Mass Protests in Serbia Call for Milosevic to Step Down



The end of the war against Yugoslavia has been followed in Serbia by the eruption of angry mass protests against the Milosevic government. Unlike the reaction against the Serbian strongman’s acceptance of defeat in Bosnia, inscribed in the Dayton treaty, the antigovernment upsurge has not come from disappointed Serbian chauvinists.

Instead, the predominant message of the first demonstrations was rejection of the whole course of chauvinist wars over the last 10 years under Milosevic’s aegis, a recognition that these wars had brought only disaster for Serbia.

A poll published in the July 27 issue of the somewhat oppositional weekly Nin indicated that more than two-thirds (71.5 percent) of the Yugoslav public was dissatisfied with Milosevic’s policies over the last 10 years.

The fascist-like chauvinist Serbian Radical party of Vojeslav Seselj condemned the peace agreement and threatened to abandon the government. (In fact, Milosevic’s majority in the Serbian parliament depends on the support of the Radicals.)

But Seselj quickly rallied to the regime as the only barrier to political disaster, both for him and Milosevic. A poll published in the July 17 Nin indicated that only 1.5 percent of the Yugoslav public considers Seselj an acceptable substitute for Milosevic.

Nor have the protests been initiated by the opportunistic parliamentary parties that led the mass demonstrations against the Milosevic government in 1996. The most opportunist of these leaders, Vuk Draskovic, of the Serbian Renewal Party, decided to join in the protest movement after having first belittled it, only after it had shown its power.

The demonstrations were started by a coalition of small parties unrepresented in parliament, the Savez za Promene (Union for Change). These groups apparently were relatively uncompromised by the opportunist maneuvers of the former opposition coalition of parliamentary parties, Zajedno.

The latter was broken up by the bribes from Milosevic, which included the post of deputy premier for Vuk Draskovic. Although the Nin poll did not show strong support for any specific alternative to Milosevic, it gave stronger support to the coalition of extraparliamentary parties than for Draskovic, although the latter is better known and has far greater material resources.

The movement against Milosevic was quickly joined by the Democratic Party of Zoran Djindjic, the mayor of Belgrade. This politician has a record of opportunist gyrations similar to that of Draskovic but in recent years has taken a more consistent oppositionist stance. In Zajedno, Djindjic and Draskovic were rivals. Draskovic tried to jump over him by making a deal with Milosevic.

During the war, Djindjic fled Serbia for Montenegro, and was denounced by the government press as a “traitor in wartime.” His rapid reemergence as a political figure is an indication of how discredited the government and its propaganda are.

According to the figures of a public opinion poll published in the July 27 issue of the liberal weekly Vreme, a bare majority of the population blames NATO for the war and more than a fourth, 28 percent, condemns Milosevic for it.

In Montenegro, the junior partner in the Yugoslav federation, which is ruled by a pro-Western liberal party, the poll showed that less than a majority, 49 percent, blames NATO for the war, while 40 percent places the responsibility on Milosevic.

The Montenegrin government tried to distance itself from Belgrade during the war, without outright defiance of the federal government. But it was also the target of NATO bombing. Since the cease fire, the U.S. government has made direct and open contact with the Montenegrin regime, supporting it as a center of opposition to Milosevic.

Washington shows little enthusiasm

Curiously enough, given the United States’s denunciations of Milosevic, to say nothing of the ruinous war it waged against him, both Washington and the big American capitalist press have shown little enthusiasm for the upsurge of opposition to the regime in Belgrade.

In an editorial on July 9, The New York Times both cautioned against hopes that the opposition could oust Milosevic and advised Washington to establish relations with it.

This contradictory position seems to reflect two realities. First, the U.S. rulers do not want to see Milosevic overthrown by a mass movement that could get out of hand. Second, the opposition is too powerful to ignore and the United States needs to be able to be able to influence it.

The New York Times correspondent Steven Erlanger has made a point of belittling the militant protests of Yugoslav reservists, trying to show that their actions have not indicated political opposition to Milosevic but only demands for back pay.

