Mass Rebellion and Inter-Imperialist Competition in Serbia
Since the imperialist-engineered breakup of Yugoslavia in 1992, and the subsequent NATO bombing of the region, the people of Serbia and the other Balkans countries have suffered immensely. Now Serbia is a key site of inter-imperialist competition. As the so-called “great powers” struggle for world supremacy, the people of Serbia are caught in the middle and trying to find a way forward free from oppression and exploitation.
Tens of thousands march in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade. They have been protesting against president Aleksandar Vučić for the past ten months.
Recently, a nation-wide protest movement against the current political situation in the former Yugoslav republic of Serbia has gained notable traction. More than twenty years after the civil wars of the 1990s and imperialist powers carving up the region, the people of Serbia have mobilized to oppose the state’s increasingly fascist tendencies and collusion with imperialists. Years of sanctions, two NATO bombing campaigns, and the 2008 financial crisis have exacerbated the already dire conditions for working people in Serbia.
In addition to these issues, the increasingly hostile inter-imperialist struggle between the U.S., China, Russia, and the European Union has left the people of Serbia caught between a rock and a hard place. In response, the people, in their thousands, have taken to the streets every Saturday since November 2018. This mass mobilization has inspired many and represents the anti-imperialist sentiment of the Serbian people as they struggle for liberation from corrupt local rulers and imperialist vultures who seek to tear up the country and feast on the remains.
Imperialist Build Up in Balkans
The imperialist domination of Serbia and the Balkans began prior to the break-up of Yugoslavia, which was made up of six Slavic republics: Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Montenegro, and two autonomous regions, Kosovo and Vojvodina. In the 1980s, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) planned to provide the erstwhile Yugoslavia “structural adjustment” loans meant to privatize as much of the economy as possible. The austerity program was fervently struggled against by a people’s movement that crossed ethnic lines. In 1989, 650,000 Serbian workers held a strike to protest the government’s proposed policies, which included a wage freeze. The trade unions were able to unite Serb, Croat, Bosnian, and Slovenian workers against the restructuring.
However, due to the corrupt local elite and most significantly the lack of a revolutionary movement, these “reforms” were eventually adopted. The debt and economic crises that followed exacerbated the uneven development between Yugoslav republics and autonomous regions. The policy of uneven development by the Yugoslav state to extract resources from poorer regions and refine them in industrialized regions benefited a few regions at the expense of others, fostering feelings of resentment between different ethnicities.
The policy of uneven development by the Yugoslav State impoverished many regions and enabled reactionary leaders to use these differences as nationalist propaganda.
Imperialist powers such as Germany and the U.S. seized on these ethnic tensions and further aggravated them by supporting and sponsoring reactionary, nationalist leaders. These leaders, like Tudjman of Croatia, Izetbegović of Bosnia, and Milošević of Serbia pitted various ethnic groups against each other by placing the blame of the crisis on the people of different ethnicities. Sponsoring these leaders and promoting such tensions were crucial to the imperialist’s efforts to break up and better control the region. The earlier united working-class resistance to IMF “restructuring” had posed a significant threat to the imperialists’ maneuvers, and they sought to break working-class unity by sponsoring genocidal hatred.
The civil wars that broke out in 1991 were disastrous on all fronts. Led by reactionaries on all sides, the wars were the worst manifestation of regional strongmen’s efforts to attain political power and establish expansionist ethno-states by inciting national chauvinism and hatred. In order to control the course of the civil war and secure Western imperialist interests were protected—instead of those of their rivals, Russia and China—NATO joined the war under the guise of “humanitarian intervention.”
The wars were quite brutal on all people across the republics and territories. There were a series of mass killings like the 1995 Srebrenica massacre and Bosnian genocide. These atrocities included the slaughter of over 8,000 people and the displacement of at least 25,000-30,000 Bosniak civilians. They were carried out by warlord politicians like Radovan Karadžić, who was president of Republika Srpska – an autonomous political entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina comprised of Serbians. He was largely responsible for the Bosnian genocide and was in hiding until he was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal (ICT).
The overlap between warlords and politicians throughout the Yugoslav wars was indicative of the political situation at the time. The politicians worked closely with the warlords to sponsor ethnic hatred and incite the people into committing atrocities. Similar ethnic cleansings also occurred in Croatia and Kosovo, of Serbians and ethnic Albanians, respectively. As part of these atrocities mass rape of women and children were carried out on a larger scale, as well as the pillaging of towns and villages. All people in the region suffered immensely in the name of various ethnic chauvinisms, but for the profit of the imperialist plunderers.
