Serbia's Parliament building which was stormed during the 2000 uprising. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Serbia's Parliament building which was stormed during the 2000 uprising. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Written in 2000, Lindsey German analyses the Serbian revolution and NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia which began 20 years ago today

For 15 years I have been swept along by the treacherous currents of oppression, revolution and war in Eastern Europe. What I witnessed on Thursday, October 5, 2000, was a tidal wave. Within hours, it had engulfed the diseased regime of Slobodan Milosevic … What I saw on Thursday was a no-holds-barred revolutionary seizure of power. [1]

Out of the misery of recent Balkan history comes the hope of Serbia’s October revolution. The writer Misha Glenny, who witnessed the events in Belgrade, was clearly surprised and elated by them. But perhaps what surprised and elated all of us who have lived through the increasing horror of the 1990s, when the Balkans descended repeatedly into war and ethnic divisions between its different peoples, was the role of the ordinary people themselves. Just over a year ago these same people were being bombed in the name of humanitarian intervention by the West. The Zastava car workers, the miners at Kolubara, the refinery workers at Pancevo and the transport workers of Belgrade were at the forefront of opposing Milosevic. Their intervention was decisive in ensuring that he went, and that the election results were upheld. But the possibility of this scenario ever taking place was denied by those who argued that Milosevic would never be overthrown by the working people of Serbia, but only through the role of the Western governments against the whole people of the country. The mission of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton was to provide humanitarian aid to the Kosovan Albanians, it was said. Implicit in the mission was the task of civilising the Serbs.

The dominant Western view over the past decade has been to treat the Serbs as criminals imbued with an innate predilection for ethnic cleansing and a hatred of the other nationalities who made up the former Yugoslavia. Daniel Goldhagen, the author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, the book that claimed all Germans were responsible for the Nazi genocide of the Jews, extended the same notion to the Serbs. Goldhagen argued in The Guardian that ‘the majority of the Serbian people … have rendered themselves legally and morally incompetent to conduct their own affairs and a presumptive ongoing danger to others. Essentially their country must be placed in receivership’. [2]

Much of the ideological argument which took place during the war was about whether or not the people of Serbia could be trusted to make any changes to their own regime. The racist and condescending attitudes to Serbs epitomised by Goldhagen’s remarks are the other side of ‘humanitarian’ intervention by Western imperialism, which needs its bombing to be justified in terms of dealing with people who are ‘legally and morally incompetent’. But the actions of the Serbs in voting against Milosevic, in striking and demonstrating against the rigged results, and then in finally staging a revolutionary overthrow of the regime vindicates them from such attacks. The revolution involved very little bloodshed, unlike last year’s war, and it was not to further the cause of Serb aggrandisement or any form of nationalism. Rather, it was for democracy – the right to a vote which would not be tampered with, the right to a free press, an end to opposition repression and an end to corruption, and for more democracy in the workplace.

Those of us who opposed both military intervention and the Milosevic regime can feel vindicated by this astonishing turn of events. We did not know that our support for the people of Serbia would see them overthrow Milosevic so quickly or so decisively. But we did know that no other force – and certainly not the Western powers – could remove him without worsening the situation as they have already done in Bosnia and Kosovo. This vindication has come quickly and clearly. The Serbian Revolution also promises to bring about more far reaching change than just the overthrow of a hated leader. It heralds a wind of change in the Balkans themselves and the possibility of much greater struggles for democracy than have so far been the case, which can also feed into social and economic demands for change. Whether that happens depends on whether the forces for change understand the great achievement they have already accomplished, but also the many obstacles on the way to further progress.

Countdown to revolution

The causes and outcome of a revolution have rarely polarised opinion in the way that Serbia’s revolution has done. Is it in fact a revolution, or a counter-revolution, as some on the left claim? Does it make any difference, or is it simply one nationalist replacing another? Does it open up the possibility of change from below which can go much farther than the new president, Kostunica, intends? What was the role of Western imperialism? Was it a vindication of the bombing – a view echoed by B-52 liberals such as Francis Wheen? [3]

When the Russian revolutionary Lenin wrote about revolutionary periods, he talked about a general breakdown in society – that revolutions occur when the masses can no longer live in the old way and the rulers can no longer rule in the old way. [4] Serbia certainly fits both these conditions. The situation has become intolerable for ordinary people. Living standards have fallen dramatically during the 1990s. The G17 economic think tank estimates that average wages are DM 100 (£31) a month, down from DM 150 in 1998. The condition of the economy can be seen starkly. Last year real GDP fell by 23 percent – partly because of the bombing and partly because of a drought which affected agriculture. Output per head is between a sixth and a quarter of the EU average, and has fallen by two thirds since 1989. Bomb damage is estimated at $3 billion to $4 billion and the external debt runs at $12 billion, most of which is in default. Unemployment is officially 30 percent, although there is a large black economy. [5]

People in Serbia have lived through repeated turbulence since 1987 when Milosevic first played his nationalist card. They have seen workers’ struggles and nationalist movements, hyperinflation and austerity measures, the effect of sanctions in the form of shortages of basic goods, repression and corruption at government level, and, above all, war. In the early part of the 1990s, again in the middle of the decade, and most horrifically at the end, when NATO’s 1999 bombing over Kosovo lasted for 78 days and killed nearly 1,000 people, Serbia has been devastated by war. It has a massive refugee problem caused by the displacement of populations from the former Yugoslavia. Western intervention always made it easier for Milosevic to get away with media censorship and state repression.

The generally worsening situation and bitterness among ordinary people was heightened by a number of explosive questions. The first was hatred of the West and NATO for their intervention in ethnically cleansing the Krajina of Serbs in 1995, and then for their bombing four years later. The common sentiment in Serbia is anti-imperialist, and the election was won by Kostunica on the basis that he was against NATO, that he wanted the US to be indicted at The International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague, and so on. This gave an edge to the movement in Serbia which was not present in the East European revolutions of 1989. It was not therefore possible to present the West as a benevolent fairy godmother showering gifts on the population. The population’s recent experience inoculated them from this view. The wind of change in the rest of the Balkans in recent months also made a difference, as voters in Croatia and Bosnia voted against the most nationalist leaders and parties, creating a sense that the war and divisions of the 1990s could be overcome. [6]

The second explosive factor was the nature of the old regime itself. It was increasingly composed of a small clique round Milosevic and his wife, Mira Markovic. These people controlled much of capital, the media, the economic enterprises and the state. They resorted to increasingly desperate measures against their opponents. A series of high profile assassinations in recent months created an atmosphere of tension. In addition there was increased corruption and profiteering by a tiny number of people at the expense of virtually everyone else. It was this which helped to create the crisis among the ruling class itself, with sections of the old rulers and, crucially, the army believing that the old regime was bankrupt, and that only a new presidency could break the log-jam.

The main explosive factor was of course the election process itself. As in many other societies where voters have been denied their most basic democratic rights, the stealing of the election crystallised the opposition. Previous oppositions had been courageous but ultimately unsuccessful. In 1996 three months of protests over similar fixing of local elections were successful in getting Milosevic to cave in, and Zoran Djindjic became mayor of Belgrade. But they were unable to shift the regime. Immediately after the bombing in 1999 there were major protests in towns like Cacak. Again a mixture of repression and demoralisation led to defeat. Now all the elements – the splits in the ruling class, the misery of ordinary people, the sense of having a legitimate grievance – came together to build the movement to topple Milosevic. Underlining it was the lesson from previous oppositions and protests – that they would have to be prepared to fight to the end to win the election result for which they had voted.

