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Which way for the Serbian revolution?

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Issue 1719

Government caught between workers and old guard

Which way for the Serbian revolution?

WHAT NEXT for the revolution in Serbia? Milosevic has been forced out, but the battle about the future of the country is still raging. There has been an eruption of debate and action among the students and workers who drove forward the revolt which toppled Milosevic. But the people who benefited from the Milosevic regime are fighting back, using their control of the state machinery to try to roll back the revolution.

The new leaders of Serbia are caught in the middle. On the one hand they encouraged the protests to drive out corrupt bosses and officials from the old regime. On the other hand, they are terrified that they have unleashed a revolt they cannot control.

Serbia’s new president, Vojislav Kostunica, warned, “On the surface there is a peaceful, democratic transition. But below the surface is a kind of volcano.” And Zoran Djindjic, leader of the coalition which backed Kostunica, said, “We could make a revolution but it wouldn’t be good. It would create too much instability.”

There were reports of workers and strike committees driving out hated corrupt bosses appointed by Milosevic in state-owned enterprises across Serbia last week. According to the independent BETA news agency, “Hospitals, factories, ministries, banks, mines and universities have all had their bosses removed by workers and students who accuse Milosevic placemen of growing rich from their labour, bankrolling the regime and ruining their firms.” The miners at the Kolubara mine, who sparked the mass protests against Milosevic, ousted their boss last week.

In Nis in southern Serbia strikes forced out the heads of ten companies including the local power firm and the tobacco factory. Workers stormed the Nitex textile factory.

Strikers at the RTB mining and smelting complex in Bor in eastern Serbia got rid of the general director and the entire management board. Workers ousted their boss from the agency which runs Serbia’s waterways after they found him in an office, holding a gun and wiring money abroad. One engineer said, “If people like him are allowed to stay in their jobs, I will be completely disappointed.

“For whose sake did I cry from teargas last week? For whose sake did I march for democracy?” The International Herald Tribune paper remarked, “It is not often that low-level employees in large institutions get to dictate the wording of resignation notes for the boss to sign. But this is common in the newly democratic Yugoslavia.”

Most of the bosses have been replaced by the old managers kicked out by Milosevic, or by temporary appointments of local opposition leaders. The strike committees and workers have not taken control and are not directing production themselves.

Events at the Intercontinental Hotel in Belgrade provide a typical example of the processes being played out. The hotel is owned by the giant Genex company. Workers got together and discussed getting rid of Genex boss Radoman Bozovic. The next day Bozovic, a former Serbian prime minister, turned up at the hotel. Angry waiters and chefs surrounded him in the lobby, demanding his resignation. Reports describe how hundreds of workers jeered and whistled at their boss. “He was white, like death. He was trembling,” said one chef.

Workers marched him to the restaurant and forced him to write a resignation letter. It read, “At the meeting of the independent union, I resign from all functions in the Genex group. I consider that all directors should resign.” But the Kostunica government then stepped in to appoint a former Genex chairman, who Milosevic had fired, to run the company.

Some students and workers, however, want the revolution to bring far more fundamental change to their lives than that envisaged by Serbia’s new leaders. As Katerina Radovic from the Otpor! student movement, which was at the centre of the revolution, put it, “Our job was not just to change Milosevic, it was to change the whole system-and that job is not finished.”

The difference 10 years makes

WESTERN LEADERS would like to see Serbia follow the same path as the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe. They want a smooth transition to a stable government which protects their profits and trade.

The New Labour government in Britain has announced a task force of British firms, including Marconi and Amec, to carve up the profits to be made from the reconstruction of the roads, bridges and factories NATO bombed last year. Opening Serbia up to the world market is also the path favoured by new Yugoslav president Kostunica.

His economist, Miroljub Labus, said last week, “We have been informed by the International Monetary Fund that if Yugoslavia forms its government very soon it can renew its membership by 14 December this year.” But Serbia today is not the same as Eastern Europe in 1989.

The leaders of the opposition movements all accepted the idea that market capitalism was the only way to secure democracy and future prosperity. But far from securing prosperity, IMF policies and the free market turned economic disaster into a catastrophe. Just this week a survey revealed that 168 million people across Eastern Europe are living below the breadline.

Milosevic presided over the same kind of privatisations, factory closures, fall in living standards and unpaid wages that we see in much of Eastern Europe today. And it was the effects of an IMF austerity programme that produced a wave of struggle in Yugoslavia in the late 1980s.

Will the workers of Serbia be prepared to take more of the same market medicine, this time urged on by the Western leaders who bombed them last year? No one knows how events will unfold in the coming weeks. But it is clear that the mass protests that toppled Milosevic were the beginning and not the end of the struggle about the kind of change there should be in Serbia.

Lesson of the uprising in 1974

THE ACTION of Serbian workers has been the biggest drive from below to clear out hated managers since the 1974 revolution in Portugal. There was an explosion of demands for change by workers, peasants and rural labourers when the fascist regime was overthrown by a coup in April 1974. They fought for basic freedoms of democracy, free speech and the right to organise, and also land, better housing and decent living standards.

They demanded the “saneamento” (cleansing) of the hated PIDE secret police, local government officials and bureaucrats. But soon the demand spread to oust managers and landlords too. Those at the top conceded some demands for change, but also sought to establish a stable regime which guaranteed their privileges and power. Workers had the potential to drive the revolution forward and to take control of society.

Unfortunately, the main parties workers looked to, the Communist Party and the Socialist [Labour] Party, wanted to limit the revolt. However, for a year and a half there were big eruptions of struggle. Eventually a settlement was reached which brought some reforms but kept the bosses’ wealth and power intact.

Today in Serbia similar processes are unravelling. Whether workers can push ahead with their own demands depends on the political debates and organisations that develop in the coming weeks and months.

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