Movements that shook Serb regime

SLOBODAN Milosevic can be toppled—but by his own people, not by NATO bombers. People in Serbia—like those in Croatia, Bosnia and across Yugoslavia—are divided along class lines between rich and poor. Milosevic has not only been the enemy of other ethnic groups, but the enemy of Serbian workers.

Twice in the 1990s people in Serbia rose up in mass movements which threatened to oust Milosevic. These movements—in 1991 and 1996—showed the potential for an alternative to the vile nationalism of Milosevic and the other Balkan leaders. In March 1991—on the eve of Yugoslavia's descent into bloody civil war—there was a wave of mass protests on the streets of Serbia's capital, Belgrade. Tens of thousands of students and workers protested against government repression and censorship.

"Milosevic was weak in 1996 but NATO bombing has made him strong"

At the high point of the struggle up to a quarter of a million people, according to some estimates, occupied the city centre and brought Belgrade to a halt for five days. Protesters chanted, "Slobo must go." Laura Silber and Allan Little describe the scene in their book The Death of Yugoslavia: "The city seemed transformed. People would stop by to bring food or blankets to the students, bracing freezing temperatures on Terazije. Each night professors, writers and actors would address the road from a platform on the fountain."

Milosevic feared he would suffer the same fate as Romania's Ceausescu who was toppled by revolution in 1989. Milosevic ordered army tanks to crush the movement. Troops killed several demonstrators. He was also forced to make some concessions. The head of Serbian state TV, who had peddled Milosevic's propaganda, resigned. Some 600 demonstrators were released from prison.

Milosevic, along with his mirror image, Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman, played the nationalist card ever more strongly. That month Tudjman and Milosevic met secretly to agree a plan to carve Bosnia-Hercegovina up between them. Their nationalist frenzy was the push to all out war. Disastrously the biggest opposition, the Serbian Renewal Movement was led by Vuk Draskovic—even more of a national chauvinist than Milosevic himself.

But Milosevic also faced workers' opposition. Laura Silber in the Financial Times said in 1991, "Labour unrest is the greatest threat to the Serbian government." Even as late as April 1991, as Yugoslavia's bloody war got under way, some 700,000 workers went on strike in Serbia to demand higher wages. But tragically there was no socialist leadership which could argue to unite workers' anger over living conditions and wages with opposition to nationalism.

But Milosevic and Tudjman did not completely silence opposition throughout the long years of war. In 1993, at the height of nationalist frenzy during the Bosnian war, there were strikes in Serbia and Croatia, anti-war demonstrations in Belgrade, and Bosnian Serb soldiers at Banja Luka mutinied. Milosevic was nearly toppled again in 1996. Mass protests in Serbia took place every day for 100 days from November 1996. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets. The protests began against election rigging. But they also reflected wider discontent with the regime. A third of the population lived in poverty, inflation hit a rate of 100 percent a year, and half the workforce was unemployed.

ANTI-MILOSEVIC protest in Serbia in 1996

One demonstration drew an estimated 250,000. A newspaper reported, "Young and old throw eggs, firecrackers and occasionally stones at government buildings and boo and hiss their president. 'Slobo is Saddam,' they chant." Sections of the armed forces said they would not attack protesters. But the opposition coalition Zajedno ("Together") was headed by the right wing nationalists Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic.

Djindjic had close ties with Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who was responsible for bloody atrocities in the Bosnian war. These nationalists did not want workers' opposition to the regime. Britain and the US only backed the Serbian opposition in February 1997 when they were certain Milosevic's regime would survive. Malcolm Rifkind, then Tory foreign secretary, told the opposition leaders to work alongside Milosevic. The leaders were absorbed into the ruling elite. Vuk Draskovic, for example, is now a deputy prime minister of Serbia.

Milosevic could not silence all opposition to his regime, however. In May last year the Financial Times described how "worker unrest begins to weaken Milosevic's support". "In recent months across Serbia teachers, health and transport workers and the Zastava arms manufacturers have held partial stoppages," the paper reported. Now the NATO bombing has achieved what Milosevic could not. It has drowned out opposition. As a member of the 1996 opposition movement put it last week, "For 100 days two years ago we marched day after day against him and we nearly got rid of him. He was very weak then but the NATO bombing has made him strong."