The revolution at work

Few had great hopes of the elections for the president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia which were called by Milosevic for 24 September. Most expected that Milosevic would win, or that the vote would be sufficiently close that he could fix the election to his advantage. His opponent, Vojislav Kostunica, was a respected but politically inexperienced law professor. He headed a coalition, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, which was made up of disparate forces. Most oppositions in Serbia in recent years have disintegrated, to the advantage of Milosevic and the ruling Socialist Party. Everyone expected a mass of obstacles to be placed in the way of the democratic process, including all manner of repressive measures and intimidation. In the days before the vote there was much talk of a military diversion in Montenegro, or of false votes stacking up for Milosevic in Kosovo. Although opinion polls showed a clear Kostunica lead, few could bring themselves to believe that the vote would be honoured. So the election day itself and the first official announcement of the results came as a shock of exhilaration throughout the country. Even according to the official figures Kostunica was well ahead of Milosevic. But here came the controversy. Opposition election monitors all over the country had a pretty good idea of the votes cast in their areas. But when the votes were transported to Belgrade large numbers of them disappeared. Even worse, the opposition knew that its candidate had won outright in the first round with over 50 percent of the votes. The election commission denied this, however, and called for a second round a fortnight later. All the old fears resurfaced – Milosevic would get up to his old tricks, and might even go so far as to stage a coup in order to steal the election.

Demonstrations and protests erupted to try to prevent this possibility. The opposition refused to accept the need to go forward to the second round and insisted that Milosevic stood down. Masses of people took to the streets, with a huge Belgrade demonstration on the Wednesday following the election. Towns with strong opposition support were in turmoil, with protests ranging from school students’ walkouts to workers’ strikes. Towards the end of the week following the vote one of the opposition leaders, Zoran Djindjic, called for strike action over five days culminating in a general strike. This immediately struck a chord. Workers started discussing strike action, and a number of stoppages took place. Most importantly, the miners in Serbia’s huge Kolubara complex decided to strike. Their role in the revolution was central. They took strike action from Friday 29 September, and their action immediately had a huge political and economic impact. The danger that the strike would rapidly paralyse an already wounded economy through power cuts and shortages led Milosevic to try both co-option and coercion in his dealings with them. The government went into talks with the miners immediately but got nowhere. Already there were signs of mass action elsewhere. There were promises of strikes at the Sevojno copper mill and the Pancevo oil refinery starting on the following Monday morning. Kostunica visited Kolubara on Monday (by now it was being dubbed a ‘second Gdansk’, after the birthplace of Solidarnosc in Poland). By Monday night the regime was prepared to play its strongest card. No less than the head of the army, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, arrived at the mine and tried to negotiate throughout the night. He failed. The army itself was split at the highest level, with Pavkovic’s predecessor, Momcilo Perisic, who supported the opposition, also touring the mine complex urging them to keep up the action. He told The Observer immediately after the revolution:

I got to two sections of the mine after Pavkovic and managed to firm up their line. Then I moved on to the third section and talked to the men there shortly before Pavkovic arrived. As a result, he didn’t even get a hearing. They whistled and refused to listen … I was in contact with 80 percent of the generals, urging them not to let the army be abused, though it was the role of the colonels that was crucial. [7]

With the army divided, and even Pavkovic saying that it would uphold the constitution, the miners held firm. Meanwhile the protests were gathering pace in other parts of Serbia. On Monday 2 October transport workers blockaded bridges in Belgrade. These were eventually broken by the police. Strike action began in many parts of the country. School students walked out and began demonstrations. The whole country was beginning to grind to a halt. Milosevic realised the Kolubara miners were the key to the situation and sent in the police. Strike supporters responded to calls to come and help, turned up in their thousands, broke through police lines and forced them to retreat. This was a turning point in the revolution which allowed the events of 5 October to go ahead. One report from a miner at Kolubara explains what happened in that historic week:

After Djindjic called a general strike, members of the Kolubara trade union responded immediately. Some were members of individual parties in the DOS [the opposition bloc] and some weren’t, but after consulting the workers they decided to call a strike. The mine directors reacted immediately and tried to make sure production did not stop with threats of dismissal. The strike committee got the support of the younger leader-workers, the heads of the dredger system and of electrical and machine maintenance. The head of the dredger system at the Medosevac mine (the so-called ‘Field D’) joined the strike committee and stopped the dig. My part of the Kolubara joined immediately as the next in the Kolubara processing chain (wet and dry separation, rail transport, drying and heating) followed by our great mine, Tamnava.

We were all conscious that we were running a great risk, especially us leader-workers who came out in solidarity with the strike (I am the leader-worker of the electric maintenance service in the processing chain made up of 90 men). The police then entered the mines, took over some buildings and tried to get production going with threats and the help of some directors. The workers did not fight the police but stayed in their workshops and refused to work the machines.

I should mention that we are the largest lignite open mine in Europe and that our machines are from Western Europe with a lot of domestic equipment which is very up to date. A good part of production is done with the help of computer processors so that the engineers could easily remove and hide the computer control cards. As a result, no one could start up production even if they wanted to.

Now we come to the nicest bit of the story. When people heard that the police were in the mines the whole of Lazarevac [the Kolubara mining town] and surrounding towns rose up. Everyone came to help the workers. The police tried to stop the masses but it isn’t easy to stop 30,000 to 80,000 people who are determined to carry on to the end. Happily someone was clever enough not to give the police orders to shoot so that after a short conflict the people broke through into the mines. Entire families could be seen at the gathering. These scenes were truly moving so that when the police saw this determination and very likely because of orders ‘from above’ they refused to act. To give you an example of what enthusiasm there was, large groups of people waded across the river Kolubara to get to the mine.

After President Kostunica himself twice came to the mine to support the workers there was no power left that could frighten us anymore, the strike wave paralysed practically the whole of Serbia and this led to great Thursday in front of Parliament. The rest you know. [8]

No one knows exactly how many people took to the streets of Belgrade on 5 October. Estimates vary between half and 1 million. The town of Cacak alone sent a convoy 20 kilometres in length, headed by a bulldozer, to march on the centre of government. From all over Serbia cars and buses converged on the city – 100 buses from Raska, 25 from Novi Sad, 50 from Kraljevo, Cacak, Gornji Milanovac and Kragujevac, 20 plus 150 cars from Nis – full of people determined to force Milosevic to accept the election result. [9] Their fury was fuelled by the announcement of the elections commission that the election results had been annulled, and that Milosevic would carry on as federal president until the middle of 2001. A series of astonishing events led to the government’s downfall. At lunchtime on BBC radio Misha Glenny was declaring that this looked more like a revolution than anything he had seen throughout Eastern Europe in 1989. Crowds gathered outside the parliament building. Milosevic had been given a deadline of 3pm to resign. Even before that there were signs that the police were unwilling to defend the government. Some handed over their badges and flak jackets. Others still continued to defend the regime. A group of workers from the state television station came to the front of the crowd to announce that they had walked out in support of the demonstrators.

There were repeated attempts to storm the parliament building. At first the police cordon held, but then enough protesters raced up the steps and into the parliament building. The police inside responded with teargas attacks. Despite the confusion that followed, the building was stormed. Emily Milich reported in The Sunday Times:

We could see three men in a first floor office to our left attempting unsuccessfully to shut the door. Chairs and furniture flew. A man in his twenties wearing a grey jacket and black trousers managed to climb the first floor balcony on the right wing of the building. Ignoring bottles and stones that were thrown, he broke the glass doors. He then helped others climb onto the balcony. A middle aged man wearing black was the first to enter the glass doors and bring out a Yugoslav flag. [10]

The parliament building was on fire. The demonstrators now moved on to the state television building, the hated centre of government propaganda. The bulldozer from Cacak helped to smash their way into the building and take control of the main media. Milosevic found that by this stage he had few levers to pull to try to exert control. Most importantly, the police and the army could no longer be relied on to defend the regime. Milosevic summoned Pavkovic late in the afternoon and told him to send in the tanks to crush the revolution. He received the answer, ‘I have nobody to do this. The army is staying neutral.’ A crack special forces unit also refused to fight when confronted with the crowd. They took off their balaclavas and ‘just stood there and hundreds of people walked past shaking their hands… There were also quite a lot of police who just handed over their equipment, helmets and batons to the protesters’. [11] As the state machine crumbled, the revolution triumphed. Key buildings fell to the opposition, and by the evening Kostunica was addressing an ecstatic crowd in the main square. Although Milosevic hung on for another few hours, it became increasingly apparent to the partying crowds and those who watched on television around the world that the fears of a fightback by Milosevic were groundless. He simply did not have the forces at his disposal to deal with the huge upsurge of people’s power that the election fraud had unleashed. In the words of the student movement Otpor!’s slogan, he was finished. But the revolution was not.

