Date: Mon, 10 Feb 97 16:39:26 CST
From: (Brian Hauk)
Subject: Stalinist Regime In Serbia Concedes Elections
Organization: InfoMatch Internet—Vancouver BC
Article: 5505

Stalinist Regime In Serbia Concedes Elections In Face Of Unyielding Protests

By Argiris Malapanis, The Militant, Vol.61 no.7, 17 February 1997

Working people in Yugoslavia scored an important victory February 4, after 77 days of daily protests. That day, the Stalinist regime of President Slobodan Milosevic announced its decision to honor the results of the November 17 municipal elections in Serbia. The state-run news agency Tanjug said Milosevic instructed Premier Mirko Marjanovic to introduce a special law in Serbia's parliament recognizing that the opposition coalition Zajedno (Together) won a majority in 14 of Serbia's 19 largest cities, including the capital Belgrade.

The announcement came at the start of that day's rally in Belgrade, triggering celebrations among the 50,000 protesters at Republic Square. It's great to see him weak and backing down, demonstrator Zorica Divcevic, 55, told the press. It took us weeks, but it is finally happening.

Milosevic made the decision two days after attempting the harshest police crackdown yet against demonstrations, which had been diminishing in size by the end of January. The cop assault ignited a new explosion of marches and other protests, making it clear that the determination of hundreds of thousands of students, workers, and others to not stomach Belgrade's antidemocratic measures had not weakened a bit.

In related developments in the region, Bulgaria's ruling Socialist Party, the former pro-Moscow Communist Party, announced on February 4 it will hold early elections by April 20, months ahead of schedule. The decision came after a month of daily protests and strikes, fueled by spiraling inflation, falling wages, and rising unemployment.

The same day, rail workers in the Czech Republic went on strike to protest attempts by the pro-capitalist regime of Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus to sell off shares of the state- owned railway to foreign investors and lay off thousands.

In Albania, demonstrators continued to clash with police, demanding the government cover losses for hundreds of thousands from failed pyramid schemes. These fraudulent investment funds had been promoted by the pro- imperialist regime of President Sali Berisha.

Defiance of Belgrade crackdown

The Yugoslav protests erupted in Nis, Serbia's second largest city and one of the republic's major industrial areas, on November 18, the day after Zajedno claimed city council victories in many of Serbia's main urban centers. The mobilizations quickly spread to about 30 other cities. In the capital, students at the University of Belgrade began leading their own daily marches, separate from Zajedno rallies. Crowds averaging 100,000 filled the streets daily until early January.

Just before the turn of the year, Serbia's Interior Ministry issued numerous restrictions on street demonstrations after riot police attacked protesters, killing one and injuring many. Faced with unyielding protests, however, the police refrained from enforcing the new rules much of the time in the subsequent four weeks.

After conceding defeat in Nis on January 8 and four other cities in the following days, the ruling Socialist Party appeared to make progress in defusing protests. Serbia's courts began issuing new rulings supporting the government's annulment of election results in nine of the 14 disputed cities, including Belgrade. Daily demonstrations seemed to be losing steam toward the end of January, drawing a few thousand most days. The media began describing the protesters as tired. Riot police disappeared from the streets the last week of January.

The February 2 crackdown by the police against one of these small marches was a probe by the Milosevic regime to see if it could club the diminishing protests into submission.

On the morning of that Sunday, riot police stopped about 1,000 protesters, led by Vuk Draskovic of the Serbian Renewal Movement, one of the two main parties in Zajedno. The demonstrators were attempting to cross Brankov Bridge over the Sava river to join other small feeder marches for an opposition rally at Republic Square in downtown Belgrade.

After a tense four-hour standoff, hundreds of cops fired water cannons and used truncheons against protesters staging a sit-down on the bridge. About 80 people were injured, including at least eight policemen, as demonstrators threw rocks at club-wielding cops. Many protesters were hospitalized, some with broken ribs or chipped teeth. Clashes with the police spread throughout the city and continued into the early hours of February 3. The Interior Ministry announced arrests of 18 people who face legal charges.

The government repression energized an immediate response. Zajedno rallies swelled to over 50,000 the next two days in Belgrade.

Between 20,000 and 30,000 Belgrade University students marched in their own action February 3. The students walked across the Brankov Bridge, with barely a traffic officer in sight. Cab drivers went on strike that day, along with employees of the National Theater, joining the students and snarling traffic in downtown Belgrade. The cab drivers augmented earlier walkouts by teachers, who shut down 600 schools—including most of the classrooms in Belgrade—freeing up many of the students to join marches. While the police did not attempt to stop the larger demonstrations, clashes ensued between state security forces and small groups of youth.

