Strikes, street actions topple Yugoslav regime
Workers lead mobilizations that open up political space
|Celebrations followed toppling of the hated Milosevic regime. Working people led the strikes, demonstrations, and seizure of Milosevic strongholds and the parliament building in Belgrade. Sign over truck windshield reads, "He's finished!"|
BY NATASHA TERLEXIS
AND BOBBIS MISAILIDIS
ATHENS, Greece--A general political strike and revolt toppled the regime of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic October 5. Hundreds of thousands of people converged on downtown Belgrade that day, taking over the federal parliament building, the main state television station, and other centers of governmental power. Factory workers, farmers, and other working people were at the center of the revolt.
In the wake of the crumbling of the hated regime, workers in factories, mines, hospitals, banks, and other workplaces around the country have removed and replaced their managers and other cronies of the former government. Students have done likewise at universities.
During the previous 10 days, militant strikes by coal miners and other working people throughout Serbia had made the country virtually ungovernable after the Milosevic regime refused to recognize outright victory for opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica in the September 24 presidential elections, and called for a second round in the vote.
Industrial cities such as Pancevo, Kragujevac, and Nis, which were among the main targets of the brutal U.S.-NATO bombing of Yugoslavia last year, became centers of the working-class resistance to one last antidemocratic attempt by the bureaucratic regime to hold onto power in defiance of popular will.
The federal election commission had announced the "final results" of the elections, claiming Kostunica won 49 percent of the vote--not an absolute majority--and Milosevic 39 percent. The Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), a coalition of 18 parties, refused to accept the decision, citing fraud and calling for actions to demand the president's resignation.
On October 6, the day after the revolt in Belgrade and general strike throughout Serbia, Milosevic conceded defeat and recognized his opponent as the winner. Kostunica was sworn in as Yugoslavia's president.
Half a million in the streets
"The police tried to tear gas us at first," said Zorica Trifunovic, an activist in the group Women in Black, who took part in the takeover of the parliament building. "But we were so many! They say half a million. I think it may have been double that. You can't stop the rivers of people when they've decided. When they are self-confident."
Trifunovic spoke to Militant reporters by phone from Belgrade. "This revolution was the result of 10 years of work by many people," she added.
Women in Black initiated many antiwar protests in Belgrade and opposed the regime's chauvinist onslaught against Albanians in Kosova. It also campaigned against the U.S.-NATO bombing.
The organization includes many mothers of soldiers killed in the various military campaigns launched by the Milosevic regime over the last decade in its attempt to gain more resources and control over rival bureaucratic regimes in the former Yugoslav federation.
"It was the most beautiful occasion of my life," said Vladimir Morosev in a phone interview from his home. Morosev, a technical science student at the University of Novi Sad, was referring to the October 5 outpouring in Belgrade, in which he participated with all his family and friends.
"It seemed like the whole of Serbia, at least the overwhelming majority, had enough of abuse and corruption by a bureaucratic and repressive regime. I met people from Cacak and other industrial towns who came to Belgrade last Thursday with arms. They were determined to stay until the regime backed down." The contingent arriving in Belgrade that morning from Cacak included 50 buses and a bulldozer to deal with police attempts to block their way.
Miners, other workers at the fore
"The strikes by coal miners, hotel and bank employees, workers in many other industries, and protests by farmers--even in isolated rural areas--were necessary to bring 'the man' down," Morosev said.
Miners from the Kolubara mine near Belgrade decided to stay in the mines "because we must persist in our demands and defend ourselves," strike committee member Zoran Cvetanovic told the press.
The 4,500 mine workers had been on strike since September 29, demanding Milosevic step down. Kolubara is Serbia's largest coal mine, producing half of Serbia's power needs.
The miners faced down an ultimatum to end their work stoppage brought to them by the army chief of staff, General Nebojsa Pavkovic. Joined by thousands of supporters from the nearby town of Lazarevac who came to their aid, they fended off a police attempt to take the mine.
