Yugoslav Paradox

Richard Fidler rfidler at SPAMcyberus.ca
Wed Mar 28 19:31:58 MST 2001

The following article appears in the March-April 2001 issue of Against the
Current. Catherine Samary is the author of Yugoslavia Dismembered (New York:
Monthly Review press) and many articles on the Balkan crisis. This article was
translated for Against the Currrent by Abra Quinn.

Comment, Jared Israel?

After Serbia's Democratic Revolution:  The Yugoslav Paradox
by Catherine Samary

 AT FIRST, THE media described the fall of Milosevic as "a popular uprising
against a tyrant." Then, mass mobilization was played down, and the movement to
oust Milosevic was reduced to a staged drama with, behind the scenes, the
puppet-master forces of the "West."

 The mainstream media have gone from depicting what they often described-during
the bombings, to legitimize them-as a totalitarian state of an almost Hitlerian
nature . . . to a quite vulnerable and even pluralist government.

 During the bombing of Serbia, they ignored or "forgot" the importance of
Yugoslav civil society (even while taking it as their target), or presented it
as being ground down and straitjacketed by the Milosevic "fascist regime," also
conveniently ignoring the fact that all the major cities of that government were
already in opposition.

 Today, the same voices are discovering that the opposition (but supported by
the West) is the decisive factor in maintaining victory and control. But now, as
then, this civil society is (in this reading) reduced to pawns that can be
bought or manipulated-yesterday by Milosevic (since that society was against
NATO), and today by NATO (since it voted against Milosevic).

 Image and Manipulation

 All of the probable underground machinations couldn't be traced, but some of
them were pretty clear: the sudden influx of money received by the Otpor
(Resistance) youth movement, whose buttons and provocative stickers became so
well-known in the period before the election; expensive polls commissioned,
which "scientifically" predicted the winning candidate, and made attracting
supporters to the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS)-the electoral coalition
that ran Vojislav Kostunica-easier; the obvious campaign headquarters set up in
Hungary and the excellent access all the opposition parties had to scrutinize
the ballot boxes during the vote, to count the vote, and to prevent or at least
to denounce any instances of fraud.

 Thus, the opposition had already in hand its legal positions to present to the
Electoral Commission and then the Constitutional Court.

 Finally, the interviews of some of the "muscular heros" (like the mayor of
Canak and his troops) of the operation revealed how some of the apparently
"spontaneous" actions were secretly organized well in advance.

 These events included the October 5 mass demonstration of half a million in
Belgrade, sweeping aside the police barricades; the "taking" of the Parliament
and the State Television studios, for example.

 From all of this sudden truth, there arises a paradox, a silent and
conspiratorial vision of history. Thus, there is a resounding silence on
anything which tends not to support this vision of a "NATO triumph."

 The U.S./NATO bombings were radically and bitterly criticized by many of
Milosevic's opponents. Those who chose (and were amply rewarded for their
efforts) to be U.S. and NATO mouthpieces, like the leader of the Democratic
Party, Zoran Djindjic, were utterly discredited.

 That is precisely one of the reasons why Milosevic decided to hold elections in
July 2000: the weakness of the opposition coalition then led by Djindjic (a
coalition that the tiny Kostunica party did not belong to), allied to the mass
apathy of those who were simultaneously opposed to the corrupt opposition, the
Western bombing AND the Milosevic regime.

 Their abstention meant that a simple majority would have been enough for
Milosevic (with the new constitutional rules) to win a direct election as
president of Yugoslavia, even if the Montenegrins and Kosova Albanians

 Did NATO Defeat Milosevic?

 As the Djindjic case demonstrates, Western money and support did not guarantee
(and therefore does not explain) the success of the Kostunica Party. On the
contrary, the NATO war produced a massive patriotic reaction.

 The fact that accusation as a war criminal occurred while the war was ongoing
was perceived-and still is-as a political act designed to legitimize the
bombings and punish Milosevic for resistance. The vast majority of Serbs were
therfore more than ever blind to the crimes committed in their name, and see
themselves as the primary victims of the conflict.