Many protesters began calling on the army to come out on their side and stop the violence. Student leaders who met with Gen. Momcilo Perisic of the army command January 6 had told the press the military leader promised the army would not use force to quell the anti-government protests.

So the police crackdown backfired, widening rifts within the state bureaucracy. Information Minister Aleksander Tijanic resigned. Milosevic is not willing to give the opposition anything, Tijanic told the Washington Post. He's just playing Russian roulette and playing for time.

What led to government concessions

The protest movement was fueled by widespread opposition to the annulment of the election results, but also dissatisfaction with the regime because of a deep economic crisis. Official unemployment in Serbia runs at 26 percent, while other estimates put it at 50 percent. Inflation reached 100 percent annually last year. Per capita income has dropped from $3,000 per year in 1990 to $1,600 today.

The crisis, rooted in the decades-long bureaucratic and anti-working-class methods of planning and management by the ruling caste, has been exacerbated by the world capitalist depression and the sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro imposed earlier by Washington and other imperialist powers.

The inability of Belgrade to meet its financial obligations has created negative repercussions for the Milosevic regime even in the rural areas. An article in the January 31 Financial Times of London said that Serbia, normally a grain exporter, will have to import at least 300,000 tons of wheat in 1997 to meet the republic's needs. The effects of a disastrous harvest in 1996 have been worsened by excessive exports of grain reserves by the government, desperate to raise hard currency for imports.

Mladjan Dinkic, professor of economics at Belgrade University, said many farmers are producing only enough grain for their needs because the state had failed to pay them adequately for past harvests. They are unlikely to protest against the government but they will not plant, he stated.

Some farmers are now so poor they can't even buy a round of drinks in a cafe, said Dragan Veselinov, a leader of the opposition National Farmers party, which has its strongest base in the northern province of Vojvodina, Serbia's grain basket. Small groups of farmers were blockading a few roads in Vojvodina at the end of January, though the protest did not appear to have prospects for widening. y Zajedno leaders have had great difficulty rallying the working class on their side. While cab drivers, lawyers, actors, and teachers have struck in Belgrade recently, no industrial or other wage workers have walked off the job. The composition of the protests in Serbia's capital has been weighed heavily toward professionals, small business people, and other petty-bourgeois layers. But workers in other cities, especially Nis, have joined demonstrations in bigger numbers. And many industrial workers waged strikes for back pay and jobs earlier in 1996.

Washington and other capitalist powers currently have 35,400 NATO troops occupying Bosnia, in an attempt to overturn the workers state throughout Yugoslavia and reestablish capitalism. These imperialists have been trying to take advantage of the protests in Serbia to push for replacing the Milosevic regime with a government more subservient to their interests.

U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns and German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel issued new condemnations of Belgrade after the February 3 crackdown. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the press February 4, We have to have a process in Dayton that does not depend on having anybody in any particular place in Yugoslavia. Albright was referring to the so-called Dayton peace accords, which Washington pushed through, setting the stage for intervening in Yugoslavia.

The French government invited Zajedno leaders to Paris. This invitation, said French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette, amounts to recognition by the French government of the leaders of the Together coalition, which in the past weeks has proved its political maturity.

No replacement for Milosevic

Reports in the U.S. big-business media, however, indicate that Washington has concluded that none of the opposition leaders can replace Milosevic, at least for now. The Wall Street Journal assigned one of its staff writers to interview Zoran Djindjic of the Democratic Party along with Draskovic. The article by Neil King appeared on the front page of the February 3 Journal. It was headlined Serbian unrest raises unsettling question: After Milosevic, who? with the kicker There is a power vacuum outside the ruling party that could turn messy.

Neither the mass protests sweeping Serbia nor the daily speeches by Mr. Djindjic and his main partner in the opposition coalition, Vuk Draskovic, have done much to allay people's concerns for what a post-Milosevic Serbia might bring, the article said. It quoted Stevan Jojic, a cab driver who had joined the protests, saying, We all know that we don't want Milosevic. But go much beyond that and it's a blur. y Pointing to the earlier support by Djindjic and Draskovic for ethnic cleansing in Bosnia by pro-Belgrade Serb forces, the article said that the Zajedno leaders' popularity has not surged recently. Citing independent polls, the Journal said the approval ratings for Draskovic have dropped from 15 percent during the war in Bosnia to below 5 percent now. Recent polls put [Milosevic's] support at about 25%, down from 40% in November but still greater than all of his opponents combined, it stated.

