The role of Slobodan Milosevic in the break-up of Yugoslavia

In the morning hours of Saturday, March 11, the former president of the Republic of Serbia and Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, was found dead in his prison cell at the Hague. Apparently, high blood pressure caused the heart attack that killed Milosevic during the night and left the Hague tribunal without its most prominent court case. With his death, the bourgeois media began once again to dig through the recent history of the Balkans an attempt to make sense of the break-up of former Yugoslavia. (see: A Curse over the Balkans?)

Labelled as an evil mastermind who single-handedly broke up the country, orchestrated the war, and created a sort of metaphysical relationship between himself and the Serbian nation, Milosevic was simply the most visible symbol of the counter-revolutionary wave that swept across the Balkans after the fall of the Stalinist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, leaving the region soaked in blood. Milosevic was probably the most complex and powerful player to emerge out of the new breed of bureaucrats that appeared in all the Yugoslav republics in the late 1980s.

Born in 1941 in the Serbian city of Pozarevac during the Nazi occupation, Milosevic was just a baby at the time that the heroic Partisan movement attracted the most progressive youth of all the Balkan nations and carried out a socialist revolution. Slobodan, whose name in Serbo-Croatian is derived from the word “Freedom”, belonged to the first generation in the history of the Balkans that had open access to higher education and enjoyed all the benefits of the socialised economy. Milosevic joined the Yugoslav Communist party in his high school days and started his career right after he graduated from the University of Belgrade's Law faculty in 1964 – the time of the “economic liberalisation” policy in Yugoslavia. This was a decade in which the Titoist bureaucracy looked towards the introduction of more open market forces as a potential solution to the growing contradictions within the economy.

Milosevic an average student, was described by his school peers as a closed, unimpressive person who was not into having fun and always sat in the first row of the classroom dressed in an old-fashioned white shirt and black tie. Milosevic seemed to possess the perfect psychological traits for a successful bureaucratic career. And successful it was indeed. He held a managerial position in the company Tehnogas, and slowly moved towards the top. By the early 1980s he was sent to New York as a representative of the Belgrade Bank. Milosevic was the embodiment of a new generation of Yugoslav “communists” the so-called “technocracy” a layer which entered the party from top positions in increasingly self-sufficient worker-managed companies. The lack of genuine workers’ democracy in the workplace gave these “experts” great power. (see: Workers' Control and Nationalization – Part Three: The Yugoslavian experience) They differentiated themselves from the old Titoist cadres who joined the party in the hardest days before the Second World war, who defeated the Nazis and carried the revolution on their shoulders. This new layer had frequent contact with foreign companies, spoke foreign languages and was not burdened much by “ideology”. For most of them, a party membership card was seen only as an entry ticket into the realm of career opportunities.

In 1983, Milosevic left his managerial positions and devoted all his energy to climbing the ladder of the party hierarchy. Only three years later, under the patronage of the more experienced Serbian politician, Ivan Stambolic, he became the General Secretary of the Serbian Communist Party. In those days Milosevic was just another unrecognisable grey suit within the party apparatus, a cautious bureaucrat who repeated the official Titoist line of “brotherhood and unity” like a parrot and was even seen as a fighter against the growing nationalism within the Serbian party. Stambolic recognised the crude nature of his comrade and used him to carry out his dirty work in the party and in faction fights. By this time the economic crisis had already hit broad layers of the Yugoslav population hard. The poorest regions like the autonomous province of Kosovo were especially hit hard by the cuts in social spending imposed by the IMF on the indebted country. A wave of strikes hit the country in this period in what was the greatest turmoil since the student uprising in 1968. A part of the bureaucracy in all republics was already planning to abandon the sinking ship and began to wrap themselves in nationalist flags. The blame for the economic hardship was systematically transferred by the local leaderships from the cabinets onto the neighbouring republics.