 The 700,000 Serbs who fled Croatia, Bosnia or Kosova, taken in by relatives in
Serbia, abetted this vision; Western silence on these "bad victims," especially
as regards Croatian Serbs, the fact that the late Croatian president Tudjman was
not indicted as a war criminal, and NATO's policies strengthen this conviction.

 Western sanctions went even farther to discredit the coalition led by Djindjic
when they took the form, in the winter of 1999 when there was a fuel shortage,
of selective energy distribution by European governments to opposition towns and

 This campaign, called "Energy for Democracy" was so immoral (vote right or
you'll freeze to death!) that the Renewal Party of Vuk Draskovic distanced
itself from the campaign (an act which raised the party's standing in the polls)
and decided to go it alone.

 What, then, produced the upheaval that led to Milosevic's defeat, beyond this
bizarrely conspiratorial vision of history the media wants us to swallow? In
other words, what happened in this society?

 Authentic Popular Upheaval

 Wherever it got its money from, behind the popularity of Otpor was a real
movement of Serbian youth expressing a real, massive, and profound "ENOUGH-WE'VE

 This youth movement was prone to making its statements against the bombings in
a darkly corrosive humor, but they also wanted just to "live normally," and to
escape the fate of a whole generation sacrificed to nationalist wars (even if no
real debate on those wars has yet taken place).

 In the southern region of Serbia, zealous local bureaucrats of Milosevic's
ruling Socialist Party sent a huge number of youth to fight in Kosova. That
region is also where one saw, during the bombing campaign, mass demonstrations
that even reached the untouchable bastion of the army and the state,
demonstrations whose central platform was a refusal to die for Kosova.

 Tales of atrocities committed in Kosova began to emerge from within the army's
rank and file. As for students in the big cities, their angry refusal of "More
Milosevic" was fueled as much by the absence of any real, different "future,"
the limitations on travel, and repression against educators who tried to resist
the line laid down by the centralized regime.

 When the state began, in Spring 2000, to put down Otpor and to hysterically
accuse any youth wearing an Otpor badge of being a corrupt agent of NATO, its
efforts backfired, bringing a whole generation of youth-and many of their
parents-into the Otpor movement.

 Otpor's angry humor and its catchy slogans were enough to erase people's fears
and let them express their desire for change-even if there was no real
self-organization or real debate over what kind of new society should be
organized. That Western money was there for a reason, after all.

 Whatever the weakness of the organization, however, their now famous "Gotov je"
(He's fucked!) was a rallying cry that expressed a real mass sentiment. Its
attraction was such that the regime came to seem more and more an out-of-touch
machine, locked into a repressive campaign which linked any opposition to
"sell-outs and traitors in league with foreigners."

 Working-Class Anger

 A year and a half after the war, it was the climate of political and social
insecurity that was really at center stage.

 Certainly, in areas where the "socialist" vote was still the majority, farmers
clung to their privileges, their private holdings distributed in the old Titoist
days, and still under state protection. But in the factories, a rising tide of
rejection was beginning to threaten the clientelism and corruption of
"socialist" management, who had never bothered with an iota of respect for the
workers in spite of the "leftist" face of the regime.

 The visible wealth of these powerful managers was in ever starker contrast to
the miniscule average wages of about 150 Deutschmarks (DM)-if you even HAD a
job-or pensions of around 40 DM a month (with, of course, countless months of
payment in arrears and delays).

 Yes, people knew that the NATO sanctions had a certain effect, but that same
moment of austerity was when they could see the government mafia stuffing their
own pockets out of ordinary workers' misery.

 People felt they could face poverty and isolation, and even injustice, as long
as these ills are shared. That kind of sharing would happen in any real
left-wing government. But, behind the socialist propaganda and etiquette,
privation and shared misery was not on the agenda for Milosevic or his wife,
Mira Markovic, head of the JUL (Yugoslav Youth Alliance).

 In the shadows, these two continued to pull the strings of mafia-clientelism,
to order purges and promotions-activities which even undermined their alliance
with the extreme-right Radical Party. The darkest part of their regime was Rade
Markovic's freedom, as head of the Republican National Security (RDB), to
organize a virtually private police force which could carry out any dirty work
with total impunity.

