Stagnating economy and joblessness lead to growing working-class dissent

In the second round of Serbia’s presidential elections on Sunday 20 May, Tomislav Nikolic won a majority against the incumbent, Boris Tadic. In an election dominated by the economy with both candidates arguing for neoliberal policies, fewer than three million of Serbia’s seven million voters turned out. This followed combined first-round presidential elections and parliamentary elections in which 58 percent of the electorate turned out to vote. Of those that did vote, almost 5 percent expressed their disgust at politicians by casting invalid votes, often expressing their view of politicians in blunt terms on the ballot paper. A call by some radical groups and prominent individuals to cast invalid votes chimed with the frustration and anger of young people and working-class voters. Politicians are widely seen as little better than the mafia. The economy has stagnated and fallen back; official unemployment is now around 24 percent, with around half of young people jobless. It is no accident that the country has the thirteenth highest suicide rate in the world, with the number of suicides per capita having doubled since the 1970s.

During the election campaign almost identical posters appeared for the two main parties, each attacking the other. One showed leaders of the Progressive Party, such as Nikolic, climbing out of a limousine with the slogan “They live well, and you?” The other, with an almost identical slogan, pictured leaders of the Democratic Party (DS) including Tadic. Most Serbs are drawing the conclusion that all the politicians live well while they suffer.

Nikolic attacked the massive corruption, cronyism and economic failure of the Tadic period. He also called for higher taxes for the rich and attacked infringements of democratic rights. There can be no confidence that his role will be any better in this regard, but he gained an echo in making these points. Much of the Western press commentary has highlighted the fact that in the past Nikolic was deputy leader of the nationalist Serbia Radical Party led by Vojislav Seselj, since 2003 on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, accused of war crimes. It is also true that at one point Nikolic took a ‘Slavophile’ position, calling for a union of Russia, Belarus and Serbia. Recent comments by Nikolic threaten to sharpen the unresolved national question. He is often referred to in the Western press as a right-wing nationalist but his election victory in no way reflected a right-wing nationalist turn in the electorate.

“Big shock, little change”

Certainly Tadic was the preferred candidate of the Western powers, and they had expected him to win. But since the May 2008 elections, Nikolic has set up the Progressive party and changed his position to one of support for EU entry and compliance with the desires of Western imperialism. He even hired Bill Montgomery, a former US ambassador to Belgrade and the former Republican mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani – both supporters of NATO’s bombing of Serbia in the past – as advisors. It is true that his first overseas visit as President-elect has been to Russia but he is keen to achieve respectability with the Western capitalist powers and says he will visit Brussels next. The Financial Times summed up the position in a headline: “Big shock, little change” (21 May, 2012).

While Nikolic’s Progressives are the largest party in the new parliament, the Prime Minister will be decided as a result of horse-trading between coalitions of parties. Tadic has said that he expects to be able to get a parliamentary majority and to take the position of Prime Minister in the new government. The Serbian Socialist Party (SPS) – the descendent of the former ruling communist party – will be a significant factor in this process, having almost doubled its vote to come third. It was able to benefit from discontent with the two biggest parties by denouncing privatisation and calling for social justice. However, it supports EU membership - with all that entails - and was actually in government with the DS. Its programme offers no way out of the economic nightmare.

Average wages are less than 400 euro/month. Serbian GDP fell 3.5 percent in 2009, growing by only 1.0 and 1.6 percent in 2010 and 2011. The IMF forecasts a meagre 0.5 percent growth this year, and even this may be optimistic. The budget shortfall expanded to more than 7 percent of gross domestic product in the first five months of 2012 and public debt approached 50 percent of GDP, exceeding targets. The new government will be expected to negotiate with the IMF for the ‘unfreezing’ of funding (frozen in February) through further privatization, public sector wage freezes, redundancies and pension cuts.

Even an official government study has found the results of privatisation to be disastrous. Over 3000 enterprises were privatised in the last decade; over half of privatised enterprises closed down and two thirds of their employees were laid off. During the election campaign, the government was forced to buy Serbia’s privatised steel plant back from US Steel, but plans are already in hand to re-privatise it.

