans in Bosnia. We have a much better chance to prevent partition of Bosnia laid out in the Dayton accords, and who knows, 10 or 20 years down the road fight for a unified Yugoslavia again." Under the agreement signed by Milosevic, Tudjman, and Izetbegovic at a U.S. military base in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995 - after strong-arming by Washington - Bosnia is now divided between a precarious "Muslim-Croat" federation and pro-Belgrade Serb forces. The accord laid the basis for the occupation of Bosnia by U.S.-organized NATO troops.
In an interview at the offices of Nezavisnost (Independence), the trade union federation independent from government control, Milan Nikolic, president of the metal workers branch, said Nezavisnost has signed joint declarations with unions in Bosnia, Croatia, and Macedonia opposing partition of Bosnia as well. Nezavisnost organized an antinationalist union conference in Sarajevo in the middle of the war in 1993. The federation has about 150,000 members in Serbia, Nikolic said. It gained somewhat in membership during the antigovernment protests. "Milosevic and Tudjman broke up Yugoslavia by pitting workers of different nationalities against each other," he stated. "We oppose that. We are encouraged because our views against nationalism and partition won greater acceptance in the last four months."
Why workers, others protested
Nikolic said that most protesters turned out into the streets to oppose the annulment of election results. But the deep economic crisis in Serbia has fueled discontent against the government, he added.
Nearly one third of the population in Serbia - about three million people - live in poverty. At least half the republic's factories are closed. Unemployment is hovering at 50 percent. And the government owes months of back wages to many workers and soldiers. The economic crisis, rooted in the decades-old bureaucratic methods of planning and management by the petty bourgeois castes in power throughout Yugoslavia, has been exacerbated by the earlier U.S.- initiated sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro and the depression conditions in the capitalist world that adversely effect Yugoslavia's economy.
Nikolic said that among industrial workers joblessness is more acute in Serbia. He said up to 90 percent of the industrial workforce is idle, although half of these workers are still on the payroll of their enterprises and are entitled to an income nearly 70 percent of their previous wage. Those who have jobs make an average of $100 per month, though in sectors vital to the economy -such as oil refining, electricity generation, and postal services - workers make as much as $350 per month, Nikolic said. "The regime thus tries to buy off peace among certain layers of workers," Nikolic stated.
In most cases, however, workers are owed months in back pay. Unpaid wages have recently caused a number of strikes, including by textile workers and teachers in February. About 1,000 taxi and truck drivers rallied in front of the Serbian parliament March 26, demanding a reduction in taxes they pay to the state from 29 percent to 4 percent. Dozens of drivers blockaded street corners throughout downtown Belgrade that evening, shutting down traffic during rush hour. Police did not interfere with the blockades, but did prevent thousands of strikers coming from other cities from entering the capital.
"We can't afford these taxes, we can't live," said one of the drivers who identified himself only as Petrov. He pointed out that competition for income is higher today among taxi drivers. There are now 12,000 drivers in Belgrade, compared to 4,000 a decade ago, since many more jobless workers have gotten licenses to operate taxis in search of income, Petrov said. Food and other prices have been soaring since the beginning of the year as inflation has exceeded 100 percent annually.
Nikolic acknowledged, however, that participation by workers in the November-February protests was low in Belgrade. Those who did take part did not band together or form union contingents, he said, "mostly out of fear of losing their job or going longer without any income."
In other cities, like Nis, one of the republic's largest industrial centers, industrial and other workers were at the center of the protests. The demonstrations actually began in Nis, Serbia's second largest urban center, and spread in 50 other cities.
The biggest turnout of workers in one of the protests in Belgrade was on December 24, when over 10,000 workers staged their own march as part of one of Zajedno's rallies, to oppose a new antilabor law introduced in parliament. The legislation would cut off pay for idled workers who are still on the payroll of state-owned enterprises. "That day, parliament postponed the vote it was scheduled to take because of the strong working-class showing," Nikolic said. The momentum of worker participation petered off, however. Serbia's parliament subsequently approved the bill, but the government has not yet put it into effect.
Despite the economic crisis, the opposition coalition has been unable to rally the working class on its side, Nikolic and most other people interviewed said.
According to an extensive poll among protesters by the Institute of Sociology Studies of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Belgrade, nearly 47 percent of the thousands asked said they turned out to support "the struggle for justice," that is the reinstatement of the election results. About 19 percent said they supported "the fall of communism," and less than 3 percent cited backing for one of the parties in Zajedno as their motive for participating. Only 13 percent of the protesters said they were members of any of the parties in the opposition coalition.