This is a singular political blindness unlikely to be shared by the U.S. rulers. Regardless of the immediate motives, when reservists-in the wake of a war in which their people suffered atrocities-stage armed protests against the government, that can only reflect deep political alienation.

The power of potential opposition to Milosevic was revealed most dramatically by a demonstration of 20,000 people in the southern Serbian town of Leskovac on July 5, a fourth of the total population. No party or organized force called the rally.

The people came out in response to an appeal that a young TV broadcaster, Ivan Novkovic, made on his own, during a break in a football game. Novkovic said that he was motivated to take this personal risk by the “terrible stories” told to him by friends who had served in the Kosovo war, apparently stories about the outrages against the Albanian population.

At the rally on July 5, Novkovic was escorted by reservist friends. According to Le Monde of July 8, he told the crowd: “We aren’t traitors. No one is paying me. I don’t even have an apartment. We just want work and the resignation of Zivojin Stefanovic [the local boss and member of Milosevic’s party], who has ruined our chances for a normal life.”

The following day, Stefanovic and the local TV denounced the protesters as “a handful of traitors, deserters, and members of the opposition parties that are agents of NATO.” After four days, the police found Novkovic and he was sentenced to 30 days in prison.

Despite a heavy police presence in the town center, 2000 people came out to demand Novkovic’s release. According to Le Monde, the main slogans included “Robbers!” “Red mafia!” “Slobo [Milosevic] is a murderer!” “We want the truth!” and “We want Ivan!” This report included an account by local people that a notorious war criminal had been killed by soldiers and that some police had expressed solidarity with demonstrators.

Politicians warn of “civil war”

After these demonstrations, the Yugoslav politicians have begun talking about the danger of civil war. Vuk Draskovic started calling his own opposition demonstrations in the name of finding a solution that would avoid civil war. He is proposing a transitional government headed by Milo Djukanovic, the premier of Montenegro, the opposition politician in whom, apparently, Washington has the most confidence.

On July 17, in Novo Varos, the commanding general of the Yugoslav army, Dragoljub Ojdanic, threatened the opposition: “Our primary task is to maintain stability because there is no lack of corrupt souls, vassals of the West, who want to change the government by force and drag our country into another catastrophe.”

Ojdanic’s remarks provoked extensive commentary in the opposition press about the danger that Milosevic would try to use the army against the opposition. About the same time as Ojdanic fired his warning shot, the former chief of staff of the Yugoslav army, Momcilo Perisic, who Milosevic removed before the Kosovo war to assure his control of the military hierarchy, came out openly on the side of the opposition.

Perisic was interviewed in the July 27 issue of Nin. He began by saying: “I know that the present state leaders want to maintain power at any cost, without regard for the disastrous results of their policy for the people and the state, that they can provoke a catastrophe by misusing the Yugoslav army at whose head I stood for so long.”

Perisic argued that the confrontation with NATO could have been avoided: “In October [1998] we had assured that NATO would be a collaborator in Kosovo.” Now he said that there was no way out of the country’s crisis without reaching a deal with the Western alliance.

Collapsing under the impact of the efforts to restore capitalism, Western economic sanctions, and the effect of the bombing, the Serbian economy is in a desperate situation. According to the July 27 Nin polls, this issue ranks far higher in the people’s concerns than Kosovo. The poll also showed that more than half of the population thought that Kosovo was lost forever.

The first demonstrations against Milosevic, although politically confused, showed a clear rejection of the Great Serbian chauvinist project. After the success of these actions, the opportunist politicians that have jumped onto the opposition bandwagon-particularly, Draskovic and Gen. Perisic-are trying to save the underpinning of Serbian chauvinism.

The history of the mobilizations against Milosevic, all betrayed by their opportunistic leaders, shows that there is no half-way house. There can be no real alternative to Milosevic, no overthrow of his bureaucratic regime, without a total rejection of Serbian chauvinism.

The decisive question now is whether a force will emerge from the upsurge against Milosevic and his fascist-like allies that can meet that challenge.

Once the chauvinist intoxication is overcome, any opposition movement will have to face the facts of the disaster that the attempt to restore capitalism has inflicted on the peoples of the former Yugoslavia and East Europe in general.

Socialist Action /August 1999

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