Milosevic has had some success in portraying the opposition as mere dupes of foreign powers, by appealing to widespread anti-imperialist sentiments among Yugoslavia's working people, a residue of the gains of the 1945 Yugoslav revolution.

In announcing his decision to relinquish control of city halls in Belgrade and 13 other cities, Milosevic also tried to restore his earlier symbiotic relation with Washington and other imperialist powers.

The election disputes ... have caused great damage to our country both domestically and internationally and it was high time to solve the problem, stated Milosevic in a letter to Premier Marjanovic released on February 4. I think the state interest of improving relations of our country with the international community by far exceeds the significance of any number of seats in a handful of cities.

Following this announcement, Draskovic and other Zajedno leaders said their demonstrations will not stop until the government guarantees freedom of the press and prosecutes those responsible for beating protesters and attempting to steal the election.

State television announced February 5 that the independent station BK Television can no longer use the state transmission tower, effectively limiting its range to central Belgrade.

On February 4 and 5, about 20,000 students marched in Belgrade again, demanding the release of colleagues arrested in the earlier police attack and greater democratic freedoms. They were joined by 1,000 striking lawyers who have volunteered their legal services.

But Zajedno continues to lack support among these students. What we want is a parliament and a diffusion of power, not another dynamic individual who will ruin this country as others have, said Cedomir Antic, a 22-year-old history student.

Developments in nearby worker states

The success of the protest movement in Serbia has inspired strikes and demonstrations in neighboring Bulgaria. For 30 days there, tens of thousands have rallied daily in the country's capital, Sofia, demanding early elections.

The opposition Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), which won the presidency in elections last November and favors a more rapid introduction of market reforms, has called the protests.

The ruling Socialist Party, which holds a majority of seats in parliament, had announced a new cabinet. But as demonstrations and strikes by public transportation workers paralyzed the country at the beginning of February, the SP government announced February 4 it conceded to the UDF demand of early elections in April.

The protests were fueled by runaway inflation, which was estimated at 50 percent per month in January, and wages dwindling to an average $10 per month from $70 a year ago. The national currency, the lev, fell to about 2,500 to the U.S. dollar, dropping five-fold since January 1. The government has repeatedly defaulted on payments for the country's $10 billion foreign debt. The International Monetary Fund put its loan program on hold last summer and demanded new austerity measures.

It's wonderful, said Gergana Doychinova, one of the thousands of students who danced around bonfires in the streets of Sofia after the announcement of new elections. It means freedom, ... bread, meat, everything.

President Petar Stoyanov of the openly pro-capitalist UDF, however, warned that more austerity is in sight. Reforms are ahead, and a new social price has to be paid, he said.

That's what the pro-imperialist regime of Vaclav Klaus has been trying to push through in the Czech Republic, but without a great deal of success. Trains stopped throughout that country on February 4, as rail workers struck in the first major labor unrest in this workers state since the crumbling of the former Stalinist regime in 1989. Rail unions called a 48-hour strike and threatened to extend it if their demands are not met. The 100,000 rail workers want guarantees against layoffs and oppose the government's failed attempts to sell off the state-owned railways to private investors.

In neighboring Poland, train drivers dropped plans for a strike after signing an agreement with the board of the Polish State Railways. The union was seeking reversal of wage cuts and increase in employment.

Poland and the Czech Republic—ruled by pro-capitalist regimes—have been declared success stories of market reform by the big-business media, unlike most of the workers states in the Balkans. These two countries and Hungary are being considered for membership in NATO. The latest developments show that imperialism faces growing instability in Eastern Europe, regardless of which layer of the bureaucratic castes dominates the government.

In Albania, where the Berisha regime enjoys a cozy relationship with Washington, about 4,000 protesters clashed with the police in the city of Vlora February 5. The demonstration, which had grown earlier in the day to 10,000, erupted after another pyramid scheme, headquartered in that town, declared bankruptcy.

The country's currency, the lek, has lost 20 percent of its value since the beginning of the year. On February 2, Albania's central bank had to sell off massive amounts of dollars to buy leks and avert a catastrophic financial collapse.

[Currency] dealers believe the foreign investors will be frightened away from Albania because of mounting political instability, stated an article in the February 1 Financial Times.