Yugoslavia’s Post-Milosevic Paradox

Against the Current, No. 91, March/April 2001

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 boycotted.

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 cities.

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 HAD IT UP TO HERE!”

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 Belgrade.

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 power.

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 disagreements.

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.

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.

ATC 91, March-April 2001