In 1999, NATO again bombed Serbia. This time to supposedly stop the Serbian State’s oppression and ethnic cleansing of Muslim, ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo. After decades of harassment by the Serbian State—and specifically the discriminatory policing that included everything from arbitrary identity checks to outright torture—the Albanians in Kosovo rose up to oppose the national oppression they faced. Then-Serbian President Milošević, a reactionary nationalist, stripped Kosovo of its autonomy and fired thousands of Albanian state employees in 1987. As tensions in Kosovo mounted, private U.S. military companies and the CIA trained and provided other support to a fascist, drug and organ trafficking paramilitary organization.
Bill Clinton is honored for his role in enabling the narco-state of Kosovo to secede from Serbia and maintain a stranglehold on Balkan drug and organ trafficking.
This was the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), who co-opted the struggle of the Kosovars by inciting national hatred and violence against Serbians and by turning Kosovo into a protectorate of the U.S. and European imperialists. Due to the lack of a revolutionary organization to liberate the Albanians in Kosovo, the KLA achieved Kosovo’s independence not through a liberation struggle, but by seeking imperialist support. Instead of rising up to create a socialist state, the KLA led the Albanian population of Kosovo down the dark path of imperialist domination—as that was the primary reason the U.S. became involved in the Kosovo issue. The U.S. and other European powers came to the “defense” of Kosovo not to protect or liberate the Kosovars, but because they saw an opportunity for further capitalist exploitation and imperialist expansion in the region.
During NATO’s “humanitarian intervention,” the imperialists targeted bridges, hospitals, schools, and factories. The imperialist coalition’s 78 day war on Serbia killed and injured thousands of civilians while producing more Kosovar refugees than there were before the 1999 bombing. Estimates of the damage caused by the bombing are as high as $100 billion and Serbia’s GDP was reduced by 25 percent. NATO even “accidentally” killed Albanian refugees in Western Kosovo, the people they were supposed to be saving! These basic facts expose the fraudulent claims of a “humanitarian intervention” by the bloodthirsty imperialists.
Immediately after seceding from Serbia through back-door deals with notoriously brutal imperialists like Madeline Albright, the narco-state of Kosovo—with U.S. blessing and encouragement—traded most of the state-owned assets to imperialists and multi-national corporations in exchange for the ability to dominate the multi-billion-dollar drug trade in the Balkans. Hashim Thaçi, a KLA military commander who became Kosovo’s first Prime Minister, has been implicated in various lumpen drug and organ trafficking operations. Currently, 70% of Afghan heroin passes through Kosovo to Western Europe and opium poppies are the second most cultivated drug in the Balkan region after marijuana. Kosovo’s government of the lumpen bourgeoisie has shown its gratitude to the U.S. by erecting a statue of President Bill Clinton while the people of Kosovo continue to starve. Around 40% of the population of Kosovo officially lives in poverty (although the real numbers are likely much higher), and many are migrating elsewhere to escape the State’s corruption and the ongoing pauperization of the masses.
As a direct result of NATO’s deliberate destruction of factories throughout the two bombing campaigns, thousands of Serbian working people lost their jobs and ability to scrape by. Millions of Serbs fled the country, and following the ousting of President Milošević, the Serbian government has only intensified its reactionary and dictatorial assaults on the people. The country has been continually opened up to plunder by different imperialist powers, including the United States, Russia, and China. The Serbian government, in collaboration with the imperialists, has increased the pressure on the people through a variety of neoliberal austerity measures. For example, as part of these austerity measures privatized evictions are now legal; this allows people to be evicted for being late on even an electricity or television bill! This policy allows the developers to easily drive poor Serbs from their homes so that they can be demolished and replaced with luxury condos, hotel resorts, or the like. The privatization of evictions was specifically recommended by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) during its “reconstruction” of Serbia after the war. This is one of many factors which has led to a growing anti-government sentiment among the Serbian people.
Luxury apartments that were built in the Savamala area, which was forcibly bulldozed.
