This interview has first been published in German on our comrades’ blog. We would add that there were significant strikes of teachers and dock workers in Croatia during 2019 and successful strikes of construction workers from India in Serbia during the time of the protests. The interview mentions the significance of Chinese investments and development credits for the Serbian economy. The Chinese state has cut these foreign development credits severely, from 75 billion USD in 2016 to 4 billion USD in 2019. This will be another blow for the region…
In early July, short but quite vehement protests flared up in Serbia against the national-conservative government under the autocrat Aleksandar Vučić. Since these were largely received in the German-language media as mere anti-lockdown protests, if they received any attention at all, we decided to conduct this interview with a comrade from Belgrade to get a more nuanced perspective on the events on the ground.
What emerged was a picture of a diffuse movement that brought all opponents of the government to the streets, from organized fascists to liberals and radical left. The interview was conducted under the direct impression of the wave of protest, which has since waned. This cannot be said about corona infections in Serbia. Nevertheless, we think that the assessments from Belgrade are also of interest to the local social-revolutionary left: One reason is that political developments in the Balkans, apart from liberal civil rights discourses, often receive little attention. A little more exchange about the dynamics of social eruptions under right-wing hegemony and the possibilities of a (radical left-wing) practical critique would be highly desirable.
Last but not least, the question of how to update the communist project in “post-socialist transformation countries” should be seriously debated. This should apply not only to the territory of the former Yugoslavia, but also explicitly to the GDR.
Anyone interested in a more detailed account of the events can do well here:
For (anarchist) perspectives from Serbia on history and current events we recommend the journal project Antipolitika: https://antipolitika.noblogs.org/
Q: Could you give a short summary of the events that led to the recent protests?
A: To put it briefly, the protests began as a reaction to the government’s decision to institute another lockdown on July 7, starting with a total curfew on the following weekend. However, the primary motivations were far from a typical anti-lockdown protest, like the one that is going on in Germany. Although the motivations of the roughly 12,000 people that showed up in front of the National Assembly on the same day when the lockdown was declared were certainly heterogeneous and there was a right-wing, conspiracist component present, the protest was in essence a spontaneous eruption of popular anger mostly directed at the flippant and irresponsible way that the SNS1 government has been treating the pandemic during the last several months, as well as the general political and economic state of Serbian society. Probably the most crucial event was the report by BIRN, an investigative reporting network, on the true scale of the pandemic in the month prior to the 21 June general elections: supposedly, the SNS government was cutting down the number of infected and declared a premature end of lockdown measures in order to use their “victory” over the virus as an electoral prop. And indeed, almost immediately after the SNS won by a landslide, taking over 2/3 of seats in the Assembly, the situation was once again declared “extremely critical” and a return of draconian lockdown policies was announced.
Q: How did the government react to the pandemic? What’s the state of the Serbian health care system?
A: Overall, the government’s response was far from consistent or responsible. Reportedly — and eventually confirmed by members of the Crisis HQ themselves — the first cases of COVID-19 were present in Serbia as far as December-January, but the first official case of the virus was as late as March 6. Initially, the government tried to play off the pandemic as a joke in order to leave the circuits of capital uninterrupted — the most prominent member of the Crisis HQ was Branimir Nestorović, a controversial celebrity doctor who made a series of statements such as that the virus is as deadly as a regular flu, there is nothing to be scared of because Italians are just weak and genetically inferior compared to Serbs, and women should use the opportunity to travel to Milan and buy designer clothing on sale. However, after a week the situation became obviously too dire, Nestorović was pushed out of public view, an official state of emergency was declared and Draconian lockdown measures, aided by a considerable amount of police repression, were introduced for the next two months – only to be ended a month before the elections along with a premature announcement about the virus being effectively “defeated”.
The healthcare system has consistently been overloaded and unable to effectively handle the number of infected people, and there are shortages of respirators and PCR tests. I’m certain that this wasn’t inevitable though — the healthcare sector is severely underfunded, and a lot of this could have been avoided had the government consistently pursued a more responsible pandemic policy.
Q: The protests lasted for several days. Can you portray the course of events?
A: On the very first day, a far-right fascist group led by Srđan Nogo, “dostojni srbije” (ДОСТОЈНИ СРБИЈЕ – Worthy of Serbia), threw molotovs at the National Assembly and blew the front door open using firearms, in a supposed attempt to storm it and take it over — however, basically nothing happened when they came inside, and there are good reasons to believe that the entire action was a police false flag to justify what would happen next. The response was extraordinarily violent — with kilometer-wide clouds of tear gas spread all over the city center, riot cavalry, baton-armed policemen beating up anyone present anywhere close to the Assembly and wanton arrests. It caused an instant outrage all over the country, with solidarity protests springing up in cities and towns outside of Belgrade literally overnight.