Immediately the old regime fell, so the demand went up that those associated with it should be removed from their posts. As the Financial Times commented, ‘With Milosevic’s rule crumbling, the workers have taken the communist rhetoric literally and taken charge of their enterprises, instituting various forms of “worker management”.’ [12] Up and down the country the workers and students who protested against Milosevic now forced out university rectors, managers and bosses who had made their lives such a misery. So in Belgrade workers attacked Radoman Bozovic, director of the trading company Genex, as he fled to his car. He was beaten, and later resigned when staff invaded his office and told him to quit. In the southern town of Nis workers stormed a state-run textile factory demanding the manager was fired. A week after the revolution Jonathan Steele reported in The Guardian on a factory occupation at the Trudbenik construction firm, employing 3,000 workers. By this time Kostunica was condemning the factory occupations and Nebojsa Covic, a DOS leader, was visiting factories urging workers to get back to work. While Steele was at the factory the old boss turned up drunk to reassert his authority. One worker asked him, ‘Who invited you here?’ The old director threatened that ‘I’ll go off and see Covic tomorrow, and the other DOS leaders’. Someone else shouted, ‘We’ll be here in the building all night and we’ll have reinforcements tomorrow from the rest of the company’s sections.’ The parting shot from another worker was, ‘And don’t use your company car any more’. [13] The revolution was continuing.

What sort of revolution?

Any revolution is an immensely confused phenomenon. By definition it does not take place at a prearranged time and place. It involves a whole range of forces, and it throws up ideas and organisation which are new, at least to most of the people involved. The different social forces have different aims and interests, yet this is less apparent when the revolution starts than it becomes later on. It is for this reason that many people seize on conservative policies of opposition leaders (including Kostunica), nationalism and claims of funding from the West and the EU to denounce the revolution or at the very least to claim that it will make no difference, simply replacing one group of rulers with another. Despite the overtly revolutionary and popular nature of the movement, there are many on both right and left who see it as pro-Western and a vindication of NATO’s bombing. Hugo Young in The Guardian has claimed all the credit for Tony Blair:

No NATO leader is more gratified by what has happened in Yugoslavia than Tony Blair. The deposing of Milosevic is the vindication of a strategy for which he risked more than anyone else in the West. He was the moral, if not the military, leader of what saved Kosovo, and has now led to the despatch of the tyrant.

He goes on, ‘The war I think now receives its final justification’. [14] Another Guardian warrior, Francis Wheen, argues that the bombing made Milosevic unpopular and so was justified. [15] The Western rulers themselves have claimed events as vindication of their strategy, with Robin Cook, Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair all joining calls on Milosevic to go. This view has its distinct reflection on the left, where some believe that Nato and other Western forces made the revolution. There are even those who claim that what took place on 5 October was a counter-revolution, funded by Western money, where the crowds on the streets were simply a stage army duped by hopes of improved living standards and EU funding. The view that the remains of Yugoslavia represent the last bastion of socialism in eastern Europe still holds sway among Stalinists of every description, their view reinforced by the support given to the revolution by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. This attitude of support for the regime was a disaster during the war because it led to the view that the only alternative to NATO was uncritical support for Milosevic. It is a much greater disaster now because such support leads to attacking the very people – the poor, the working class, the students – who can provide the only means of fundamental change in Serbia.

It is also a view that flies in the face of every available piece of evidence about the nature of the Milosevic regime. This has been compared to ‘crony capitalism’ in Suharto’s Indonesia – a very close relationship between the state and capital, but with enterprises and the state machine controlled by a small, undemocratic and unaccountable clique. One third of the economy is already in completely private hands – not the case anywhere in Eastern Europe before 1989. Milosevic was already engaged in deals to privatise state industries. A telecom deal with Italian capital was only put into abeyance by NATO’s bombing. Superficial manifestations of the Western market already exist in Belgrade – after all, the war did disprove the theory that two states both containing a McDonald’s restaurant would never go to war.

The structure of Serbian capital has been held together by an increasingly gangsterised and corrupt clique. The imposition of Western sanctions played an important role in encouraging this corruption. Workers in Serbia have at various times over the past decade given strong support to Milosevic, but this has been on the basis of national unity in times of war, or on the basis of bread and butter reforms which the regime has traditionally ensured went to some groups of workers. One of the striking features of recent events is that many of the workers who struck during the revolution came from traditional Milosevic and Socialist Party strongholds. They clearly felt that their interests as workers lay elsewhere.

Some people in the West may see this as a pro-Western revolution. But many in Serbia do not see it that way. The mass of people in Serbia certainly believed when they went to the polls that they were voting against NATO. They certainly told Western journalists that the bombing had not helped to dislodge Milosevic. One student told the BBC, ‘We did it on our own. Please do not help us again with your bombs.’ [16] A shop worker told The Sunday Times, ‘It was the Serbian people who got rid of Milosevic, not NATO, and it is for the Serbian people to punish him.’ [17] And they certainly got no real help from the Western powers with their task. The right wing think tank Strategic Forecasts makes the point that ‘the Kosovo war discredited oppositionists with ties to Brussels or Washington … the opposition decided he [Kostunica] was the only one electable’. It also says, ‘His disdain for Western influence in the former Yugoslavia isolated him from outside support.’ [18] John Simpson, BBC correspondent in Belgrade during the war, claimed that the revolution was made by people who were ‘depressed in equal measure by the careless savagery of the NATO bombing and the sheer nastiness of the Milosevic regime’. [19] Jonathan Steele, who supported the war but who is clearly sympathetic to the revolution from a radical point of view, wrote from Belgrade in The Observer:

[Milosevic’s] downfall was won not on a battlefield or by NATO pilots. It was won among the black dust of the Serbian coalfield, under the vast arc lights of Kolubara pit among the miners who had been among his most loyal supporters. [20]

Just as in Eastern Europe in 1989, workers and students acted against the regime with great bravery and decisiveness. Regimes which called themselves socialist and claimed a popular mandate fell without a fight. In reality they were unpopular, rotten regimes with nothing in common with democratic socialism. The Milosevic regime had exactly the same characteristics, which is why it has been so overwhelmingly rejected.