Eleven miners, members of the strike committee, were indicted "on suspicion of sabotage." But the workers remained determined to continue their fight until Milosevic acknowledged defeat. "Even if they took over the mines they would need us miners to start the machines," said strike committee member Aleksandar Karic at a press conference on October 3. "And we do not want to do that until they meet our demands."
The next day, when hundreds of cops attempted to evict the strikers from the mines, thousands of people converged on the site to block the police. According to numerous accounts, up to 20,000 people showed up within hours' notice. The police then gave up.
The strike at Kolubara quickly spread to the other mines in Serbia. Around 6,500 workers at the Kostolac mine, which supplies coal to the second-largest thermal plant in the country, put down their tools October 2. They decided to keep production at a minimum of 20 percent. Copper miners in Bor, in eastern Serbia, joined the struggle the next day.
"When we worked during the bombing we were heroes, now we are enemies," said Kolubara technician Dragan Micandinovic. He was referring to demagogic proclamations by the Milosevic regime praising miners for continuing to work despite being a major target during the U.S.-NATO bombing campaign last year. Entire sections of Aleksinac, a mining town of 40,000 about 20 miles north of Nis, in central Serbia, were ruined by bombs dropped by U.S. warplanes and jets of other imperialist powers on workers' homes.
"The coal miners strike was the hot spot that received international attention," said Martina Vukasovic, a mathematics student at the University of Belgrade, in an October 10 telephone interview. "But it was just the tip of the iceberg. Unlike the last 10 years, this time factory and other workers and farmers throughout Serbia were at the center of the rebellion. It was the first time I saw this happening. Before it was mainly students, professors, and middle-class people at the protests against the government. Without the workers we wouldn't have overthrown the parasitic regime."
Vukasovic has been active in the Independent Students Union, which opposed the U.S.-NATO bombing of Yugoslavia last year as well as the chauvinist campaign by the Milosevic regime against Albanians in Kosova. Many of these students had taken part in the 1996 protests that forced the Milosevic regime to concede electoral victories by opposition candidates in municipal elections in most of Serbia's largest cities.
Workers participating in the strike wave included Belgrade bus drivers, sanitation workers, waterworks employees, telecommunications workers, and teachers.
Even the official trade union federation, with 1.8 million members, which had been loyal to the Belgrade regime, joined in an ultimatum to the government, calling on it to "tell the truth" about the elections and warning that it too would participate in the work stoppages.
Branislav Canak, president of Nezavisnost (Independence), the trade union federation independent of control from the former Milosevic regime, said in a brief telephone conversation October 10 that prospects for a transformation of the union movement are now completely open.
Nezavisnost joined in calling the October 5 general strike. It also campaigned against the U.S.-NATO bombing last year and rejected the nationalist campaign of the regime against Albanians in Kosova.
Since Kostunica's inauguration on the crest of the revolt, many officials of the former regime have resigned. Meanwhile, working people across the country are taking rapid action to remove hated managers and other bosses still hanging on to their posts.
Workers replace old factory managers
According to an October 10 Reuters dispatch, "Hospitals, factories, ministries, banks, mines, and universities have all had their bosses removed by workers and students who accuse Milosevic cronies of growing rich from their labor, bankrolling the regime and ruining their firms."
The Financial Times of London reported October 11 in a tone of surprise, "With Milosevic's rule crumbling, the workers have taken the communist rhetoric literally and taken charge of their enterprises." The paper reported this has happened at the giant Zastava auto plant, the tobacco works in Nis, the health ministry, the Belgrade Bank, and other workplaces.
This was confirmed in telephone interviews conducted by Militant reporters.
"Since last Thursday, the Milosevic regime is coming down step by step," said Vladimir Morosev October 10. "This is not organized by the 'democratic opposition,'" which is now in the government. "It is the people, especially the workers, doing it, sometimes using violent means and against the wishes of opposition leaders.
