Belgrade protests emulate ‘yellow vests’ but who is leading them?

Protester, in 2017, holding placard referring to Aleksandar Vučić's rule (Wikimedia/CC)

For the last two weekends, drawing a parallel with the ‘Yellow vests’ protests, in France, there have been anti-government protest marches in Belgrade. The second one was much bigger than the first, with, according to some estimates, 30,000 people attending.


This second protest was held during a very cold evening and under heavy snow that made travel difficult. Huge masses of people filled the streets of the centre of the city. This is the beginning of a series of protests called for every coming Saturday.

The difference, however, with the spontaneous, from below, French protests, is that these are organised by the so-called opposition. “So-called” because, not only that the official opposition does not offer anything substantially different to the neo-liberal government policies, but also because in the minds of many Serbians most of the parties and individuals that make it up have lost credibility a long time ago, having ruled the country before the present regime. They are the same people who, after the fall of Milošević, first imposed in Serbia neo-liberal measures, like liberalisation of the market, privatisations and austerity. Some of them are very rich, belonging to the domestic oligarchy. The people of Serbia who fought Milošević still feel betrayed by the subsequent usurpation of power by the “Yellows” – the name under which they are, ironically, known. However, in the absence of any other genuine force, they are the only functioning opposition to the ruling oligarchy and, as such, still able to attract a layer of the desperate population.

Desperate situation

And the situation in Serbia is truly desperate. By many accounts, Serbia is today the poorest country in Europe. Average salaries are around 200 euros a month. The minimum wage is 1 euro. Unemployment is officially just under 12%, but this is a very conservative estimate. Many employed workers do not receive a salary after six months, and some never receive it. But they still go to work to make contributions to their national insurance, or because it at least gives some hope rather than none. Many hundreds of thousands, especially young educated people, have left the country in search of a better life. Most young people do not see any prospect of normal life in Serbia.

Whereas among Eastern European countries there has recently been the rise in right-wing populist governments, this has not been the case in Serbia. These populist governments seemingly offer an answer to the neo-liberal globalisation albeit taking it to the nationalistic blind alleyway. In Serbia, there is not even this much false pretence of anything else on offer except raw, brutal neo-liberal capitalism. The former Prime minister cum President, Aleksandar Vučić, the increasingly dictatorial ruler of the country, bases his policies on bringing in foreign investors. He sells them natural resources and any remaining state-owned factories and companies and, resembling a slave market, the extremely low waged workers to go with it, as a bonus. The same workers, who work very long hours sometimes even without toilet breaks but who are nevertheless struggling to feed their families, he calls “lazy” and “unappreciative”. He has tantrums on television, followed by “people don’t understand my greatness” type elegies. Many Serbians are convinced he has serious mental health problems, on top of everything else.

Yet he rules the country unopposed, using media blackouts, intimidation, thuggery, even violence. His party SNS (the Serbian Progressive Party, which is commonly known as “the Backwards”) harass old women who sell embroidery or a few bunches of onion in the street markets as a means of survival. At the same time, the government spends millions of euros on megalomaniac projects like the Belgrade Waterfront or nebulous “decorations” that pop up every now and then around the city, leaving people speechless, but also humiliated. The use of violence is also increasingly becoming a tactic. In fact, it was a physical attack on one of the opposition leaders that served as a trigger to the protests.

A few weeks ago, photos of the leader of the “Serbian Left” party (in reality a social-democratic party, part of the opposition block), with blood on his head and shirt, was all over social media. The Serbian Left leader claimed this was the deed of SNS thugs. The protests were then called, with some protesters wearing yellow jackets, and even some opposition leaders wearing them in the parliament. The front banner on the protests read, “No more bloody shirts”.

Where is the left?

Where is the real left in all this? The answer is, unfortunately, almost nowhere. In Serbia, there are several small left groups, mostly drawn inwards, and showing little attempt to reach out to the working class, the poor and the oppressed. There are just a few exceptions to this. For example, groups of, in the main, students and young people are organised around anti-eviction activism, with some success.

The biggest state trade unions (the remnants from the former Yugoslavia) are corrupt, with the leadership close to the ruling oligarchy. Some smaller independent unions are inside the official opposition block and are actively participating in the protests. Serbia has, in recent years, seen a few workers strikes, but with mixed results. Even when there were victories, they were small, stopping short as soon as there was some offer or promise. Most of the promises do not get fulfilled.

There is little or no involvement of the left groups in the protests, on the pretext that the protests are called by the opposition with which they have nothing in common and indeed they would rather be dead than seen together with them. While the opposition parties are undoubtedly calling the protests, and the reaction of many on the left is understandable, it is a mistake to take such a mechanical approach. Many people who are marching are not necessarily there in support of the opposition but out of their own dissatisfaction with the government.

The hatred of the government, first of all, needs to be acknowledged as genuine and justified, which then can be used to put further demands on both the government and the opposition. In this way, the genuine left can make itself known to the wider public, while, at the same time clearly distancing itself from the official opposition. The danger of the left not using this approach is that it perpetuates the isolation and seeming irrelevance of the left, two characteristics that no genuine Marxist left can, by definition, be associated with. It also results in the same undesirable circumstances of the opposition keeping its hold on any dissatisfaction that arises among the population – the very excuse for the left not to want to intervene. The left is thus putting itself in a vicious circle that does no justice to itself or the Serbian working class, as a whole.

We are currently witnessing potentially great events unfolding in Europe and beyond. With the massive yellow jackets protests in France inspiring protests in several other countries, including Belgium, Hungary and Albania, we can truly say we stand at the threshold of mass workers’ struggles. How it will unfold depends on several factors, including the key role of left forces intervening in events. In France, we have seen that the left intervention has, so far, been fruitful. This should be a lesson for genuine left forces in all countries.

Populist right no ‘alternative

For the Serbian people, protests in France and Hungary are also significant, each in their own way. France shows that even a “normal”, “ordered”, developed capitalist country has serious problems. This proves that the ‘Serbian problem’ is not the “cowboy” type capitalism, as the opposition would want to claim, but capitalism itself. It proves that cosmetic measures will not work. Removal of the crazed neo-liberal would be-dictator in Belgrade, together with his “primitive” entourage, would be a big step forward but it would not be sufficient if simply replaced with some “civilised” type of capitalism. France proves that even “civilised capitalism” eventually results in riots.

Some Serbian people who look towards the right-wing populists, like Orban, in Hungary, as a positive development in the defence from the onslaught of the global capital. But the lesson is that right-wing politics will always eventually result in the defence of capital. Orban’s “slave law”, with which Serbian workers can completely identify with, and against which the Hungarian masses are protesting, is a black and white proof of that. Belgrade will see new protests for the next few Saturdays, going into the New Year. Vučić has already said, in a manner typical of him, that even if five million people came out on the streets he would still not concede to any of their demands. But his rule is not as strong as he might believe. It is based on much boot-licking and some fear. The regime has no real base among the population. The main question is, therefore, not for how much longer it will last but what will replace it when it crumbles.

If the people of Serbia do not want the repeat of the infamous 5th October (the date when former ‘strongman’ Milošević was toppled, that has now become a metaphor for political opportunism and deceit), it is of utmost importance that genuine, fighting Marxist forces make a breakthrough. They can offer workers a clear programme of opposition to all neo-liberal policies, and capitalism, as a system, fighting for nationalisation of the key parts of the economy, on the basis of workers’ democracy, and for a socialist society.


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December 2018