What of the opposition? Kostunica himself is obviously regarded as a Mr Clean, a man of principle untainted by corruption inside Serbia or Western money from outside. The law professor who drives a battered Yugo seems above sordid politics, and claims he is just a transitional leader for 18 months. Kostunica declared to massed crowds during the course of the revolution that he would succeed without Moscow or Washington, and was met with rapturous applause. [21] While he is unlikely to take this course, it was the theme central to his election campaign, which was full of denunciations of NATO. He made it clear that he wanted to steer a ‘third way’ between Milosevic’s extreme isolation from the West in recent years and the devotion to the West held by some of the opposition parties in the past. As he wrote recently:

Today and in the future the Serbs cannot count on any ‘allies’ in the old sense among the great powers. They can count, however, on covert and overt allies in the West, in Europe, and on the diffuse but ever more prevalent resistance all over the world to what has become known as ‘benevolent global hegemony’. They can count on the growing awareness that the NATO war against Serbia was mediated in the West by lies and manipulations, by the creation of a twisted and false picture about the Serbs that justified their punishment by sanctions, bombs and indictments at The Hague. [22]

Kostunica’s appeal was precisely the attempt to chart a course between the West and Milosevic, and he will be held to some of those policies by the people who swept him to power. At the same time his instincts are conservative: he wants more integration into Western markets, including abolishing controls and introducing sales taxes; he was very cautious throughout the revolution and repeatedly refused to act without the consent of the army. Take, for example, this assessment of his behaviour in The Sunday Times: ‘Kostunica had preached caution to opposition hotheads. But after being assured by the generals on September 29 that they would not attack civilians, he decided to launch mass demonstrations’. [23] He will therefore be constrained from two sides – from the demands of workers who have overthrown Milosevic and expect their lives to improve, and from the state machine, especially the army, which remains a strong force in Serbian politics. It acquiesced in this stage of the revolution but may not be happy to do so in the future. However, a sense of Kostunica’s standing for the present can be seen in the fate of some of the more pro-Western politicians who have seen their star fall as the revolution gathered pace. Vuk Draskovic – seen only a few years ago as the West’s greatest hope for overthrowing Milosevic – refused to join the Democratic Opposition of Serbia and stood as a spoiling candidate (probably with the collusion of Milosevic). He was humiliated at the polls. When Draskovic tried to address a crowd of students just days after the revolution he was shouted down with cries of, ‘Traitor!’ and, ‘We don’t need you any more.’ Vojislav Seselj, a far right nationalist politician, has so far remained part of the opposition but has denounced most aspects of the revolution, including the burning of buildings and the democratic removal of bosses in the workplaces.

It is obvious that the opposition was propelled forward by forces representing much more than Kostunica or any of his allies such as Zoran Djindjic, the man credited with organising the convoys on Belgrade. What we saw in those days was an example of genuine mass protest, sometimes called ‘people power’ after its proponents in the Philippines and Indonesia, or closer to home in the East European revolutions of 1989. In all these examples the massed weight of often millions of people protesting was enough to bring down a hated dictator and replace him with an opposition government. In most of them students played a key role, taking to the streets in the face of state repression and galvanising virtually the whole of society behind them. This element was present in Serbia, with Otpor! playing a central political and organisational role. But in Serbia strike action against the regime played the key role in overthrowing the government. The working class of Serbia took centre stage. There was another massive difference between this and the East European revolutions of 1989. The market had already done its work in the region, including in Serbia, and the revolution took place against a background of anti-capitalism in the West. Many people in Serbia, especially round Otpor!, were aware of this and would have seen the media coverage of demonstrations in Seattle and Prague. [24] These factors meant that the Serbian Revolution had a much stronger impetus to start with, and that the social forces involved give it the potential to go much further than the ‘velvet revolutions’ of the late 1980s. These looked much more to the West and remained at the level of political revolutions rather than ushering in wider social change.

This is not to say that the Serbian Revolution was a socialist revolution. It was not. It has many similarities with the democratic revolutions which have taken place throughout the history of capitalism – those in 1848 which fought (largely unsuccessfully) against the feudal order to establish capitalist democracy. Their demands were for an end to the old rulers (kings and princes), for the suffrage and elections to representative parliaments, for freedom of the press, for modern, fairer legal systems. They united virtually all classes in society around their demands. The rich capitalists chafed against the restrictions on trade of the old order, and therefore promoted democracy to allow themselves the freedom to do business. The liberal middle classes such as lawyers and newspaper editors resented the restrictions on their freedom of speech. The workers and poor peasants had a whole range of grievances including economic ones – unemployment, falling incomes, food shortages, restrictions on use of the land. All these forces were united in wanting to rid themselves of the old system, but divided – and sometimes fundamentally divided – over what to put in its place. Was the revolution to replace an old autocracy with a parliament of politicians while the lives of the mass of people remained exploited and oppressed? Or would the democratic revolution turn into a social revolution, challenging property relations at the heart of the capitalist class itself? In the Europe of 1848 the working class was in most cases too small and undeveloped politically to push the revolution forward, and this usually meant at least the partial defeat of the democratic revolution as well. In France, the revolutionary country with the strongest working class, the unity of the revolution in February 1848 turned to renewed fighting on the barricades in June, this time between the revolutionary workers plus their supporters and the representatives of the growing capitalist class. The young Karl Marx, a keen participant in the revolutions of 1848, wrote of the defeat for the French Revolution of 1848 in these terms:

The February revolution was the beautiful revolution, the revolution of universal sympathy, because the conflicts which erupted in the revolution against the monarchy slumbered harmoniously side by side, as yet undeveloped, because the social struggle which formed its background had only assumed an airy existence – it existed only as a phrase, only in words. The June revolution is the ugly revolution, the repulsive revolution, because realities have taken the place of words, because the republic has uncovered the head of the monster itself by striking aside the protective, concealing crown. [25]

The class divisions which can be papered over earlier on come to the surface later. The social crisis which itself leads to the revolution cannot be easily resolved, and therefore further struggles continue as the different classes fight to ensure that their demands from the revolution come to the fore. Most revolutions begin in this way. The Russian revolutions of 1905 and February 1917 had this character. So did the revolution which overthrew the Kaiser in Germany in 1918–1919. Perhaps the most apt parallels with the Serbian Revolution are the early stages of the Portuguese Revolution in 1974. Then, a revolution led by disaffected officers in the armed forces overthrew a crumbling fascist dictatorship. Tanks appeared on the streets and soon people were ‘embracing the soldiers, putting red carnations down the barrels of their guns, riding on the tanks in impromptu demonstrations, directing them to the hide outs of known secret police informers. The world’s press proclaimed this the peaceful “revolution of the flowers”.’ [26]

But it rapidly divided. The government of General Spinola, an old fascist sympathiser, was confronted with strikes – in May 200,000 workers in 158 workplaces struck, and the regime had to concede a 30 percent increase in the minimum wage and the sacking of 1,000 company directors with fascist connections. There were more strikes, and as plant closures were threatened so workers occupied their factories. Thus began a huge process of saneamento – the cleansing of workplaces and enterprises of those with connections with the secret police or the fascists. This was part of a process of workers’ control inside the factories. The following 18 months were a struggle for control of the streets, the workplaces, the press and the land between those forces who wanted change – some left wing army officers but overwhelmingly the working class and the poor agricultural labourers – and those who wanted a peaceful transition to modern capitalist society.

There are many similarities with the situation in Serbia – the role of the working class and strikes, the disaffection of sections of the army following defeat in war, the demands for a free media, and perhaps most importantly Serbia’s own process of saneamento which began immediately as the revolution took place, and where a key demand was to remove Milosevic supporters and appointees from all areas of life.

Revolution is not just a single moment but a process. Thursday 5 October was a key turning point, but there can now be months if not years, where the class struggle goes to and fro, where sometimes the workers are on the offensive and others on the defensive, when they accept the demands of their new rulers, others when they reject them. It is perfectly possible that from this process the right can eventually emerge triumphant or can hide behind some form of bourgeois democracy. But it is unlikely to do so without some decisive confrontations between the revolutionary forces and those who want to hold them back. Similarly, the West will not be able to impose its agenda without taking on groups of workers who have both withstood its bombing and fought their own ruling class. If those groups of workers want to fight the attacks that such an agenda will bring then they will have to move beyond trade union organisation to workers’ democratic organisation, through councils based in the workplaces which can begin to present an alternative centre of power to that of the capitalist class. These can spring out of the needs of the struggle if the revolution does go forward and if workers remain at the centre of it. Those workers also need their own political organisation, based on the principle of genuine democratic socialism from below, if they are to chart their way through the ideological confusions and traps which lie ahead.

Why did the West support the revolution?