In 1987, Milosevic was sent, unwillingly, to Kosovo as an anti-nationalist functionary to try and ease the growing ethnic tensions there. According to Stambolic, Milosevic, as a Belgrade bureaucrat, had no particular interest in Kosovo and was completely caught off guard by the coming events. During a meeting with local community officials in a small city in Kosovo, a group of Serbian workers tried to enter the building and present their grievances to the representative from Belgrade. In their attempt to enter the building they clashed with the local police force, which was mostly made up of Albanians. A shaking, nervous Milosevic attempted to calm down the crowd gathered in front of the building from the balcony by using empty rhetoric. The crowd was relentless. With no other way out, Milosevic gave in and went outside to talk to the workers face to face. The police line was broken. Followed by TV cameras, Milosevic crossed the line and sided with the workers. “No one has the right to beat you,” he proclaimed. This event was cunningly exploited by the nationalist wing of the bureaucracy back in Belgrade. The footage was shown continuously on national television and given a nationalist spin. Upon his return, Milosevic suddenly sided with the nationalist wing of the Serbian party and became its leader. The more moderate wing headed by Stambolic was defeated and ridiculed in public. The section of bureaucracy that wanted to move to capitalism as soon as possible, regardless of consequences, won. Nationalism was simply a convenient cover that gave them the excuse they needed to move to capitalism.

In the days that followed, the same Kosovo scenario was repeated on rally after rally, from factory to factory. Milosevic was seen as a rebel within the system, someone who was finally standing up to the bureaucracy. After a mass protest of workers in the Rakovica industrial complex on the outskirts of Belgrade, one observer noted that the people had come to the rally as workers and left as Serbs after hearing Milosevic speak. The triumph of the nationalist wing in Serbia helped the nationalist forces in the other republics. Neighbouring chauvinist bureaucracies fed off each other. Workers in every republic were shown the boogieman across the road and encouraged to close ranks in national unity for protection. Milosevic dared to ride on the wave of mass dissatisfaction and channelled the movement into the bind alley of nationalism and “reform”. The so-called “anti-bureaucratic revolution” was taking place. The Milosevic clique began purging the state apparatus from top to bottom and began centralising power in Belgrade. Preparations were begun to give the bureaucrats in Belgrade a better position before the final collapse of the country. A new Serbian constitution was adopted which cancelled the autonomous status of Kosovo and Vojvodina and took back all minority rights won during the revolutionary years. The People's Army of Yugoslavia was also put under the control of Belgrade.

The nationalist bureaucracies in the other republics acted predictably. They used the actions of Milosevic as the final proof that Yugoslavia was finished and they openly advocated secession. However, the Serbian bureaucracy seemed to hold all the cards in its hands. Serbia was the largest and most populous republic, and it had already taken control of the army. The Serbian bureaucracy could potentially use sizeable Serbian minorities in the other republics as a lever. The Serbian nationalists had good contact with many imperialist powers which initially opposed the break-up of the country, but openly praised Milosevic for the pro-market “reforms” he advocated. The Serbian bureaucracy had no problem supporting the survival of a joint-state within which it would have a dominant position. The weaker bureaucracies from the smaller republics had no choice but to being looking for other foreign backers and to push for independence in order to avoid the domination of the Serbian bureaucracy. Therefore, while simultaneously strengthening Serbia's position within the federation, Milosevic was also hypocritically calling for a united Yugoslavia, presenting himself to the Serbian working class as the genuine keeper of “socialist values” in contrast to the secessionist leadership of the other republics as well as the openly reactionary pro-capitalist opposition within Serbia. Milosevic was seen by the average Serbian worker as a moderate who was trying to maintain the unity of Yugoslavia and the basic achievements of the planned economy intact. The majority of the Yugoslav working class was still against the total restoration of capitalism. Unlike the ex-communists in the other republics who founded new, openly right-wing parties, Milosevic named his party the Socialist Party of Serbia and presented it openly as a successor to the Communist Party. This schizophrenic image was a deathblow to genuine left-wing ideas in Yugoslavia, the consequences of which are felt even today. The masses in the other republics, though sympathetic to Tito legacy, just like their Serbian brothers, started to connect the idea of communism and the idea of a united Yugoslavia with greater Serbia. The overall confusion inside Serbia was not helped by the fact that the opposition also labelled Milosevic a “communist” - the public image he would keep until his final days.

