By Dragan Plavsic
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Promises, Promises

This article is over 20 years, 10 months old
Bush claims he wants to liberate Iraq. Dragan Plavsic examines the experience of Serbia and Afghanistan.
Issue 273

The assassination last month of the pro-western, neoliberal Serbian prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, a key leader of the revolution of 2000 that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic, demonstrated in stark and bloody fashion the chaotic condition of Serbia today. This situation cannot be understood without examining the devastating role of western governments and institutions, above all the US and IMF, in recent Balkan affairs.

A criminal elite

It is very probable that, as the Serbian government claims, Djindjic’s assassins were members of a notorious mafia clan whose boss, known by his nickname of Legija (the Legionnaire), was once a Milosevic loyalist and former commander of the ‘Red Berets’ special police operations unit. Legija abandoned Milosevic in the midst of the revolution of 2000 and placed his unit at Djindjic’s disposal, in return, it was rumoured, for immunity from war crimes prosecution. By January this year, however, after Djindjic re-organised the Red Berets and introduced anti-mafia legislation, Legija was attacking him bitterly for being a western puppet and for breaking his promises, amid growing rumours of his own forthcoming indictment by the Hague for atrocities allegedly committed in Kosovo.

The symbiotic relationship between the Serbian state and the mafia, personified by the obsessively secretive figure of Legija, was first forged out of necessity during the 1990s in order to circumvent the brutal sanctions regime imposed by the west in 1992, after Serbia was singled out for its role in the break-up of Yugoslavia. Enriching themselves beyond their wildest dreams, mafia clans became an indispensable part of the state-run sanctions-busting operation that smuggled into the country all manner of goods from oil to that essential component of the Balkan diet, cigarettes.

As in Iraq, however, sanctions did nothing to resolve the Balkan conflict. What they achieved instead was the wholesale criminalisation and corruption of the Serbian ruling class and state, notably the security services, and of Serbian society more generally, with ordinary people resorting, as a matter of course, to the black market in the daily struggle to survive. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that a flamboyantly wealthy criminal elite, fostered and protected by a regime whose very survival depended on its ability to evade the sanctions, became virtually integrated into the Serbian ruling class–with inevitable results. Just as Milosevic used men like Legija and their mafia associates to eliminate political opponents and to fight proxy wars in Croatia and Bosnia, so bloody, internecine quarrels between mafia bosses implicated ever higher figures within the state apparatus, such that competing clans grew increasingly audacious, eliminating even high-ranking Milosevic ministers with relative impunity. Given this history, the audacity of Djindjic’s assassination was a shock, but it was not a surprise to many Serbs.

It is ironic in the extreme that one of the consequences of the west’s sanctions policy in the Balkans has been the slaying of the west’s favourite politician in Serbia. For Djindjic represented that wing of the Serbian ruling class determined to implement as faithfully and as rapidly as possible the demands of the US, the IMF and the World Bank, as the only viable path to economic reconstruction. And the task of reconstruction was enormous.

Eight years of western sanctions (1992-2000), followed by the devastating US-led 78-day bombing campaign in 1999 that caused $30 billion worth of damage to the country’s economy and infrastructure, not to mention four years of Balkan war (1991-95), left Serbia in ruins. The figures speak for themselves. By 2000, Gross Domestic Product had dropped to 40 percent of what it had been in the mid-1980s. Industrial capacity had fallen to 35 percent, while unemployment stood at 700,000 or 25 percent. The average monthly wage fell from 752 deutschmarks in December 1989 to 80 in 1999, with 35 percent of the population estimated to be living below the regional poverty line.

The overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic raised great hopes that the parlous state of the economy would soon take a turn for the better. However, there was always a contradiction at the heart of the revolution of October 2000 between its leaders and its makers. On the one hand, leaders like Djindjic and Vojislav Kostunica, the presidential candidate who defeated Milosevic, advocated a neoliberal programme of economic reconstruction. On the other hand, the workers who went on general strike, inspired by the example of the miners of the huge Kolubara coalfields of central Serbia, expected a programme of reconstruction that would at last make the economy work for them. As soon as the revolution was victorious, however, the leadership reined in the revolutionary zeal of workers who wanted to sack hated employers. Fear of the masses also explains the unscrupulous willingness to do deals with former Milosevic acolytes, such as Legija.