The main source of confusion over the nature of Serbia’s revolution comes from the fact that it is supported by Western leaders who are normally bitterly opposed to any such action, and who applaud ‘people power’ when it is used against their enemies but denounce it among their own population. In Britain and the US we are told that change can only come through constitutional methods and that industrial militancy is to be abhorred, whereas in Serbia mass demonstrations and general strikes suddenly become legitimate weapons. Even for Serbs, however, those people who hate revolution want to limit any popular element to the struggle, for fear that it will get out of control and lead to a much greater social upheaval. The day after the overthrow of Milosevic, a report about US attitudes to the events said:

[Kostunica] is viewed in Washington as a strongly nationalist politician, who may even be somewhat hostile to the US. The most immediate question would be under what conditions he would be able to take power. Balkans experts said last night that, if the protests continued, there would be a growing risk of chaos and bloodshed, which could inhibit a peaceful transfer of power. [27]

However, the West has been desperate to get rid of Milosevic at virtually any price. This is in itself a sign of its failure of strategy in the region. Every Western intervention in the past decade has left the former Yugoslavia more divided and fragmented than before and, until now, Milosevic has remained in place regardless. This happened in 1991, when Germany backed independence for Slovenia and Croatia. It happened in 1995, when the Dayton agreement created essentially a colonial administration in an ethnically partitioned Bosnia, and did a deal with Milosevic which ignored the question of Kosovo. And it happened in 1999, when the West intervened over Kosovo, bombing the former Yugoslavia for 78 days, and imposed an administration in Kosovo which has had disastrous consequences. This supposedly humanitarian intervention has left 200,000 Serbs and Roma ethnically cleansed from the province and the remaining minority inhabitants living in fear, all under the rule of the West in the form of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo. There has been a growing recognition, even among many supporters of intervention, that nothing has been resolved in the region, and that future Western interventions will only leave it further fragmented.

There is also one stark fact that affects countries well beyond the boundaries of the former Yugoslavia – it is impossible to rebuild the Balkans without Serbia. The Stability Pact for the Balkans that the EU and US are trying to foist on the region therefore has a big hole in it. It has been impossible to clear the Danube, blocked since the bombing, because of Western hostility to the Milosevic regime. This affects German and Austrian capital, and the much poorer neighbours of Serbia down river, Bulgaria and Romania. Transport in the region runs through Serbia. The sanctions were having an effect not just in Serbia but in surrounding areas. For all these reasons it was impossible to regenerate the area and make it safe for capital without trying to reintegrate Serbia into Europe. The West also wanted the political and economic credit for doing so.

In addition, Western leaders needed an endgame to the wars in Yugoslavia and the stand-off with Milosevic. In the months before the election there were rumours of deals which would allow Milosevic to leave power and live in exile while escaping the war crimes tribunal at The Hague. The indictment of leading Yugoslav politicians during the 1999 bombing led to tactical headaches for the West. The impossibility of bringing Milosevic to trial was matched by the inflexibility which the indictment led to when it came to any diplomatic solution. The West had to make noises about bringing him to trial. Even many Western leaders and diplomats felt such a trial was undesirable because of the tensions it would exacerbate in the region. This led to divisions inside the Western powers as to the best way to proceed. The West treated Serbia as a ‘rogue state’ and Milosevic as an outcast. Those who wanted to find a solution in the region increasingly had to thrash around looking for an alternative. No one in the West alighted on Vojislav Kostunica. Instead Western money went on politicians like Vuk Draskovic, who trumpeted pro-Western policies but also worked at various times with Milosevic, and were discredited for both reasons. Kostunica was not the West’s choice, but nonetheless the Western leaders are prepared to work with him. They are relieved that Milosevic has gone, and their willingness to work with the new government whose policy over Kosovo is in all essentials no different from the previous government shows their hypocrisy. If Kostunica accepts their economic prescriptions and allies himself to the West politically then the national question in the Balkans will be relegated to second place, despite all the West’s claims during last year’s war. They want above all a stable regime, and they hope that promises of (very limited) Western money plus greater integration into the rest of Europe will do the trick. But the transition is fraught with dangers for the Western ruling classes, and for Kostunica himself.

The economic problems ahead

In Eastern Europe the process of conversion of power in 1989 which allowed all but the very top officials (and sometimes even them) to convert their control of state enterprises to control over the new private and semi-private economy was possible because of the peculiar circumstances in which the old regimes collapsed. [28] In some countries their dissolution had been under way for some time, and already many at the top had begun to make the shift to the market. Where this had not occurred – as, for example, in Bulgaria or Romania, or even Russia – there was an interregnum after the change in politics at the top. This enabled those at the top to construct new positions both ideologically and politically, and to distance themselves from the legacy of the old regime. Ironically, too, the demonstrations of 1989 were not that intense – power never really passed into the hands of the street, important though the threat of protest was in concentrating minds at the top on the need for change. This meant that the room for manoeuvre at the top was considerable.

In Serbia the space has been much narrower. Similar processes to those seen in Eastern Europe in 1989 and after were already under way in Yugoslavia in the 1980s – indeed, they were perhaps more advanced. This helps to explain how a similar conversion of power took place in fragments of the old state like Slovenia and Croatia. This was true also of Serbia, and despite the view in some quarters that the Milosevic regime retained some ‘left wing’ credentials during the 1990s there were further attempts to ‘privatise’ state assets. Semi-private control was taken over by anyone with contacts and influence. Even leaders of the old state trade unions took a hand, using any residual leverage they had with the workers to gain acceptance for their deals. One worker on the Crisis Committee established in the Trudenik construction company (representing 3,000 workers) told how:

The trade union secretary particularly ran this company. He got rid of the last managing director in 1995 and chose the new one. Under the privatisation the trade union secretary formed a company called Sind which built upper-income flats in Belgrade. They won the workers’ loyalty by paying them DM 5 (£1.50) an hour while other workers here get DM 100 (£30) for a whole month. [29]

But in Serbia the political developments of the 1990s, the wars and isolation, brought the Milosevic regime and the wider ruling class much more closely together, and identified one with the other in a peculiarly intense way. This partly arose from the need for all of the bosses of the different enterprises to work closely with the state. This was then amplified by the general cronyism of the regime in which the top managers drew corruptly on the regime and the regime drew corruptly on them. The close personal connections with Milosevic and his family were an extreme example of this. Thus, for example, Genex – the state import-export company – was run by Radoman Bozovic, a former prime minister who appears as a key figure in the finances of the regime and the Milosevic empire. As the regime strove to hang on in conditions of decay, and to ward off protest, the space between the political leadership and the rest of those at the top narrowed even more.

In these circumstances it was difficult for many of the figureheads in what was left of Yugoslav industry to detach themselves from the Milosevic regime quickly enough and position themselves to survive the fall. Some tried this. Jonathan Steele reported that the general manager of the Lola Corporation, an engineering plant near Belgrade, had agreed with the local trade unions on the need for a general strike ‘for truth’, and had supported workers going to Belgrade to protest and promised them full pay. [30]But he appears to have been unusual. Given the distance that some bosses would have to move, such a neat side-step did not look convincing for many. One Genex worker told a reporter that ‘the … bosses are like snakes. For the past two weeks they didn’t know which side would win; now they’re wriggling from their skins.’ [31]

The new government was immediately put on the spot by workers challenging their bosses. Kostunica and his immediate supporters had no interest in seeing this develop any further. On 12 October he told The New York Times, ‘I’m having as much trouble with my friends as enemies,’ and he quickly moved to condemn the factory occupations. [32]

The old Milosevic forces were also anxious to damp down this dynamic and do deals to consolidate their positions. Least of all, perhaps, was there any enthusiasm for the extension of such actions in the West, where the pressure was coming for a rapid establishment of order and the introduction of economic reforms. But the threat to the workers of Serbia and all of those who had so bravely gone out on the streets is that not only will this stabilisation path force them back into the hands of the old order dressed up in new clothes, it will also undercut what little is left of their economic base.