 A Crumbling Regime

 Against the "victimized" self-representation of this regime are its crimes and
attacks on diverse people, fiscal harassment and attacks on the opposition
press, control over State Television, arrests of journalists, purges and other
manipulation of judges, journalists, professors, based on repressive laws and
decrees, all of which have strengthened a growing climate of insecurity.

 On the other hand there has been, for the past ten years, the emergence of a
certain pluralism much valued by Serbs, and shown by the ruling party's loss
since 1996 of all the major Yugoslav cities, including Belgrade, as well as by
the existence of independent unions, various social movements, especially the
antiwar movement, and the movement in defense of all nationalities, represented
for example by Ms. Natasha Kandic's Center, which now calls for Milosevic's
transfer to The Hague.

 The demonstrations against the regime's attempt to take back the popular vote
were massive. That was the reason for the three months of huge demonstrations
during the winter of 1995-1996 to enforce official recognition of the
opposition's victory in the big towns.

 And this growing social climate formed the context for the explosion of rage in
September-October 2000 when the coalition in power tried to deny its defeat.

 The miners from Kolubara, a giant industrial complex near Belgrade, went on
strike to defend their vote. The DOS leadership went themselves to Kolubara to
call for strike support on October 4, while the "socialist" government, for its
part, sent elite troops against the strike committee.

 The obvious fraternization that day between strikers and police, even taking
over the mines, shows what was happening within all of the forces of repression:
a sudden merging with ordinary people that went far beyond what can be "bought"
(even though there were certainly those who WERE bought).

 That shift goes a long way to explain the hesitation and the weakness of the
army and the police on the next day [October 5, the day the uprising took
Belgrade and Milosevic fell-ed.].

 The Role of Kostunica

 Nonetheless, one cannot dismiss the role of the individual-in this case,
Vojislav Kostunica-in the growing possibility of an enormous anti-Milosevic
vote, and in the mobilization to defend that vote.

 Here we are not talking about a "leftist," a defender of the working class,
still less someone who would rely on the masses to bring him to power. Yet
Vojislav embodied an honesty and integrity in his unwavering denunciation of
NATO and of corruption, whatever its origin, whether from the United States or

 Kostunica was in Kolubora at the miners' side on October 4, even as he
continued to follow the legal procedures that organized the transfer of power.
That is, in fact, one of this legal scholar's tactics: to rely on the support of
the army and the aspirations of the people, but only within the framework of a
"State of Law."

 People were ready to demonstrate to demand the recognition of the vote, but
they refused the repeated incitement by NATO (and the calls by Zoran Djindjic)
to overthrow Milosevic by force.

 Of course, popular anger tends also to lead to using "revolutionary" means to
accelerate the process of change, and to express something besides a simple vote
for Kostunica: From a strike to defend their vote, the miners quickly went
forward to demand the "resignation" of their manager, an example that was
followed in several other factories.

 For several days, workers began to exert their power and use rusty or forgotten
rights of "self-management" to put in place new managers linked to the new
majority. The vote wasn't a blank check for the DOS, much less for those who
really want to go full steam ahead with privatization-which is sadly the case
for much of the leadership of Otpor and many of the independent unions.

 Past and Future

 Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, electoral change has meant simply new clients and
new mafias under new labels, mostly "liberal" solutions. Nowhere has it meant
the consolidation of workers' rights. Worse still is when right-wing policies
masquerade in socialist costume.

 For the emergence of a true left in Serbia, the end of the Slobodan
Milosevic/Mira Markovic reign is a good thing, a necessary starting point. But
behind the relative "ease" of the fall of this regime, we have to beware of an
optical illusion caused by earlier mistakes.

 This government was neither that of a Hitler practicing "genocide" in Kosova,
nor a progressive regime. That is why it had neither the repressive and
totalitarian forces behind it of the former, nor the means to counter attacks
from the right that the latter would have had.

 If we leave aside the myths that demonize or sanctify Milosevic, it is clear
that he was a man who was ready to look for his support and legitimacy in the
ballot boxes, while he would also try to pull any strings he could to hold on to

 First he tried to deny his defeat "legally" via the Electoral Commission and
the Constitutional Court that was to function to his orders; but apparently he
also was also counting on the army's support.