Spirit of the revolution

Since then, determined to do the bidding of the US and the IMF, Djindjic’s economic reforms have betrayed all the hopes of Serbia’s workers. Following an ultimatum from the US, Djindjic sold Milosevic to the west, instead of trying him at home, for $1.2 billion of aid. In June 2001, he introduced legislation that initiated a crash privatisation programme of 4,000 companies. In December 2001 a Labour Act was passed making it easier for employers to sack workers. Unemployment has since soared to 900,000, with ministers openly talking of a further 400,000 job losses. Gas and electricity prices have gone through the roof while the cost of a basic staple, bread, has shot up from 4 dinars to 30 in just one year.

It is little wonder, then, that Djindjic’s popularity sank recently to an all-time low of 8 percent, a factor that must have given his assassins additional resolve to act. Most Serbs display a mixture of disaffected apathy, born of disappointed hopes, and resistance in the form of repeated, but localised, strike action. Two presidential elections were recently declared null and void after less than the required 50 percent of the electorate voted. The pyrrhic victor of both elections was Kostunica, who attacked Djindjic for being a slave to the IMF and for ‘not caring how people live’. But Kostunica did not offer a real alternative. He represented the other wing of the Serbian ruling class that hoped to pre-empt mass social discontent by advocating a slower pace of liberalisation and less cooperation with the Hague over war crimes.

Nevertheless, throughout his premiership, Djindjic had constantly to reckon with a working class that had not forgotten its decisive role in overthrowing Milosevic. On the anniversary of the revolution, Kolubara miners struck again, forcing a wage settlement on the government, much to Djindjic’s anger. Strikes in one sector after another have become a feature of everyday life, though workers have been repeatedly let down by a squabbling, bureaucratised trade union movement split into three different factions–a pro-government union, the old state trade union still tainted by the Milosevic legacy, and Nezavisnost, a union that uneasily plays off one against the other. Crucially, all three accept to some degree that liberalisation and privatisation must go ahead, but in a form they feebly claim will protect their members’ interests.

This is why a new, more militant organisation has recently appeared on the scene called Workers’ Otpor (Resistance), taking the name of the student organisation that played an important role in Milosevic’s overthrow. Born of the fight against the restructuring of the giant car plant, Zastava, and representing some 7,000 of the plant’s past and present workers, its leader, Radisa Pavlovic, recently declared, ‘We cannot rely on the leaders of the trade unions because, instead of defending the interests of workers, they sit on the prime minister’s sofa and, after a glass of whisky, forget the promises they made to their members.’ It is here, and not in the corridors of power, that the spirit of the Serbian revolution of 2000 lives on today.

Years of western sanctions, compounded by US bombing and neoliberal reconstruction have brought chaos to Serbia and impoverished further still an already poor people. The parallels with Iraq, devastated by sanctions and two wars, are striking. Imperialism creates disaster. Its solutions are no less disastrous. This is why uncompromising resistance from below by the people of Serbia and Iraq must be the way forward.

– – – – –

The current chaotic state of Afghanistan, the object of US military occupation in 2001, also offers an insight into what US rhetoric about reconstruction in Iraq means in practice. The writ of Hamid Karzai, Washington’s puppet president, runs no further than the outskirts of the capital, Kabul, in a country torn apart by competing ethnic groups and warlords.

Karzai’s position is so weak that last year his personal bodyguard was replaced with American special forces, after the assassination in broad daylight of his vice-president. In reality Karzai has no base within the country and his government survives only because of the presence of 10,000 US troops.

Karzai comes from the majority ethnic Pashtuns. However, the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban fighters the US backed during its military campaign, is based on the other ethnic groups in Afghanistan, the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras among others, and their warlords have become an essential strut of US power and its colonial policy of divide and rule. One of them, General Dostum, an Uzbek, runs the city of Mazar-e-Sharif as his personal fiefdom, while another warlord, Ismael Khan, does so in the city of Herat, where his brutal dictatorial rule is little different from the Taliban. This has not put the US off. Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, met Khan last year and described him favourably as ‘thoughtful, measured and self confident’.

This divide and rule policy has been as crudely mercenary as it has been undemocratic. Last year the Observer reported that ‘bin bags’ full of US dollars were flown to Afghanistan, sometimes in RAF planes, in order to buy off warlords who might cause trouble for Karzai’s government, a policy bitterly criticised by relief agencies given the country’s desperate need for aid. Approximately $4.5 billion was pledged last year by an assortment of governments for the next five years. However, the UN’s estimate is that at least twice as much, some $10 billion, is in fact needed just to rebuild the country’s basic infrastructure over this period. By the end of last year only $560 million had been disbursed.

The chaos that now reigns in Afghanistan is not just the result of years of war and poverty. It is the result of the US strategy of imperial divide and rule, and exposes what the rhetoric about democracy and reconstruction in Iraq really means.

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