For what are being advised at the moment are not policies which will stabilise the country in the sense of helping rebuild and recover from the months of bombing by NATO, and the decade of exploitation and oppression by Milosevic. Instead what threatens is a concentrated Gdansk effect. Gdansk, the birthplace of Solidarity, appeared to generate the prospect of workers in Poland taking power back from the ruling class that ruled in their name. In the event, over a period of years the mainstream of Solidarity was diverted into the path of supporting market reform and the IMF/World Bank led transition. This produced a Poland that is certainly freer than in 1989, but it is hardly one that has realised the dreams of those who were prepared to sacrifice so much in the 1980s. This year has seen the fallen figure of Lech Walesa gain a pitiful 1 percent of the vote in the presidential elections. Of course, he could no longer get the support of the Gdansk shipyard workers, because that yard had effectively closed some time ago – a victim of the market reforms.

It is this prospect that now threatens in Serbia. If Gdansk is a symbol in Poland then the likely equivalent symbol in Serbia, unless the direction of the transition is arrested, will be enterprises like the Kolubara coal mine where the major early battle was fought against the regime. For market reform in the current conditions will leave no space for such enterprises to exist in the long run.

This is not an idle warning from the left. Alarm bells have been ringing loudly for a long time about the wider state of the Balkan region in particular and the transition states in general. Poland and Hungary have recovered their 1989 levels of output, but most of the other countries are stuck in deep difficulties. Table 1 shows the official data for the different regions:

STATES BY AREA 1989–1998
 (1989=100) [33]



































































CETE=Central European Transition Economies
SETE=Southern European Transition Economies

So, far from becoming a boom area attracting foreign investment, the economic interest in the region has been marginal. Investment in Ireland in 1999 (with its population of 3.5 million) was greater than all foreign direct investment in the Balkans, with its population of 50 million, in the past decade.

The United Nations Commission on Europe, in its report on the Balkan War situation, was hardly less forthright, although it kept its language more decorous. The gap between the Balkans and the other transition countries of Central Europe was, it said, already enormous, let alone the gap between them and the EU:

For these countries to catch up with the central Europe transition countries in 2000 will need as big a leap forward as these countries are themselves trying to make to the EU average level … The time required for such a catching-up is alarming: unless trends in economic performance are broken, it will take decades for the poorest countries to reach the mediocre level of per capita income enjoyed by the more advanced central European transition economies. [34]

Yet policies that had failed to deliver evidence of sustained growth were still being encouraged. Indeed, the problems were often being compounded. Financial ‘assistance to the transition economies since 1989 has consisted of loans, some at concessional, most at market rates of interest’. It then noted that, even more bizarrely, in the Kosovan reconstruction programme the same pattern was emerging, and it asked for the Balkans as a whole if ‘increasing the foreign debt of these countries is the best way to provide them with help’.

In this sense, of course, the revolution in Belgrade was not only a calling to account for the Milosevic regime, but also for the Western governments and the EU who had urged on change. Indeed, Neal Ascherson suggests that in the wider view this was the great question posed by the bravery of the demonstrators:

The Belgrade Thursday, with its pride and hope, asked the biggest question of all questions about Europe. Are you serious about one Europe? Or do you still secretly mean to have two: a rich Europe in the West which uses the East and the Balkans – stripped of their industries – as a colonial backyard to provide cheap labour and raw materials? That is what the old German vision of Mitteleuropa meant before 1914, and what Hitler’s plan for European empire entailed. [35]

In fact the answer is already clear. The European Union itself is quite happy to manipulate the idea of Europe as a carrot but keep it just far enough away to prevent most of the people in the east having any chance of taking a bite. Were it more serious it would have given something back in return for the political support it got during the Balkan War. Yet in almost every respect it gives little and speaks with the forked tongue of diplomacy. One aspect of this is the double-edged suggestion that the countries of the region should co-operate more together. Co-operation is in itself a good thing, but the danger is that it becomes a substitute for a proper response from the EU. As Ascherson suggests, this seems to be the intention: ‘Brussels just loves the idea of smaller, poorer nations forming “regional blocs” in which small, poor aspirants to full European status could be easily forgotten’. [36]

But worse still, as the Milosevic regime crumbled, eyes were lighting up elsewhere about the new opportunities this provided. Willem Buiter, the chief economist of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, set out the restructuring plans even as demonstrators were breaking the lines of police outside the coal mine. The overthrow of Milosevic meant an opportunity for the bank, the IMF and the World Bank to begin to plan the reconstruction of what was left of Yugoslavia. ‘Yugoslavia’, he wrote, ‘is a long way from completing the three early steps for transition to an effective market economy – liberalisation of administered prices (still widespread), privatisation and macro-economic stabilisation.’ But the underpinning all of this, he argued, had to be effective law and property rights – ‘protection of minority shareholder and creditor rights has to be established’:

The removal of artificial barriers to trade and factor mobility is a necessary condition for a rational reallocation of resources and sustained growth. In the short run, such restructuring can involve serious hardship for those involved as workers, entrepreneurs or owners, in the formerly sheltered sectors of the economy.

At best Serbian workers would depend on his recognition of the need ‘to provide social safety nets to prevent deprivation without slowing the process of moving human and other resources towards long-run viable areas’. Nor was this simple altruism. Rather, it reflected the fear that without some gesture towards social protection there was the risk of losing ‘popular support for wide-ranging and deep structural reforms’. Of course, such a message is not one that will go down well amongst the workers whose plants are threatened. So there is a desperate need on the part of Western capital to get influential political figures in the former Yugoslavia on board and convince them that theirs is the only way.

In this sense the aims of the West, which pay lip service to the revolution, are in direct contradiction to the mass of people who made the revolution. The Zastava car workers, bombed by NATO but in the forefront of the strike action to oppose Milosevic, will be less than happy with the prospects that the West holds out. Pressure will be on Serbian workers, in the same way that it has been on other European workers, to downsize, to cut jobs to increase competitiveness, to accept low wages and labour ‘flexibility’, and to take on a greater burden of taxation as welfare is cut. The ravages of globalisation will hit Serbia’s economy hard:

As Serbia is rapidly reintegrated into the rest of Europe, most of it will no longer be able to compete. Ten years ago, for example, there was little to choose between a Yugo car and a Czech Skoda. Now Skodas compete on an equal footing with cars from the world’s top manufacturers but the old Zastava factory which makes Yugos produces barely 5,000 a year. [37]

The pressure from global competition which workers at Rover in Birmingham have suffered this year will be brought to bear on the Zastava workers, as it will on all the others, like the Kolubara miners, who were so central to the revolution. These workers are unlikely to take kindly to such attacks, and much of the success of the future of the revolution depends on them taking action to defend themselves from the embrace of the IMF and World Bank. Whatever they do, there is little on offer from the West. The most likely scenario is attacks on workers that we have seen elsewhere, coupled with very little real investment. As Mike Haynes argued recently in The Guardian:

Will any amount of wage flexibility or amendments to labour codes to make hiring, firing and working hours more flexible encourage more than a token gesture to rebuild Yugoslavia’s industry or encourage sustained development elsewhere in the Balkans? [38]

All the evidence from elsewhere in eastern Europe, and of the damage caused by the Western financial institutions in poor countries round the world, would suggest not. There will be a lot of pain without any real gain.

