The left has to engage with mass movements but to maintain an independent profile, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica
Anti-government protests have now been held for seven Saturdays in a row in Serbia. They began as a protest against regime-sponsored violence after an opposition leader was assaulted in the provincial town of Kruševac.
But their significance has grown over time, as people have decided to air their dissatisfaction with life in Serbia generally by taking to the streets. Unemployment in the country is still high, officially over 11 percent, and wages are officially around 420 Euros a month.
Popular frustration is not just over socio-economic indicators. Ever since 2012, the country has been ruled by an increasingly authoritarian coalition of parties with roots in the governing parties of the 1990s. They muzzle the press, employ violence to gain their ends and fiddle with elections.
For these reasons, many commentators have drawn parallels with neighbouring states like Orban’s Hungary. Yet the Aleksandar Vučić regime has so far received light treatment from the West, as a means to strengthen its position against Russia in the Balkan country.
But there has been increasingly vocal opposition to the government. This has come from the streets, rather than the ballot box, where the regime has registered comfortable electoral victories, gaining up to half the votes cast, albeit on low turnouts.
Popular protest on the rise in Serbia
Popular protests have erupted every year since 2016. That spring, mass demonstrations rocked the capital after masked men demolished buildings on election night to make way for the government’s set-piece FDI project to refashion Belgrade Waterfront. Police have so far not apprehended those responsible.
These protests were not only the first mass protests in Serbia following the beginning of the 2008 crisis, but they marked a turning point in that they were fronted by a left liberal initiative named ‘Don't Let Belgrade D(r)own’, rather than the official opposition, which was discredited by years of rule before Vučić.
This movement had potential and mobilised widely but, as Belgrade’s municipal elections in March 2018 showed, ‘Don't Let Belgrade D(r)own’ has so far largely failed to move beyond its middle class core.
In 2017, however, new elections were held for president, and protests erupted after Vučić won. The demonstrations, initially led by different groups, came to take on a left character with social demands placed at the forefront. An initiative named ‘7 demands’, articulating class demands for better conditions in the country, emerged from the protests, articulating a popular message.
In the same year, there was a wave of strikes in the private sector, led by thousands of workers of the giant Fiat factory in Kragujevac, which led to some victories, before the Fiat strike was defeated. Nonetheless, the myth that workers have disappeared from the country had been dispelled.
Through 2017 and 2018, moreover, a left wing initiative for housing rights emerged: ‘Joint action: roof over the head’. It brought together 9 organisations and over 100 activists, and prevented 154 repossessions through mass direct action. It slowly started gaining popular and mainstream media attention.
When the anti-government protests emerged at the end of 2018 and in early 2019, it led a new left bloc to the protests. But it did not enjoy an easy ride. Though the protests are officially led by a non-party political grouping fronted by celebrities, it is clear that the opposition bloc now called Alliance for Serbia is behind the protests.
Left wing breakthrough
The organisers were so keen to prevent alternative voices being raised at the demonstrations that they denied this group the right to hand out its own leaflets about housing rights in Belgrade. Doing so they exposed their own desire to keep demonstrations within strict bounds, which they hope will ultimately lead to new elections and the victory of the neoliberal opposition.
Such an approach has limited the reach of the protests, and the opposition is still widely distrusted. It is led by Dragan Djilas, a former mayor of Belgrade, known as a rich businessman who pioneered PFI projects that whittled away remnants of the welfare state in public transport, and as the chief culprit behind the removal of Roma populations from central Belgrade.
Moreover, in an astonishing turn of events, Djilas entered into a verbal conflict with the left bloc at the last protests held on 19 January. He reacted aggressively to chanting that branded him the same as the current president, Vučić. In an extraordinary tirade, caught on film, he demanded the chanting stop as his children were with him.
He reacted even more angrily when confronted about how little care he had shown to the children of the parents whose lives he had ruined in power, Djilas resorted to sexist and homophobic swearing, before being dragged away by his entourage.
The video went viral (190,000 views at the time of writing) and was predictably picked up by regime media to show Djilas as an unstable leader. But this was no sign that the government was gaining in popularity. It was airing a video in which Vučić and Djilas were being compared.
But, even more importantly, it brought to the attention of the population that the protests contained a left bloc, something both regime and opposition media had ignored. The video was made by members of the revolutionary socialist organisation Marks21, which has played a part in the various demonstrations and some of the fronts mentioned earlier in the article.
Wider implications: protest is important
The left will now have a major task ahead, trying to maintain the positions it has won. Since there is still a low level of class struggle and left ideas have been associated with the violent regimes of the past, this is no small order. But it does serve to show that the interventionist left can win back positions if it is proactive and courageous.
As protests have swept the region periodically since the great revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe, the left has remained generally marginal and has often abstained from popular protests, given the low political level and apparent lack of openness of demonstrators to left wing ideas.
But painstaking work building networks and solidarities between waves of protests has started to pay off for those willing to engage in the patient work of building united fronts against austerity, imperialism and racism across the region. This progress has rarely made the mainstream news, except on the rare occasions that it was coupled with electoral breakthroughs.
But elections are the lowest level of struggle for the socialist left and should be treated that way. Sure, they can be an important, but they are a subordinate weapon in the class struggle. Here, extra-parliamentary means are key.
And mass protests need to be related to, since, as Rosa Luxemburg argued over a century ago, ‘[s]ocialism must be created by the masses, must be made by every proletarian. Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must the chains be broken.’
Left intervention is important, between protests and at protests
While it is clear that few workers’ organisations participate collectively in the mass protests of the recent period in the region, many workers come individually. And some worker collectives do make appearances, like representatives of the postal workers and teachers in Serbia, whose unions have been undertaking strike action for pay and conditions. These have joined arms with the left bloc.
Worker consciousness often runs behind worker actions, and capitalism forces workers to fight the system, as Antonio Gramsci recognised. Where workers are weakly organised, their organisations have to be painstakingly re-built. This is at times done at the local level. But it also needs to be done when national events like mass protests making democratic demands take place.
This is because workers can quickly move on from narrower demands to wider ones given the conditions and a space from within which to articulate a counter-hegemonic stance. The left therefore needs to develop strategies and tactics which are interventionist over the long haul, and aim to raise the confidence and consciousness of the exploited and the oppressed.
This involves creating alternative blocs within existing protests. The left can and must analyse the weaknesses of the various opposition movements and demonstrations that have developed in the region. But it cannot content itself with exposing these. It has to develop means to overcome them, otherwise it remains a talking shop. Times like these show that an ounce of practice can be worth a tonne of theory.
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