Current Political Situation
In recent years, the Serbian government and overall political system in Serbia have reached a crisis of legitimacy. During the 2017 Presidential election, a satirical candidate who campaigned on building a coastline for landlocked Serbia, was runner-up behind former Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vučić (a reactionary nationalist who played a big role in spreading racist and nationalist propaganda in the late 90s). This crisis is starker in Serbia than in the U.S., where the two-party system still holds legitimacy in the eyes of the people. In the U.S., both parties are simultaneously scrambling to co-opt the struggles of the working class. “Radical” candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders have been largely successful in leading the people down the dead-end of bourgeois democracy by tricking them into thinking that by voting for the “right candidate,” the system can be fixed. By contrast, the Serbian state is trying but largely failing to win over the people due to its increasingly dictatorial policies and openly selling out the people to capitalist-imperialists.
In 2016, when President Vučić was Prime Minister, his family reportedly held €1 million in real estate assets. This is likely a gross underestimate, but given the low-cost of real estate in Serbia, this is still a sizeable real estate portfolio. In contrast, his 2016 property declaration stated he was one of the poorest statesmen in Serbia. This is typical of how the ruling elite in Serbia attempt to hide their assets for fear of retaliation by the overwhelming majority of working people who can barely scrape by. Since then, President Vučić has amassed more wealth while intensifying state censorship as well as imperialist “investment” and economic control of Serbia.
Many imperialist countries like China, Russia, and the United States invest great sums of money for the construction of apartments and infrastructure for the wealthy Serbian elite and foreign businesspeople. One example of this is the United Arab Emirates’ construction of luxury apartments in the Savamala area of Serbia’s capital, Belgrade. These luxury condos are only one of many gentrification and displacement projects that the junior imperialist, the UAE, is sponsoring in Serbia. Before the construction of luxury apartments, thousands of residents in the Savamala area refused to leave. With no popular support for imperialist destruction of the neighborhood, the increasingly fascist government turned to outright barbarism and sent thirty masked men to attack people with baseball bats and bulldoze the buildings in the area. In response, the Serbian people flooded the streets in uproar. This particular incident was one of the catalysts for the larger protest movement which continues today.
While the Serbian state turns to more openly fascist politics, it is important to note that elements of a bourgeois democracy do still exist—albeit in a deep crisis. And it’s also important to remember that a capitalist democracy provides very little freedom or justice to the people. Large demonstrations are possible in Serbia without mass arrests and violent State-sponsored crackdowns. However, this could change in the near future. As the protest movement continues to grow and the global economic crisis deepens, the ruling elite in Serbia and their imperialist masters may soon decide that outright fascist oppression is a more efficient way to run the country and make super-profits off the hard labor of the Serbian people.
As Vučić and his lackeys struggle to maintain their rule, the various imperialist factions continue to fight tooth and nail to secure a stronghold in the region. China, in particular, is in intense competition with the U.S. and European Union. The Belt and Road initiative, which is China’s plan to overtake the U.S. as the dominant world superpower, is the main way the Chinese ruling class is making inroads in the Balkans and globally. The Chinese state uses high-interest, predatory loans (similar to loans advanced by the IMF and other U.S.-backed institutions) to finance various infrastructure projects that exploit the local population and plunder other countries’ resources. Recently—much to the agitation of the European imperialists—the Chinese imperialists have made significant inroads in Europe, with annual foreign direct investment by Chinese multinationals reaching an all-time high of $18 billion in Europe in 2014. These investments are causing the European and U.S. ruling classes to worry and maneuver to counter such influence.
A massive Chinese-owned coal mine in Serbia. Chinese companies have been buying up Serbian resources left-and-right, carrying out environmentally destructive practices, and displacing Serbian people from their land.
For the Chinese ruling elite, Serbia is an essential neocolony in their plans to establish dominance in Southeastern Europe. As a result, Serbia is currently the largest recipient of Chinese “aid” in the Balkans and has been loaned approximately €5.5 billion (about $6.12 billion in USD) for the construction of bridges, highways, and railroads. These loans now amount to 12% of Serbia’s national debt. Chinese companies are gobbling up Serbia’s state assets at an alarming rate and have already purchased copper mines, steel plants, power plants, high-speed rail lines, roads and ports. In September 2018, Serbian President Vučić and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed that China would contribute approximately $3 billion in “economic and military investments” for the construction of a Chinese-owned tire factory, the “development” of copper mines, and the construction of the largest industrial park in Europe comprised of 1,000 Chinese companies – all to exploit the desperate Serbian working class.