The problems ahead: nationalism and war

An End To The Balkan Wars headlined the Financial Times editorial on 7 October. Bill Clinton believed this was the restoration of democracy as he knows it: ‘It is the end of the war Mr Milosevic started in the former Yugoslavia 10 years ago… The greatest remaining obstacle to the long held dream of a peaceful, undivided, democratic Europe for the first time in history has now been removed’. [39] Milosevic has gone, and with him the source of all wars in the Balkans – or so the story goes. Yet this is perhaps the biggest lie perpetrated by the West in its demonisation of Milosevic. He and the president of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, were twins in their ability to warmonger and whip up nationalist feeling. The wars in Croatia and Bosnia in the first half of the 1990s had the effect of underwriting nationalist governments in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. These wars were the driving force of ethnic cleansing on all sides. This in turn led to partition and repartition across the former Yugoslvia. [40] The two major supposed solutions to these wars – brought about by Western bombing in 1995 and then again in 1999 – were the creation of two states in the region supposedly removed from the internal politics of the area and run by the West. The UN, NATO and the Western powers pose here as a benevolent force rising above the ethnic divisions of the region. In fact they are reinforcing those divisions, creating the conditions for future conflict. Even with the best intentions, the alliances and tensions created by the West mean that as soon as one problem is solved another is created. And the West does not have the best intentions for the peoples of the region. Rather, it is concerned with bolstering its own interests. Neal Ascherson has written of these interests:

The first commandment is to keep international interference out of the Balkans. The worst problem here is the existence of two international ‘protectorates’, Bosnia and Kosovo. Everyone knows why they are there. But they now form a bridgehead from which the West – above all, the United States, Britain and France – can meddle powerfully in Balkan affairs. [41]

The West has created another Israel or Northern Ireland in the Balkans – partition and division backed up by great powers which makes the achievement of any unified multi-ethnic settlement in the region much harder. This is despite the probable desires of many Serbians, who in voting against Milosevic also voted against the worst forms of nationalism and warmongering associated with the last decade. So did the majority of Croatians when they voted against Tudjman’s party earlier this year. Even in Kosovo, where the majority of Kosovan Albanians are for independence from Serbia, the October local elections saw a big majority for the party of Ibrahim Rugova, seen by the Kosovo Liberation Army as compromisers with the Serbs. But the probable wishes of most inhabitants of the region for peace and a greater degree of at least co-operation between different ethnic groups will not necessarily be the outcome. And this is still true despite the fact that, even among the Western powers, there are many who would like a reintegrated Yugoslavia based on Western bourgeois democratic values. This was expressed by the Financial Times:

No one wants further fragmentation in the Balkans. Macedonia, for example, fears an independent Kosovo might prove a magnet to its large ethnic Albanian minority. Such ethnic tensions have bedevilled the Balkan peninsula for centuries. But if all goes well in Belgrade, all Balkan communities will, for the first time in history, be under democratic governments capable of defusing such tension. [42]

This wishful thinking is unlikely to bear fruit. It is claimed that one danger is that Kostunica is a nationalist, and that this will continue to exacerbate tensions in the region. But Kostunica’s politics are not extreme nationalist. Indeed, his views are not materially different from those of government leaders in countries such as Germany or Britain. He wants Kosovo to remain part of Yugoslavia, but this is a view held by the vast majority of Serbians, and was indeed accepted by many in the West until the bombing began. The real barrier to peace lies in the nature of the settlements which the West has created, especially that in Kosovo. The province is very far from the multi-ethnic civil society which the West claims to embrace. The vast majority of Serbs and Roma have been ethnically cleansed by Kosovan Albanians under the eye of the UN, which administers the province. There is constant fighting in the south eastern borderland, an area claimed by some Kosovan Albanians as ‘eastern Kosovo’, even though it is recognised by everyone else as part of Serbia. The former KLA still exists and runs large sections of Kosovo as a gangster fiefdom, attacking non-separatist Albanians as well as other national minorities. There is pressure from many sections of Kosovan Albanians for full independence, since Kosovo remains formally part of Yugoslavia under UN resolution 1244, which established a form of international protectorate there. There is some pressure for a degree of independence, for example in a recent UN report which called for Kosovo to gain ‘conditional independence’ – independence still overseen by the West with possible further partition of the northern part where most remaining Serbs still live. [43] There are also sections of the US ruling class and those most heavily involved in promoting conflict at the time of the Rambouillet talks in early 1999 who favour independence. These people worked closely with the KLA before and during the war, and tended to regard the European powers which participated in the NATO bombing as soft on the Serbs. In a recent memoir James Rubin, former spokesman for the US State Department, attacked in particular the Italian government for siding with the Serbs, and revealed that during the bombing he was in virtually daily contact with the KLA leader Hashim Thaci:

Most mornings Thaci would call me at the State Department by satellite telephone. He was deep inside Kosovo holed up with the rest of the KLA leadership. [44]

The US is talking much more strongly about independence than its European allies. [45] But the US will do whatever suits it best. It will certainly not be guided by the interests of the Kosovan Albanians it claims to protect. However, for most of the Western leaders the rise of Kostunica is also a suitable means of extricating them from demands for full Kosovan independence, which they see as creating further instability in the region, as an independent Kosovo can become a stalking horse for a Greater Albania, pulling in Albanian minorities in Macedonia, Serbia and Greece. The general feeling among much Western opinion has been that demands for full independence from Yugoslavia – most obviously in Kosovo but also in Montenegro – will no longer be fostered and encouraged by the West, but will be pushed down the agenda until an indefinite future time. They would rather put their money on a strengthened pro-Western Serbia than on a series of unstable, economically weak statelets attempting to exist on their own and creating further tensions in the region.

That is why among Kosovan Albanian politicians the downfall of Milosevic was not greeted with joy. They realised that his going would make winning independence – a demand for which they are totally dependent on the Western powers – more difficult. The convergence between the supposed aims of the Balkan War of 1999 (to get rid of Milosevic and establish ‘democracy’ in Serbia) and the reality is clear here. Those most militant about Kosovan independence care little for the democratic change which the people of Serbia have achieved, but only for their complete separation. Hashim Thaci, who was reportedly ‘dismayed at Milosevic’s fall’, sums up their narrow nationalism. His response was, ‘I fought for democracy in Kosovo – not for democracy in Serbia.’ As one commentator argues, ‘With the rehabilitation of Serbia’s image at the fall of Milosevic, the international community’s sympathy for Kosovo’s Albanians is over’. [46] The push for independence will continue, making Kosovo a continuing flashpoint. Those like Thaci have every interest in playing up and exacerbating national and ethnic divisions between Kosovans and Serbs in order to bolster their own positions.

Similar problems exist in Montenegro, still nominally part of Yugoslavia but previously moving towards independence under the benevolent eye of the West, which did everything it could to weaken ties between Montenegro and Serbia. This included injecting masses of Western money before the local elections earlier this year (a strategy which did not pay off) and establishing the deutschmark as a parallel currency to the dinar. Montenegro’s president, Milo Djukanovic, was hailed by the Western leaders as a democrat, even though his government is nothing of the sort. Now, however, the West’s attitudes have dramatically changed:

Montenegro not only fears a loss of aid but also increasing pressure from the West to forge close links with Serbia and drop its aim of turning Yugoslavia into a loose federation of two sovereign states, let alone any thought of independence. [47]

In all these dealings the West has shown itself to be totally cynical – saying that it cares about the peoples of the region, but in reality backing whatever policies it thought were most harmful to Milosevic. Now it will back policies which enable it to work for the time being with Kostunica, regardless of whether that means a complete about turn. This cynicism is dangerous, raising expectations which the West has no intention of meeting. It is only necessary to look at Bosnia, under the West’s rule for the past five years, to see exactly what has been achieved in the area: ‘After five years of peace, a common Bosnia passport has still not been agreed … while rail links stop at entity boundaries. Telephone connections between the countries’ two halves remain poor.’ [48]

Peace and prosperity are not the issue for the West – keeping the lid on the problem is the main aim, regardless of what greater problems may be caused as a result.