Capitalist parties offer no solutions

The main parties present foreign direct investment as the way forward for Serbia, seeking advantage from Serbia’s relatively cheap labour. Last year such investment accounted for 8 percent of GDP ($1.8bn), but one third of that came from Fiat’s investment in its recently opened car plant; foreign investment is expected to fall below $1bn this year. Fiat has used the threat of moving production to Serbia as a battering ram to reduce pay and conditions in Italy. Nevertheless, as Serbian workers for foreign multinationals, such as Fiat, come to understand their power, they will seek to improve their position, breathing new life into the Serbian labour movement. Even in unfavourable conditions there have been ferocious strikes in recent years, often around issues such as employers’ failure to pay wages due or health benefits.

All the major Serbian parties support EU entry, but popular support for EU membership has dropped from about two thirds to around 50 percent. Support for the EU drew on the hope of escaping the cycle of poverty, corruption and underdevelopment, but as the Euro crisis deepens this is increasingly seen as a mirage. Not only are events in Greece followed closely by Serbian workers, but the examples of austerity in Hungary and in the former Yugoslav state of Slovenia loom large. Slovenia saw its largest strike since independence during the election – a strike against EU imposed austerity. In the absence of a genuine socialist alternative there is a danger that growing anti-EU sentiment could benefit the far right.

A notable feature of this election, in contrast to recent Serbian elections, is that the issue of Kosovo played a relatively limited role. However, in conditions of poverty and despair, ethnic conflict could flare up and could be used by right-wing groups and potentially by politicians such as Nikolic. During the campaign there were disturbances – described in the local press as riots – on the issue of Roma settlements in cities such as Belgrade and Novi Sad. It will be crucial for the labour movement to offer a positive political alternative, including the defence of minority rights and a socialist economic programme to cut across such developments.

Since his election, Nikolic has commented that he dreams of a ‘Greater Serbia’, although he acknowledges that current borders are internationally recognised, and he accepts his dream cannot be achieved. He has also stated that he does not recognise the Srebrenica massacre as ‘genocide’ and will not attend the commemoration, unlike his predecessor. These statements threaten to re-ignite national and ethnic tensions in relation to Vukovar in Croatia and the status of Kosovo and Bosnia.

In the Srebrenica massacre during the 1990s, tens of thousands of starving refugees were forced out of the town and around 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered. These events have left a deep reservoir of bitterness. An article on Socialistworld.net at the time of the trial of the Serbian General, Mladic (‘Butcher of Bosnia’ Mladic faces trial’, 8/6/2011) noted that socialists would support bringing war criminals to justice. It also noted the criminal role of the Croat nationalist leaders and Bosnian warlords, but without failing to mention the role of Western imperialism:

The greatest war criminals in the world are among the political leaders of the imperialist elites that set up the international tribunals in the first place. US and British top politicians for instance are not indicting themselves for authorising the killing of many tens of thousands of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor are western governments offering to stand trial for their role in the brutal NATO air assaults on Bosnian Serb areas during the Bosnian war, or the vicious 1998 NATO “humanitarian” bombing of Serbia to force Serbian troops out of Kosovo.

The Western powers, led by Germany, also played a key role in the process that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia and bear a terrible responsibility for these events. It is critically important that workers’ organisations oppose both nationalist leaders such as Nikolic and the Western powers by advancing an independent socialist programme.

Youth begin to fight back

Young people have come to the fore across the Balkans in beginning to challenge the rule of capital. Significantly there were Occupy demonstrations in cities across the region and in Serbia adopting an anti-capitalist position. There has also been a questioning of the traditional deals between trade unions and politicians. The restoration of capitalism has proved to be a brutal failure for workers and the mass of society in Serbia, and it offers no prospect of economic recovery or overcoming national strife. In the next period, it will be crucial for Marxists to argue for the need to go beyond merely distrusting capitalist politicians by actually putting forward a programme for reversing privatization by nationalizing industries on the basis of a democratic socialist plan. This is the only way out of Serbia’s dire poverty. This would cut at the roots of national tension, but a new political force based on the working class will also have to explicitly support the right to self-determination for oppressed national groups and guarantee the rights of minorities and point to the historic demand of the workers movement in the region; for a socialist federation of the Balkans.

Marxists must support the right to self determination for oppressed nations, like the Albanian-majority Kosovo, while at the same time guaranteeing the rights of minorities, like Kosovo’s discriminated-against Serbs. A genuine socialist federation of Serbia, Kosovo and the entire Balkans, on an equal and voluntary basis would bring about a transformation of living standards, which is the only way out of endless poverty, joblessness, exploitation, conflict and wars.

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