 Milosevic underestimated the fact that during the summer of the year 2000,
eighteen opposition formations, including the leader of the Democratic Party,
Zoran Djindjic, could come together to support Vojislav Kostunica (the only one
of them with a chance to beat Milosevic legally) despite their internal

 He did not see how his regime's "arguments" against that candidate were
weakening in the face of his government's clear criminal practices, and he
underestimated the pressures on various key members of his government to at
least stay neutral, if not actually go over to Kostunica.

 He faced pressure from a Russian diplomat who came to urge him-and convince the
Electoral Commission-to recognize the election results on October 5. And he
underestimated the Kostunica vote in the army and the army's refusal to
intervene against a majority popular vote.

 It's easy to see why Western governments present Slobodan Milosevic's defeat as
"their" victory. It would be more honest to say that Serbian popular opinion
expressed in polls and then in ballot boxes forced the West to "choose" to
support Kostunica, having failed to oust Milosevic by bombings, by war crime
trials, by repeated appeals (given voice by Djindjic) for a general insurrection
against Milosevic, or by the political candidates who supported their policies.

 Crises Remain

 The complex national and social questions of Yugoslavia remain. They are linked
to internal and external crises related to the deep, ongoing process of
political disintegration of the former and the current state. They remain, after
Milosevic, as they existed under him, especially in Montenegro and Kosova: He
acted to fan the flames, yes, but also helped hide the real causes of the fire.

 The DOS has left it to NATO to manage the growing tensions in three of the
Kosovar areas where a new imitator of the former UCK (the Kosova Liberation
Army) is demanding that villages in the "zone tampon" where the majority is
Albanian become part of Kosova. And Kostunica, like Milosevic, demands that UN
Security Council resolution 1244, be enforced-which places Kosova out of Serbia
but still within Yugoslavia.

 That is also why the great powers are worried about the independence movement
gaining strength in Montenegro, since this would suppress the Yugoslav fraework
of Resolution 1244: it could mean either a return of Kosova to Serbia-which is
unthinkable-OR a real recognition of Kosova's independence (which they have thus
far refused for fear of its effect on the fragile situation in Macedonia and
above all Bosnia).

 While President Kostunica is opposed to the further dismantlement of
Yugoslavia, he will recognize the Montenegrin vote for self-determination in a
constitutional framework while Albanians still remain a minority without the
right of self-determination within Yugoslavia.

 But the recent normalization of relations between Serbia, Albania and Bosnia as
well as this recognition of Montenegrin free choice opens a door to the hope
that the disintegration of Yugoslavia could make way for a community of Balkan
states-where a Republic of Kosova could find its place. Everything depends on
the political evolution within Serbia itself.

 Mira Markovic's JUL has disappeared and the Socialist Party has undergone both
a dramatic crisis and a steady hemorrhaging of membership. It has no more than
37 seats of the 250 in the new Serbian Assembly. The far-rightist Seselj's
Radical Party has 27 and the Serbian Unity Party, which had been led by the now
dead paramilitary Arkan, broke in with 14 seats.

 The DOS has 175 deputies, and as a united bloc has attracted a measure of
popular support which none of its constituent parts could possibly rally. That
fact still holds together this very heterogenous group.

 The ousting of the chief of the secret police, Rade Markovic, and the
nomination of Dusan Mihajlovic, the head of "New Democracy" (ND), as Minister of
the Interior (who knew the Milosevic's praetorian guard "intimately" as he'd
been around them for five years) are seen as a turn towards reining in the
endemic corruption.

 Apart from Kostunica, who has stayed at the top of all the polls, the
economists Mladjen Dinkic, new governor of the Central Bank, and Miroljib Labus,
Vice Prime Minister of the Federal Government, are the most popular, doubtless
because they are seen as "experts" who stand apart from the discredited parties,
and because the effects of their neoliberal policies haven't been felt
concretely, yet.

 They plan many informational meetings with the unions. And they claim that
Yugoslavia has already gone through its crisis of the "transition" (to
capitalism), and that therefore all of the negative social effects are over and
done with. Now will come the positive effects. Only a radiant future awaits.
That rosy vision is anything but evident.

Richard Fidler
rfidler at cyberus.ca

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