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Issue 52, October 2000

Serbia's 'bulldozer revolution'

A TIDAL wave of mass protest swept away the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic last month. This was the 'Bulldozer Revolution'. On 5 October, over half-a-million workers and youth, deploying heavy machinery, stormed the national parliament and main state-run television station in Belgrade.

The seizure of these symbols of Milosevic-rule by waves of workers, some armed, has transformed the situation in Serbia. What Nato's murderous 78-day war last year failed to achieve was carried through by the mass action of working-class people. Subsequently, calls arose in Zimbabwe for the masses to follow Serbia and to remove the despot Robert Mugabe, 'Bobovic'.

Milosevic's crude attempts at election rigging provoked the uprising. The nineteen-party coalition, the so-called Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DoS), probably won September's presidential elections by a landslide. Milosevic demanded a second round. The DoS called for a boycott and 'civil disobedience'. This acted as a catalyst for a mass movement that went well beyond the aims and intentions of the pro-capitalist opposition leaders.

At first, calls for a general strike got a patchy response, but the militant action of miners at Kolubera proved decisive. They remained on strike despite threats and attempts at bribery and were joined by thousands of local villagers. When television pictures showed a busload of sympathisers brushing aside lines of riot police, workers across Serbia found the self-confidence to take militant action. In a matter of days the rotten Milosevic regime collapsed, with the tops of the state apparatus split and rank-and-file police and soldiers going over to the side of the revolution. These revolutionary events arose from a decade of accumulated bitterness and anger at plummeting living standards and three disastrous wars.


Milosevic rode to power in the late 1980s as the old Stalinist Yugoslavia stagnated and collapsed. His gangster-capitalist regime used reactionary Serbian nationalism to grab markets and resources, presiding over chaotic privatisations. Milosevic cronies looted sections of the economy which remained in state hands. The result has been disastrous. Economic output in 1999 was half the level of 1990. Gross domestic product fell by 23%. Today, unemployment stands at over 30%, with inflation at between 50-60%.

An almost permanent state of war saw tens of thousands killed and more than 700,000 Serb refugees created. When Kosova/Kosovo became the latest territory to be lost, Serbian workers began to take stock of their situation and to demand change.

Since 5 October there have been important class developments, with workers and students taking direct action to remove the hated Milosevic-era managers from workplaces. In many cases, workers' committees and strike committees were established. Under a headline, 'Yugoslav elite feel workers' wrath', the on-line news channel,, commented: "A second uprising is sweeping through Serbia". A worker from the massive Genex state-run import-export company said: "They [pro-Milosevic managers] lived like Rockefellers, with gorgeous cars and Tahitian resort homes. The rest of us: we lived in small apartments, eating in the kitchen". (15 October)

This class action has terrified the DoS leaders. "Yugoslavia's new president, Vojislav Kostunica, used the strikes and street blockades to help topple Mr Milosevic", commented The Guardian, "now that he has been sworn in as president, he has condemned the factory occupations". (14 October)


Many workers believe it is enough to bring in 'uncorrupted' managers. But these new bosses are linked to Kostunica and his policies of sell-offs, job losses, and attacks on rights and conditions. To carry the revolution forward it is necessary to develop the outlines of workers' power which exist - the workplace and strike committees - on a local, regional and national basis. Mass democratic committees of workers, students, pensioners, and rank-and-file soldiers and police, could form the basis of a government representing working-class people.

In the absence of a socialist alternative fighting for democratic workers' control and management of the economy, all sorts of false hopes can develop. For example, leaders of an 'independent' union, Nezavisnost, support privatisations, arguing that they will attract foreign investors. Illusions in schemes such as 'workers' shares' may grow. The new regime promotes the idea that foreign aid, investment and privatisations are the only way forward. This can gain an echo amongst workers desperate for a way out. With the lifting of the West's crippling sanctions, some sections of the population might experience temporary and modest improvements. But the capitalist elite will steal the lion's share of the country's wealth, while the majority face greater impoverishment.

Kostunica represents a section of the capitalist class that wants to open up the economy to the big capitalist powers. This will mean industrial conflict and attempts by the regime to attack recently won democratic rights. Other East European states that have opened up their economies to the capitalist powers and multi-national companies have only experienced economic, social and cultural catastrophe. Vulture capitalists cherry-pick lucrative industries while other sectors are shut down. The restoration of the market economy in Russia has resulted in the greatest economic collapse in history.


Capitalists will only invest if they think they can make a profit. Last year foreign direct investment into the Balkans, with a population of 50 million, was less than that put into Southern Ireland, with a population of 3.5 million. So far, Serbia has been promised a paltry £120m from the EU. This hardly begins to touch the costs of the destruction caused by Milosevic's rule, Nato's war and sanctions.

The Western powers funded Kostunica and the opposition, but are very wary about the direction the new regime can take. Kostunica has made a deal to form a 'transitional government' of pro- and anti-Milosevic forces until elections at the end of December. He has upset other nationalities in the Balkans by calling for closer ties between Serbia and Kosova/Kosovo and for attending the reburial of a Serb poet and ultra-nationalist in a Serb area of Bosnia.

The Montenegrin government wants to renegotiate its position in relation to Serbia, calling for a 'loose federation and two sovereign states'. Kostunica concedes the right to hold a referendum on independence, but says he wants Yugoslavia renamed 'Serbia-Montenegro'!

The Western powers do not want to see states breaking away in the Balkans, terrified it will lead to new wars. An undemocratic clique appointed by the UN and Nato runs the majority-Albanian Kosova/Kosovo. The country is kept in limbo, denied independence and still formally tied to Serbia.

With their increased influence in the region, the West will attempt to make Kostunica compromise on the national issues. But on the basis of capitalism, which means inequality, joblessness and poverty, the national question cannot be resolved. National issues will blow up again unless the workers' movement can build a socialist alternative which includes the democratic right to self-determination for nations and the protection of the rights of minorities.


During October's revolutionary events, power could have passed rapidly and peacefully to the Serbian working class. Deep ideological confusion and the lack of a mass revolutionary socialist party gave the pro-capitalist opposition the opportunity of scrambling into power on the back of the movement.

Although there is no great enthusiasm for the new regime, many Serbians regard Kostunica as honest and untouched by corruption. They are hoping for an end to wars, for the 'rule of law', and for a vast improvement in their living standards. Most people will give the new government a 'chance' to deliver the goods, a task it cannot carry out.

Many workers and youth will have learnt fundamental lessons from the October events. Otpor, which began as a student opposition organisation and now calls itself a 'peoples' movement', brings together a wide spectrum of opinions. Together with those who support privatisations, it includes young people who consider themselves socialists. There are Otpor posters in Belgrade proclaiming, 'We are watching you': a warning to Milosevic not to attempt a comeback and a signal to Kostunica and the DoS.

The most politically-conscious young people, alongside the most militant workers, will draw the conclusion that they need independent class organisations to take forward the struggle to fundamentally change society.

Niall Mulholland

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