As time progressed the imperialists became increasingly dissatisfied with Milosevic’s rule. He was becoming too ambitious and unreliable. Furthermore, he got caught up in a series of bloody conflicts in ethnically mixed territories in other republics. Unlike other Eastern Europe “ex-communists” whose dreams of becoming the new ruling class evaporated very quickly with the influx of foreign capital, Milosevic and his clique were much more cunning. They genuinely wanted to transform themselves into the new bourgeoisie and attempted to keep all the levers of power under their control. The process of privatisation was cautious and slow, with the plunder going to Milosevic and his cronies, as well as foreign capitalists. Milosevic also never cut his ties with the hardliners in the Kremlin. His brother held a key position as Yugoslavia's ambassador in Moscow. Milosevic was becoming too independent, trying to play the power game on an equal footing with the big imperialists who simply could not tolerate potential independent and competing power in the Balkans.

The imperialists were even prepared to give their friend a second chance. After they cut Milosevic off from all territorial gains in Croatia and Bosnia by providing military support to the rival bureaucracies and after establishing a set of small dependent states with clear borders, it was time for business. The sanctions on Serbia were lifted and Milosevic was hailed as a force of “peace and stability” in the Balkans. By 1995, however, it had become clear that Milosevic and his regime were organically incapable of changing. Their power rested on a shady new layer of gangsters and capitalists who had been granted concessions during the war. The selling off of the Serbian economy to the imperialists was taking place, but not nearly as quickly as to satisfy the hunger of the imperialist vultures. Milosevic had to be removed.

Despite receiving millions of dollars from the imperialists, the aggressive, pro-capitalist buffoons in the Serbian opposition never managed to win the support of the Serbian working class. They were even more corrupt than the Milosevic clique. In the end, the imperialists didn’t have to wait very long before they found another excuse to go after Milosevic. The conflict in Kosovo, where the Serbian regime of apartheid had been established with the abolition of Kosovo’s autonomous status, was used as a pretext for a NATO attack against Yugoslavia in an attempt to topple Milosevic. However, after 78 days of bombing and the complete devastation of the Serbian economy, the imperialists managed to do little besides making Milosevic even stronger. It took a mass movement of workers and youth within Serbia in October 2000 to finally overthrow the dictator. (see: Revolution and counter-revolution in Yugoslavia)

The present over-simplified explanations for the rise and fall of Milosevic are actually very dangerous. Putting all the blame on this ambitious nationalist bureaucrat and granting him supernatural powers completely ignores the role played by imperialism. It was the imperialists who gave their support to various local gangsters in the former-Yugoslavia until they succeeded in creating a series of weak, dependent, submissive national states completely open to imperialist exploitation.

There is also a tendency in the bourgeois media in other ex-Yugoslav republics, who felt Milosevic's long bloody hand during the war, to emphasise the strong bond between Milosevic and the Serbian masses. There is an effort to show that there is a wave of mourning for Milosevic all across Serbia. The ruling classes of these states have an interest in using scare tactics in order to discourage future contact between the workers of the former-Yugoslav Republic. Not negating the strong support that Milosevic enjoyed for a period of time for the reasons briefly sketched above, it is important to point out that Milosevic's main ally was not the Serbian working class but his class brothers and sisters in the other republics. During the days of the worst clashes between Serbia and Croatia, Milosevic and Tudjman had no problem meeting in luxurious villas and drawing maps together over meals. Tudjman himself was a great admirer of Milosevic and his work. The people of the Balkans also cannot forget how Western diplomats used to love the marathon negotiation sessions with Milosevic, drinking whiskey in his Belgrade villa until all hours of the night. Now we see these spineless creatures, the Holbrucks and Zimmermans on BBC and CNN talking about Milosevic's “dark mind”. Our contempt for these messengers of death unites us as much as our hatred towards the local gangsters who pushed us into the carnage of war with our brothers and sisters.

Few have bothered to spill tears over Milosevic in Serbia today. His death marks the end of a tragic era in which the poison of nationalism numbed our class senses. The Balkans cannot remain immune to the changing world situation. Today, former dictators are in their graves and the class struggle is on the order of the day.

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