Nebojsha Malic: Reflections on Revolution

Following the carnage of September 11, the Balkans became of secondary concern to the makers of U.S. foreign policy. American media seem content to ignore the Balkans for a while, save for noting the Empire's vehement denials of their Muslim allies' liaisons with Osama Bin Laden and other radical Islamic movements, and the pledge to continue its Balkans policy on the same path it was following prior to Black Tuesday.

Inhabitants of the peninsula, however, have no such luxury. To them, every day is a reminder of US policies that have made the Balkan peninsula what it is today: from the fractured remnants of the former Yugoslavia, through the economic wastelands in Bulgaria and Romania, to the drug and crime ridden territories of Albania, Kosovo and northwestern Macedonia.

A Telling Anniversary

It has been a year, less a day, since the Empire's Balkans bogeyman was forced to resign from office under popular pressure. Slobodan Milosevic's fall from power and grace in Serbia was hailed by the US as the end of a dark age, and a bright new beginning for all. One year later, with Milosevic set up for a show trial at the hands of the Hague Inquisition, there are no signs of dissipating darkness, and the promises of new beginnings ring strangely hollow.

Though characterized by special circumstances that other Balkans states lack, Serbia's plight is exemplary of the difficulties they all face. If nothing else, the privations and destruction of the past decade have stripped away all of the nonsensical trappings of post-Communist transition, highlighting the existential challenges set before the entire peninsula.

Failed Promises, False Premises

The "Democratic Opposition of Serbia" (DOS) came to power on October 5, when Milosevic conceded defeat in the Yugoslav presidential elections to DOS candidate Vojislav Kostunica, after an angry mob of DOS supporters protesting official vote counts sacked the federal Parliament and the state-run broadcasting corporation. Disdainful of his partner/rival Zoran Djindjic's fondness for paramilitaries and mobsters, Kostunica sought to avoid civil war by securing the loyalty of Yugoslavia's military and the Serbian police. He then went to see Milosevic and accepted his abdication. Within a day, the "October Revolution" was over.

Many questions remained, though.. The U.S.-backed regime in Montenegro, Serbia's partner in the dysfunctional Yugoslav federation, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the elections, or the federal government. The federal government, however was the only government DOS had taken over, since the elections in Serbia were not scheduled until December. For the next three months, DOS committees ruled Serbia as a shadow government, until its eminence grise Zoran Djindjic was officially installed as Prime Minister.

In the campaign leading up to the September 24 elections and the October Revolution, both Kostunica and his coalition partners promised liberty and prosperity to the war-weary masses. Those promises were backed with millions of dollars in direct aid given to DOS by the United States. Balancing this was the threat of renewed war, as a US fleet ran war games off the Yugoslav coast during the election. But while liberty and prosperity markedly failed to materialize, the threat of war did not; within months, Albanians in regions adjoining the still-occupied province of Kosovo began a campaign of violence aimed at secession from Serbia.

From then on, broken promises piled up. Instead of supporting free enterprise, the Djindjic government effectively monopolized oil and cigarette trade, introducing severe sales taxes while abolishing price controls. The impoverished population sank into abject misery as prices skyrocketed and jobs vanished into thin air.

Last week, the Bosnia-based news magazine Reporter offered a glimpse of the ruling coalition's "accomplishments," as they faced the "silent rage of the people" after one year in power. Reporter cites statistics from a recent poll taken by the Institute G17, a rabidly pro-Western group of statist economists, which indicates that 40% of Serbs think they are worse off now than they were before, while only 10% say that things have improved. In the first 7 months of 2001, retail prices rose 26%, and the inflation rate was 31.7%. But perhaps the most telling statistic was a 20% drop in industrial production compared to the period immediately after the devastating NATO assault.

Pyrrhic Victories

Economically a disaster, DOS has been only marginally more successful politically. Soon after October 5, Yugoslavia – a founding member of the UN in its previous incarnation – was admitted as a brand-new member, thus officially relinquishing succession rights. Within months, DOS authorities accepted the terms of succession dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), consenting to a division of former Yugoslav assets that put Yugoslavia on equal footing with former members of the Yugoslav federation that had seceded, illegally and often violently. The new regime also agreed to repay Serbia's portion of the Yugoslav debt, tripled by exorbitant interest charges over the past decade, as Yugoslav assets lay frozen under US and UN sanctions.

In June this year, when Djindjic's government complied with American demands and transported Milosevic from a Belgrade prison to the ICTY in The Hague, the government sought to justify the political fallout by claiming that such an action was a necessary precondition to receiving millions of dollars in foreign aid. In exchange for violating both the Serbian and Yugoslav constitutions, and dismantling the Yugoslav Supreme Court, Djindjic received not a single red cent; all of the promised aid, if it actually existed, went to Western bankers as payment for Yugoslavia's bloated debt.

Another Pyrrhic success was the end of Albanian banditry in Presevo, supposedly engineered by Djindjic's envoy for southern Serbia, Nebojsa Covic, a former Milosevic apparatchik. The bandits only gave up when NATO told them to. Even then, they chose to cross into Kosovo rather than use the promised amnesty. The so-called "Covic Plan" was then adapted by NATO and imposed on the Macedonian government, eviscerating the country's sovereignty in the process.

All along, the issue of Kosovo remained an open wound. While DOS was consolidating power in Serbia, Albanian separatists were doing the same in the NATO – occupied Albanian province, under the aegis of OSCE and the UN. Kosovo now has a provisional "Constitution," and "elected" local authorities, with elections for a "legislative assembly" coming up in a month.