China also seeks to expand its military and surveillance reach to the Balkans. In 2016, the Chinese state agreed to supply military drones and conduct a technology transfer to enable Serbia’s production of future drone systems. As the protests across the country continue to intensify, the Serbian state has requested the help of China’s police force for their experience in cracking down on protestors. The presence of Chinese policemen in Serbia is indicative of the global strength of Chinese imperialism and how they are able to dominate the Serbian people for the interests of the Chinese imperialists and the Serbian elite.
Furthermore, Huawei, China’s largest multinational technology corporation, has been openly supporting and collaborating with the Serbian state in its crackdown, including providing video surveillance for the Serbian police and “counter-terrorism” departments. In April 2019, Serbian state officials announced they would implement Huawei’s Safe City Solution, a surveillance system that uses thousands of security cameras that use facial and license-plate recognition software to attempt to track the movements of every single person in the whole city. These surveillance systems will undoubtedly be used against protestors by the Serbian and Chinese police to clamp down on dissent.
Serbian President Vucic meets with Chinese head of state Xi Jinping in 2019. These meetings have been crucial to securing Chinese support for crackdowns on the protests in Serbia.
In response to China’s growing influence, the European Union (EU)—the project of old colonial powers to create a neocolonial network of countries subservient to their ruling classes—is scrambling to assert its strength. For over a decade, Serbia’s ruling elite has been trying to become an EU member in opposition to the will of the Serbian people, many of whom vehemently oppose joining the Union. The EU—and in particular France and Germany, who run the show at the expense of even other EU member states—bullies non-EU members like Serbia to comply with its frameworks and institute neoliberal reforms harmful to the people. In “exchange” for membership the powerful countries in the EU set up factories in poor member-states to take advantage of the low-cost of labor as neoliberal reforms force people to sink deeper into wage-slavery.
While the Serbian state continues to push for membership, approximately one-fourth of Serbians polled by the European Commission responded that they think joining the EU would have a negative impact on their lives. A large number of Serbians observe the harm neighboring member countries such as Greece have endured in the form of various austerity measures and other disastrous neoliberal policies. So, many realize that joining the EU would not solve the problems they face. They see how people in those states become migrant laborers and beggars who have to wander around the EU hoping to find work for incredibly low wages.
While the EU remains a strong player in the region—providing 70 percent of the total foreign direct investment to the Balkan region—China increasingly serves as an alternative for the elite in Serbia and other Balkans nations. To counter China, the EU is now attempting to regulate the industries in which China is involved. In 2016, a subsidiary of Chinese steel manufacturer Hesteel purchased Serbia’s only steel mill and in early 2019, the EU introduced a limit on how much steel they would import, negatively affecting several countries that export steel to the EU, including Serbia.
In Serbia, this quota caused the Chinese-owned steel mill to reduce production and ultimately resulted in the firing of workers. The goal of these EU-quotas is not to “protect EU producers” but instead to protect the capitalists’ interests at all costs and their ability to compete on the global stage for domination. The true nature of this maneuver is evident in the fact that the EU exempted Norway and Cameroon from the steel import limit. The European ruling classes are frightened by China’s rise as an imperialist competitor and will do whatever they can to outmaneuver and outcompete China. The suffering of the Serbian people is just an inevitable consequence of the so-called “great powers” playing their “Great Game.”
Despite China’s growing influence in Serbia, the Serbian state seeks to maintain an aura of neutrality. In addition to courting the EU, the Serbian state maintains military and economic ties with Russia as well. Given the close alliance between Russia and China, there are different contradictions between those ruling classes and the concerns that the EU and the U.S. have with China. Russia has a stake in China’s push to create a second imperialist system outside of U.S. control. However, given that it is militarily and economically weaker than the U.S., the Russian ruling class is scrambling to ensure it has a top position as an exploiter and oppressor.
“Partnership for the Future” billboard in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade. On the left side is the Russian flag and on the right, the Serbian flag. This is part of the Russian effort to promote Pan-Slavic ideology.
As NATO expands along the Russian border, Putin and his capitalist backers are working to consolidate their strength through Eastern Europe. In militarily annexing Crimea, the Russian state showed its willingness to use force to do this. In the Balkans, Russia currently prefers to employ cultural propaganda such as Pan-Slavist ideology to convince the Serbian people to welcome Russian imperialism with open arms. The Russian empire had a history of utilizing this “shared Slavic identity” to expand its dominance to the region. In the lead up to and during the First World War, Tsarist Russia used Pan-Slavism to justify its involvement in the war as a means to “liberate” Slavs in the Balkans living under Ottoman and Austrian rule. Similarly, the contemporary Russian state claims that it must save its Slavic brothers and sisters from Western domination, and replace it with their own imperialist domination, of course!