Of all the possible outcomes which could have resulted from the upheaval in the Balkans since the late 1980s, few would have considered revolution. As the region descended into nationalism, war and partition, those of us who believed that it was possible for working people to oust Milosevic were an isolated political trend. Surely the nationalism was so deep, the argument went, that Serbs would never break from their rulers. Indeed, the defeat in war might well have the opposite effect – refugees, for example, would back Milosevic against the people who drove them out. People would not believe that they could make common cause with others of a different nationality. Even those of us who believed that workers could follow such a course of action would hardly have predicted that it would happen so quickly. It shows the speed with which workers change their ideas, especially in a period when there is a crisis of imperialism and global capitalism. But all revolutions are a process, and this one is only just beginning.

This article has tried to outline the problems which face Serbian workers and students in the months ahead. There will be many politicians who argue that they should trust the West, and welcome Western investment even if it means attacks on their living standards. Some will preach greater integration into Europe. Others will try to blame Serbia’s problems on other nationalities and hope they can win support by appealing to ‘all Serbs’. All these solutions are dead ends for those who want a genuinely democratic and peaceful Serbia. They come from people who have always preached compromise with the existing order rather than its overthrow, and who now hope that Serbia’s problems can be solved if only working people accept sacrifice.

Yet Serbian workers have shown that they can change history – they destroyed a hated ruler. Now they need to challenge the system which both Milosevic and the West in their different ways supported, one which exploits them and puts their interests last. If they want to develop their strength and ensure that the revolution represents more than just a change at the top they have to develop demands which challenge their exploitation. That means putting forward demands for union organisation and massive increases in wages, and a refusal of workplace flexibility. It means opposing plant closures and job losses. It means fighting for a decent welfare state. These demands will come into conflict with the workers’ new bosses as well as their old bosses. The movement of Serbian workers to rid themselves of their Milosevic-supporting managers was a tremendous component of the revolution, echoing the saneamento in Portugal and raising the question of who runs the workplaces. Is it the employers, or is it the people who produce the wealth? The same thing began to happen in the media, where workers in newspapers and television began to question what they were producing, and fighting for different news values which reflected opposition viewpoints. These movements can begin to challenge not just the immediate organisation of a particular workplace, but the very basis on which society is organised.

The revolution will go forward if it builds on and extends these demands and movements, making sure that in every workplace, every school and college, a similar process is under way. That process also needs to be extended to the army and police. The state machine refused to defend Milosevic because of the strength of the revolution, which meant the police and army were split. The ordinary soldiers and many of the police backed the opposition. Their friends and families supported the revolution. Even the top of the army was divided. But the army leadership was not defeated, nor were the police. They acquiesced to the revolution and remain in place. They may not acquiesce at future mass protests. Therefore the revolution needs to win support among the rank and file without creating illusions in the army. It also needs to rely on workers’ strength rather than a neutral army in future confrontations.

All this requires moving towards many of the classical ideas of socialism – the need for workers’ organisation including workplace councils, the need to take on the state machine, the need for genuine representative democracy. These ideas are still more discredited in eastern Europe than anywhere else. Whereas in the West the anti-capitalist movement and the growth of workers’ struggle in many countries is leading to a growing interest in socialist ideas, this process still lags behind in eastern Europe. The identification of rulers like Milosevic and his system with socialism makes it extremely hard to get a hearing for socialist ideas. But events are forcing workers and students in Serbia, as elsewhere, to change their ideas at a rapid pace. Their own struggles leave them open to democratic socialist ideas.

Here the role of the Western left is crucial. Some left wingers here regard Milosevic as the last bastion of socialism and have therefore condemned the revolution. The Communist Party paper the Morning Star headlined its 6 October report ‘Arson rules in Belgrade: pro-capitalist demonstrators burn parliament.’ Those who insist on defending the east European regimes as socialist have forfeited their right to tell anyone in Serbia what to do. They are also incapable of relating to the growing politicisation in the West which rejects the east European model as socialist. Instead those socialists who have argued against exploitation and state repression East and West now have the chance to put their argument. In the process they can win a new generation of fighters in eastern Europe to their ideas, and to a successful revolution. As the leading US peace campaigner Noam Chomsky put it:

What happened was a very impressive demonstration of popular mobilisation and courage…the mass movement in Serbia merits great admiration, and provides an inspiring example of what united and dedicated people can achieve.

What has taken place, and where it will go, is in the hands of the people of Serbia, though as always, international solidarity and support can make a substantial difference. [49]


1. M. Glenny, The Sunday Times, 8 October 2000.

2. D. Goldhagen, The Guardian, 29 April 1999.

3. See F. Wheen, Slobo’s Appeasers, G2, The Guardian, 11 October 2000.

4. V.I. Lenin, Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, in Selected Works (London 1969), p. 567.

5. Figures from Mike Haynes, and from S. Wagstyl, Serbia’s Uncertain DawnFinancial Times, 7–8 October 2000.

6. See D. Plavsic, Green Shoots of ResistanceSocialist Review 242, June 2000; and NATO’s War: The Truth Comes OutSocialist Review 244, September 2000.

7. J. Steele, The Observer, 8 October 2000.

8. Part of e-mail from Dusan Plavsa, who works at Kolubara, sent to Dragan Plavsic.

9. Figures given in The Sunday Times, 8 October 2000.

10. The Sunday Times, 8 October 2000.

11. Ibid.

12. Financial Times, 11 October 2000.

13. J. Steele, Angry Workers Root Out Fear, Favours And Fat Cats, in The Guardian 14 October 2000.

14. H. Young, Blair Is Moved By Foreign Misery But Tougher At HomeThe Guardian, 10 October 2000.

15. F. Wheen, op. cit..

16. Quoted by N. Chomsky, Comments on the Milosevic Ouster, e-mail, 16 October 2000.

17. The Sunday Times, 8 October 2000.

18. Stratfor commentary:, 6 October 2000.

19. The Sunday Telegraph, 8 October 2000.

20. The Observer, 8 October 2000.

21. Quoted in A. McElvoy, West Will Find This New Leader No Pushover, in The Independent, 7 October 2000.

22. From V. Kostunica, Serbs and the West, Rockford Institute e-mail, 12 October 2000.

23. The Sunday Times, 8 October 2000.

24. Otpor! means ‘Resistance!’, also the main slogan (‘Widerstand!’) against the fascist Jörg Haider in Austria, and on the Millau protest in France in support of the farmer José Bové.

25. K. Marx, The Class Struggles in France, printed in Surveys from Exile (London 1973), p. 60.

26. C. Harman, The Fire Last Time (London 1988), p. 277.

27. Financial Times, 6 October 2000.

28. Many thanks to Mike Haynes for much of the information and analysis in this section.

29. The Guardian, 14 October 2000.

30. The Guardian, 13 October 2000.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. United Nations 1999 Economic Commission for Europe, Economic Survey of Europe, no. 3, p. 128.

34. United Nations 1999 Economic Commission for Europe, Economic Survey of Europe, no. 2.

35. N. Ascherson, Hard Road To True FreedomThe Observer, 8 October 2000.

36. Ibid.

37. T. Judah, After The Party, The HangoverThe Observer, 8 October 2000.

38. M. Haynes, Balkan Reform Needs Big BucksThe Guardian, 16 October 2000.

39. Quoted in Financial Times, 7–8 October 2000.

40. For a full analysis see L. German (ed.), The Balkans, Nationalism and Imperialism (London 1999); and T. Ali (ed.), Masters of the Universe? (London 2000), especially part 3. Also for the early collapse into war see M. Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia (London 1993).

41. N. Ascherson, Hard Road To True Freedomop. cit.

42. Financial Times, 7 October 2000.

43. Reported in The Guardian, 23 October 2000.

44. J. Rubin in Financial Times, 30 September–1 October and 7–8 October 2000.

45. See The Guardian and The Independent, 30 October 2000

46. Quoted in T. Judah, Serbian Upheaval Scares KosovarsThe Observer, 22 October 2000.

47. The Guardian, 18 October 2000.

48. Financial Times, 25 October 2000.

49. N. Chomsky, op. cit.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.