How Milosevic won and exercised power

June 30, 1999

Serbia under Milosevic: politics in the 1990s
By Robert Thomas
Hurst & Company, London, 1999

Review by Chris Slee

Slobodan Milosevic has been in control of Serbia since 1987. This book deals with his rise to power and the political struggles that have occurred since then. It looks at the huge mass struggles for democracy and the opposition parties that have attempted to win power on the back of these movements.

It looks at the break-up of Yugoslavia and the origins of the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosova.

The detailed factual information in the book is useful for anyone wanting to study the recent history of Serbia in depth. However, the political perspective is conservative and in some ways confusing.

For example, Thomas refers to Milosevic's Socialist Party and its allies as "the left". In reality, Milosevic and his associates are able to use left rhetoric when it suits them, but this is pure hypocrisy. They have betrayed every socialist or leftist principle. They have promoted ethnic hatred, privatised public assets and enriched themselves in the process.

Thomas points out that Milosevic and his wife, Mirjana Markovic, are surrounded by a "clique of ultra-rich plutocrats whose business careers had been forged through the development of client-patron relationships with the state bureaucracy". But he fails to draw the conclusion that Milosevic heads a capitalist regime.

Chauvinist movement

Milosevic became the dominant figure in Serbia by putting himself at the head of a Serbian chauvinist mass movement directed mainly against the Albanians of Kosova, but also against other minorities.

He was by no means the first to arouse Serbian chauvinism in relation to Kosova, which plays a central role in the mythological version of Serbian history propagated by the Serbian Orthodox Church and Serbian nationalists. The 1389 battle of Kosova is continually evoked as if it were still relevant today.

According to Thomas, Kosova has had an Albanian majority at least since the 18th century. The 1921 census showed that only 26% of the population was Serbian. This has declined even further due to high Albanian birth rates and the emigration of Serbs from Kosova to Serbia.

The main reason for the emigration was economic. Kosova was the poorest part of Yugoslavia, with a very high unemployment rate. Serbs had more economic opportunities in cities such as Belgrade.

This was particularly the case once Kosova gained autonomy in 1974 and Serbs ceased to monopolise the best jobs in the region. The Serbian inhabitants of Kosova resented the growing power of the Albanians. They took petitions to Belgrade, claiming to be persecuted. Their cause was taken up by many Belgrade intellectuals — and by Milosevic, who had become chairperson of the Serbian Communist Party in 1986.

In 1987 he made his famous statement to Kosovan Serbs, "No-one should dare to beat you". He made himself the leading figure in a movement to abolish the autonomy of Kosova and restore Serbian domination. He also campaigned to abolish the autonomy of Vojvodina.

Mass rallies, promoted by the Milosevic-controlled media, were held throughout Serbia, Vojvodina, Kosova and Montenegro. In Kosova, the Albanian population resisted through strikes and demonstrations. This resistance was suppressed by the army and police.

The Serbian rallies were also directed against Milosevic's rivals within the Communist Party. The movement was portrayed as an "anti-bureaucratic revolution", directed against the corrupt old leadership of the CP. Dragisa Pavlovic, head of the Belgrade Communist Party, and Serbian President Ivan Stambolic were amongst those forced to resign.

For a time it appeared that almost the whole Serb nation was united by this movement, including the Orthodox Church, pro-Western intellectuals, pro-Milosevic CP officials and even former leftist dissidents. Some of those who had been associated with the "socialist humanist" magazine Praxis, which had been banned in 1975, supported Milosevic. One of them, Mihailo Markovic, became Milosevic's chief ideologist.


This "national unity" soon broke down. A range of opposition parties formed. Most, however, were as chauvinist as the Milosevic regime in their attitude towards other nationalities, especially the Kosova Albanians.

Despite its initial "anti-bureaucratic" rhetoric, the Milosevic regime proved to be authoritarian beneath a veneer of formal democracy. There have been repeated waves of protests demanding democratic rights.

In 1996-7, there were demonstrations on the streets of Belgrade every day for three months in protest at government attempts to annul opposition victories in local elections. Eventually the regime was forced to recognise these victories.

But while the mass movement could win partial victories, it was unable to remove Milosevic from power. The opposition parties were unable to remain united for any length of time, enabling Milosevic to play them off against each other.

Thomas discusses in great detail the debates and rivalries amongst the opposition leaders. But his own bourgeois liberal outlook prevents him seeing the fundamental problem with all the main opposition parties. None of them has a program that really represents the interests of the majority of the population — the workers and peasants.

The main opposition parties believe in "free market" economics. They also share the regime's chauvinism, differing only in degree.

Many activists in Serbia's independent union movement and other grassroots movements are opposed to the chauvinism of Milosevic and the bourgeois opposition. But these movements are not given the attention they deserve in Thomas' book, which focuses on the main bourgeois parties and their leaders.

Thomas fails to understand the nature of the Serbian state under Milosevic. He calls it a "neo-Communist state", but in reality it is a capitalist state. It is promoting the restoration of capitalist property relations and promoting Serbian chauvinism as a means of dividing the working class and diverting attention from the real enemy — the emerging capitalist class — and onto "foreign enemies" (Croatians, Bosnian Muslims, Kosovars).

Such a regime can be fundamentally transformed only by a movement that understands that capitalism is the real enemy.

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