The Russian oil and gas industries are also a powerful force in the region and a way in which the Russia state exerts its imperialist influence. In Europe in particular, Russia is the dominant supplier of oil and gas and in 2017 supplied 30% of Europe’s petroleum oil and 39% of gas imports. The Russian ruling class seeks to expand and leverage this position to strengthen its influence in the Balkan region and in Serbia in particular. During the financial crisis of 2008, the U.S. decreased its economic stake in Serbia’s crippled economy and sold Serbia’s state-owned oil and gas company, Naftna Industrija Srbije (NIS) back for a symbolic $1. In 2012, Gazprom (Russia’s largest company) capitalized on the opportunity to make inroads in the Serbian market and bought a majority stake in NIS. By monopolizing the Serbian oil and gas market, Russia strengthens its role as the supplier of oil and gas in Europe and is able to leverage this position to exert influence on European powers.
NATO and the Western ruling classes have long been battling Russian influence in the region. In NATO’s expansion to Eastern Europe, the political elite in countries that were bombed by NATO, like Montenegro, have given into pressures to join the Union. In Serbia now, this conflict between the imperialist powers is deepening. It is not clear which bloc of imperialists Serbia will side with. Despite continued participation in the “Slavic Brotherhood” joint military exercises with Russian and Belarussian forces, Serbia has ten times more military cooperation with NATO member states.
The Serbian State has largely succeeded at courting all imperialists simultaneously. It’s cooperation with NATO is particularly striking, given its role in destroying the majority of the country. In 2015 the Serbian state signed an Individual Partnership Plan (IPAP) that allows NATO to use Serbian military facilities and infrastructure and in 2016 went further to grant NATO forces freedom of movement and diplomatic immunity throughout the country, effectively serving as an additional police force. These newly agreed upon privileges for NATO forces are unacceptable to the Serbian people, who refuse to let such betrayals go by ignored. The people of Serbia and the Balkans are fighting back after being torn apart by competing imperialist forces.
Women in the Yugoslav Partisans who fought against the Nazis in WWII. These partisan fighters united the various different ethnicities in the region in the struggle against fascism. This sort of movement shows what is possible in Serbia and the Balkans.
It is unlikely the various competing imperialists will allow the Serbian state to maintain even a façade of neutrality for much longer given the mounting tensions associated with capitalist-imperialist competition. Due to the inherent contradictions of capitalist-imperialism that make imperialist war inevitable, as well as the increased competition between imperialists in the region, the Balkans will likely be drawn into and potentially serve as a front for an impending war between imperialist powers. Meanwhile, the Serbian people are actively resisting and protesting the continued plunder of their country for the profit of a few Chinese, American, EU, and Russian oligarchs.
A Way Forward
While it is positive that the people of Serbia are rallying against the conditions brought about by inter-imperialist competition, a truly revolutionary organization is needed in order to overthrow the people’s oppressors. The current protest movement in Serbia lacks such an orientation and therefore has several limitations to its potential, long-term success.
Currently, the anger of the masses is directed at Vučić and his lackeys. As a result, many are primarily focused on his removal from power through an electoral victory by opposition Parties. Given the increasingly fascist tendencies of the Serbian state, the immense focus on the present dictator is not necessarily a negative characteristic of the movement. However, it does allow other local rulers to exploit the sentiments for their benefit. Members of the opposition party in particular have made a point of attending, speaking at, and recruiting people for their Party at the protests. While some of the leaders of the protest movement warn against resting hope on the opposition, the fragmented leadership of the protests is increasingly leading the people down a dead-end. The opposition Parties in Serbia are not a real alternative for the people, the only difference between them and Vučić’s administration is that they represent a different section of the same corrupt, local elite.
For the people of Serbia, the exploitation perpetrated by the state and its imperialist backers is obvious. What isn’t as obvious, is how to channel the energy of the people into a movement that brings about the end of such exploitation, and which really establishes a pro-people and genuinely socialist society. It is essential that the people recognize that siding with the imperialist enemy of your own imperialist enemy will only change where the profits flow to. With an inter-imperialist crisis looming, there will certainly be openings for the people of neocolonies like Serbia to oust their oppressors. The liberation of the Serbian people, and the growth of an internationalist and anti-chauvinist society in the whole Balkan region, is contingent on the growth of a principled, revolutionary organization that enables the people to chart a new path.