The Two-Spet Waltz

Serbia and Yugoslavia under DOS have resembled nothing so much as a dancer who tries to dance to a three-beat waltz in two-step. Having come to power on the coattails of Kostunica's popular appeal, Zoran Djindjic runs Serbia as his personal fiefdom. Djindjic's popularity is still in single digits, but Kostunica cannot match his power and influence, as the "extradition" of Milosevic amply demonstrated. Of the 18 parties in DOS, most are loyal to Djindjic, without whom they would have little or no access to power. Kostunica's unwillingness – or inability – to confront Djindjic both after Milosevic's "extradition" and after the recent murder of a former security official who claimed to have evidence of government corruption, has severely damaged the President's reputation and tarnished his legalistic image. Kostunica and his party are now on the sidelines of Serbian politics, their only claim to power resting with the dysfunctional Yugoslav federation.

The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is neither federal, nor a republic, and much less Yugoslavia. Its two "republics," Montenegro and Serbia, largely act like independent states. Milo Djukanovic's regime in Podgorica has not yet officially broken with Belgrade, mostly because it lacks a solid pretext and sufficient popular support. Nonetheless, Montenegro continues to sabotage any talks about Yugoslavia's future. Serbia's preeminent classical liberal (libertarian) Kosta Cavoski opined this week in the Belgrade daily Glas Javnosti ("Public Voice") that Djukanovic is likely counting on Djindjic repudiating Yugoslavia, while putting the blame on Kostunica. Both US and British ambassadors to Belgrade visited Djukanovic last week and "attempted to persuade" him not to secede. Yet Montenegro still receives almost $100 million in US aid, only a little less per capita than Israel and much more than Serbia.

Comoparative Revolution

The U.S.-backed government in Belgrade is not yet an obedient Imperial vassal, though it harbors such aspirations. Since the US alreadyhasa favorite Balkans satellite – the Albanians – ambitions of various sycophants may go unrequited for quite some time. Imperial policies benefiting Albanians at the expense of Serbs or anyone else are likely to continue. Based on this, and on DOS's performance over the past year, what sort of future is Serbia likely facing?

To begin, a cursory analysis of October 5 reveals major overlaps with the two revolutions that most influenced Serbian political history – the 1789 French Revolution and the 1917 Russian Revolution. In both cases, revolt came on a wave of rising expectations, during, or in the aftermath of, costly wars. Both times, the "monarch" was initially spared but later executed (or in Milosevic's case, merely handed over to the executioners). After the initial takeover, power was seized by radical elements (Jacobins, Bolsheviks) and used to terrorize political opposition and suspected "loyalists" of the old regime. The only thing Serbia missed was a civil war. It remains to be seen if it will manage to dodge the last revolutionary phase – dictatorial takeover by a Napoleon or a Stalin.

One thing is certain: DOS is not likely to survive for long. It is a motley coalition of disparate parties, with divergent aims and strong personal rivalries between leaders. Vojvodina separatists united with Sanjak separatists, monarchists, politically correct neo-liberals, Christian democrats, and republicans, initially through US funding and now by a common lust for power. DOS will most likely fracture once its leader, Zoran Djindjic, decides he no longer needs the coalition to stay in power.

...And Statist Claptrap

Djindjic is the key to understanding not just Serbia, but the Balkans today. He embodies the spirit of anti-liberal statism, popularized throughout Eastern Europe by US and European intervention after the collapse of Communism. Djindjic has no ideology save power, and no principle save strength. As such, he sees serving the most powerful country on the block – the US, in this case – as a prerequisite to staying in power. The history of the past decade certainly lends credence to his reasoning.

Unfortunately, for the citizens of Serbia – much like those of any other US vassal in the post-Communist world – that means consolidation of state power in the hands of a corrupt elite, with a chaotic legal system and severe restrictions on domestic enterprise, almost assuring the ongoing descent into poverty.

Early in the 20th century, Serbia created a stable, liberal constitutional monarchy, with flourishing commerce and industry. It embraced the lessons of the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution, while preserving the freedom of farmers and merchants that made the liberation from Ottoman Turks possible. This system, however, could not withstand the Austrian invasion in WW1, the chaos of postwar Yugoslavia, Nazi occupation in WW2, and the 1945 Communist takeover. Destructive in their own right, both Nazism and Communism harbored special hatred for the Serbs and their economic, cultural and political institutions.

Now, sixty years after the Nazi invasion, Serbia has to crawl out of the ashes under the guidance of Zoran Djindjic, who did a Ph.D. on increasing state power in times of crisis while studying in Germany and finding inspiration in "socialism" of a distinctly national flavor.

Shadows of Empire

The present regime in Serbia, like all other regimes in Eastern Europe (save perhaps Belarus), is built around the twin pillars of obedience to the Empire and statist supremacy. Such circumstances are adverse to normal economic development, and hostile to political options that value liberty and private property. There are no guarantees, only chances, that Serbs and others will overcome these economic and political restrictions once the first pillar – the Empire's ongoing presence – is removed. It has been stated here before, and ought to be stated again, that such a development has absolutely no chance while the Empire continues to occupy parts of the Balkans, and keep the "peace" in them through supporting terrorists and self-styled "democrats" of decidedly fascist leanings.

Nebojsa Malic

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