Zajedno lacks popular support
That is largely due to the political program and class outlook of the leading forces in Zajedno, many of whom came out of the former ruling Communist Party and now espouse openly pro-imperialist views.
Vuk Draskovic, head of the Serbian Renewal Movement, is a former member of the League of Yugoslav Communists that ruled Yugoslavia until 1991. Draskovic and his supporters call for the return of the Serbian monarchy that reigned in the country before World War II. He initially joined the Serbian chauvinist wave unleashed by Milosevic in the late 1980s. Subsequently, seeking to bask in the glow of the antiwar protests of the early 1990s, he switched positions and opposed the war against Bosnia.
The second major party in Zajedno is Zoran Djindjic's Democratic Party. Djindjic, who recently assumed his post as the new mayor of Belgrade, championed until recently the creation of a "Serb-only" state and parades as the most ardent supporter of a "free market economy."
"Since he became mayor in February, the only thing he's done is to take down the Star from the top of Belgrade's city hall," chimed taxi driver Petrov, in a not-so-uncommon comment about Djindjic. The star, symbol of the Yugoslav partisans, was erected on that building in 1945, after the victory of the revolution against the country's occupation by Hitler's armies.
The junior partner in Zajedno is the Civic Alliance, whose president is psychologist Vesna Pesic. Most of the members of this group are professors, lawyers, accountants, and other professionals. While Pesic never belonged to the CP, many of its leaders come out of the League of Yugoslav Communists. The group was first formed in 1990 by Ante Markovic, former federal prime minister of Yugoslavia, who is now a businessman living in Austria. Pesic was the only one among Zajedno leaders to oppose the Belgrade-initiated war against other Yugoslav republics from the beginning. But her organization has no social base among workers.
Vesna Petrovic, a lawyer who also staffs the Antiwar Center in Belgrade, is one of the founding members of the Civic Alliance and a former member of the CP. In an interview at her office, Petrovic said the Alliance has a social democratic orientation, "hoping to transform Yugoslavia into a market economy." She acknowledged, however, that "this is a difficult task."
Most of industry and services remain state-owned throughout the Yugoslav republics today. Yugoslavia still ranks 128th among 135 countries in desirability for foreign investment.
The three main opposition leaders visited Crown Prince Alexander Karageorgevich in London recently to discuss strategy about his possible return to Yugoslavia. Even though he was born in England, Prince Alexander still claims the throne of the former Serbian monarchy.
Draskovic, Djindjic, and Pesic - just like Milosevic - are supporters of the imperialist-crafted Dayton accord.
The occupation of Bosnia by 31,000 NATO troops, led by a contingent of 8,500 U.S. soldiers, continues to be a topic of discussion among workers and young people here. As the protest movement got under way in November, Washington, which encouraged the 1992-95 war, decided to extend the NATO deployment in that Yugoslav republic until mid 1998.
Imperialist intervention, though, is not as high on the agenda of debate and discussion as during the 1992 protests. At that time, thousands of students among those opposing the war deserted the Yugoslav army and many took a clear anti- intervention stance.
"Today very few people skip their military service," said student leader Milcic. "It's compulsory. Many of us don't want to do it but we have to. Nobody thinks we will be engaged in fighting." Milcic said he has no formed opinion on the Dayton accords or the NATO occupation of Bosnia. "Time and facts will show if Washington really stands for peace," he said. His friend, Petrovic, had a definite view. "It was necessary to bring the foreign troops in," he said. "We showed that we couldn't keep the peace."
Even among the students who support the presence of NATO troops in Bosnia, however, most said they were adamantly opposed to any foray by Washington into Serbia.
Among the older generation of students who went through the 1992 protests, there was a different reaction. "We disliked the Dayton accord from the beginning," said Aleksov. "We still hate it. I think, though, that NATO troops will eventually leave. It won't be that profitable for them to stay."
Among working people, most of those interviewed opposed the NATO occupation. "The troops should go," said taxi driver Dragan Pejanaj. "This is our business. British, French, Americans have to go. [Bosnia] is our problem."
Bobbis Misailides, a member of the Federation of Foreign Airlines Workers in Athens, Greece, and Tony Hunt from London, contributed to this article reporting from Belgrade.
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