"My father works for an agricultural company," the student added. "They just formed a new union there and forced management to resign. Just tonight on television, I saw hotel workers at GENEX, one of the largest state enterprises involved in trading and tourism, rebelling and throwing out the director imposed by the regime. They reinstalled the manager who had been deposed 12 years ago. It is chaos, some people say. I love it."
Zorica Trifunovic said she heard news that the Kolubara coal miners have completely replaced the management of their mines and are now back at work. "Students and professors at the University of Belgrade are also striking to demand the removal of pro-Milosevic deans," she added.
Reaction of imperialist governments
Pro-imperialist commentators and heads of government have eulogized the opposition victory, even trying to take credit. CNN broadcaster Christianne Amanpour had the nerve to declare, "We have been calling on the people of Serbia to rise up for 10 years and finally they did, in their own time."
Few are candid enough to note, as a commentator of the Greek daily Eleutherotypia did October 8, that "the uprising of working people is significant as a potential precedent in face of the social cost of the measures that will be taken for the 'rehabilitation' and the 'modernization' of the economy." Those terms are code words for the moves the imperialist powers seek to take to undermine and eventually overthrow the Yugoslav workers state.
Unlike other opposition leaders such as Vuk Draskovic of the Serbian Renewal Movement, who participated in the Milosevic government last year, and Zoran Djindjic of Alliance for Change, who took an openly pro-imperialist stance during NATO's bombings, Kostunica, who remains president of the Democratic Party of Serbia, can claim not only that he is not tarnished by association with the old regime but that he opposed the imperialist bombing campaign.
This stance was necessary to win credibility among Yugoslavia's working people, who overwhelmingly oppose the U.S.-led assault and subsequent economic war on their country. This was illustrated during the visit of French foreign minister and European Union official Hubert Vedrine to Belgrade, following the announcement by the EU that it would drop sanctions on Yugoslavia. "During a walkabout, some people smiled and cheered Vedrine," an October 10 Reuters dispatch reported, "but the NATO bombing still rankled, with one bystander shouting: 'You NATO pig.'"
The opposition coalition, DOS, includes several defectors from the former ruling party, such as former army chief Momcilo Perisic. They have sought to ally themselves with trade unions independent of government control, but also with such forces as the Serbian Orthodox Church and the former monarch, self-proclaimed prince Alexander. Although they agree in their denial of self-determination for Kosova, Kostunica and others in the coalition that won the elections try to distance themselves from the most repulsive methods used by the Milosevic regimes in quashing national rights. DOS also includes parties with majority support among the country's Hungarian and Muslim minorities.
DOS has adopted an economic program that calls for a rapid integration of Yugoslavia into the world capitalist market system and widespread privatization of state-run enterprises, including the cement and tobacco industry, the Yugoslav airline, the Novi Sad oil refinery, the electrical company, and the petrochemical industry. Their plans include massive international loans.
Many Yugoslavs, however, place the emphasis not on the electoral victory of the middle-class opposition forces, but on the mass actions opening up new political space for working people.
New political space opened up
Martina Vukasovic remarked, "Prospects for change are totally new. It will take time, however. Especially regarding the atrocities the Milosevic regime carried out in Kosova. It's not enough to blame the barbarism of NATO. None of us know exactly what happened there. Many people have bought the nationalist lies of Milosevic and the opposition. But finding out the truth is essential to bridge the gulf with our brothers and sisters among the Albanian people."
Vladimir Morosev added that it's now a priority for progressive-minded students to reach out to their Albanian counterparts in Kosova. "Kostunica is a nationalist and Serb patriot," Morosev pointed out. "He is for 'the West.' But most people are opposed to what U.S. imperialism did.
"Kostunica is not very important. What's important is what we did."
Natasha Terlexis, a member of the Federation of Airline Personnel, and Bobbis Misailidis are airport workers. Argiris Malapanis, a meat packer in Miami, contributed to this article.
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