The second day was marked by a violent mass response to the brutality, with street riots and anti-police violence happening all over downtown Belgrade. The police response was potentially even more brutal than yesterday. While some violent anti-police incidents were likely staged by the far-right, the reaction of the liberals at the protests was to mark any and all instances of rioting as a police provocation meant to justify the brutality, and efforts were made to turn the protest into a Gandhian, non-violent sit-in on the third day. The incredibly lukewarm atmosphere on the third day’s protest only helped the far-right impose itself as the dominant force at the protest on the following days, due to being able to present themselves as having a superficial aura of militancy that a lot of protestors were desiring of. Still, the numbers quickly waned due to a combination of the frustration at the protests’ increasing toothless performativity, the presence of far-right extremists and fear of police reprisals. Already by the end of the week, the protests were barely able to rally more than a thousand people.
However, while the main protest wave died off there was a continuation of sorts in the form of protests of solidarity with the arrested demonstrators, led by the left wing — but that also lasted for only about a week.
Q: Which were the most influential groups in the streets?
A: During the first couple of days, the demonstrators were violently driving out anyone they could identify with opposition political parties, due to the prevailing militantly anti-political sentiment. Still, it allowed Nogo’s “Worthy of Serbia” and the affiliated anti-migrant vigilante “People’s Patrols” to pass through the cracks, due to their lack of visible parliamentary ambitions combined with a diffusive approach. Despite possessing strong protest infrastructure, they didn’t try to present themselves as a unified bloc or an intervening political organization — they were spread out all over the crowd, with no clear political markers, pretending to merely be a spontaneous collection of “concerned citizens”. I don’t think that their positions were representative of anything more than a clear minority of the protestors, though, as shown by the dramatic decrease in numbers by the point where they clearly “took over” the protest. At that point, the initial militant opposition towards opposition politicians was also gone, allowing right-wing parties like “Dveri” or “Enough is Enough” to join the protest too – luckily, they didn’t have much left to capitalize on.
Q: Can you describe the role of nationalists or fascists in the protests and their relationship to police and state?
A: There are photos and reports of incidents like Srđan Nogo directing the police cordon on whom to attack and whom not to, or people with police walkie-talkies among the rioters. It’s not entirely clear why they would cooperate in this particular instance, but there is a well-recorded history of cooperation between the police and far-right in Serbia. Most notably, during the past thirty years far-right football ultras groups (also present at these protests, though — at least in appearance – in the ranks of the demonstrators) have been used to violently crush protests so the cops wouldn’t have to get their own hands dirty.
Q: During the protests, which groups of the political left were relevant? Were they able to give a good spin to the events?
A: Marks21, a Trotskyist group, attempted to organize a closely knit “left bloc” with visible left-wing placards and symbols, but the heavy-handed approach got them driven out due to the protestors’ anti-political sentiment that I mentioned. I wouldn’t say that there was anything close to a significant spontaneous anti-socialist or anti-communist sentiment at the protests, though — I personally got involved with a loose group of activists who were trying to promote a set of four clear social demands as the protest’s “official” set of demands, mostly related to the COVID-19 crisis (diverting police funding into healthcare, transparency of information of public importance, further legal limitations on the police use of force and increased social aid plus measures against layoffs), to a very positive response.
Also, the protests in Novi Sad were led by local left-wing activists, who attempted to sabotage the infrastructure chains by blocking the highway. The later solidarity protests with the imprisoned protestors were also organized by the Belgrade left: the nascent broad “Party of the Radical Left”, the aforementioned Marks21 and several grassroots groups.
Q: These were not the first protests against the Vucic government. Was there a significant difference this time compared to the protests since 2018 before the pandemic?
A: The first big anti-Vučić protest was in 2017, but I think that what separates this year’s protest from the ones in 2017 or 2018-19 was a much more pronounced social component, shown by the willingness to riot, as well as a considerable disinterest in the usual lukewarm political demands of the prior liberal protest movements, like fair media representation for opposition politicians, repeated elections, resignations of individual political figures etc. It absolutely crossed the boundaries of liberal protest civility in form as well as in content. In spirit, I think that it was closer to the often-overlooked protest over increased gas prices in the summer of 2018 (extremely similar to the Yellow Vests protests, but predating them by a couple of months), when thousands of car owners were blocking key traffic nodes in the country and working on forming a broader working-class based protest front against the poor economic situation.
Q: As Serbia is located at the center of the Balkans with direct borders to the European Union it plays an important role for geo-political strategies of several world-powers. Can you explain which nation states are involved and what interests they pursue?
A: To world-powers, Serbia is important for two main reasons — as a source of cheap skilled labor and as a transit node of strategic importance. While the former isn’t a major point of conflict and there are capital investors from all over the world, the latter has always been a point of contention, the most obvious recent case being Russia’s South Stream gas pipeline project. However, since the cancellation of the initial South Stream project Russia appears to have been steadily reducing its diplomatic presence. The European Union, despite putting its expansion plans on pause, still has a consistent presence in Serbia, with Pan-European corridors being a priority. A new major contender is China, with Serbia joining the Belt and Road Initiative2 in 2019 and several important partnerships being made, both with the Chinese government and with companies like Huawei.
Q: Did you recognize reactions of these powers to the pandemic (with respect to the situation in Serbia) and to the recent protests?
A: Serbia received considerable amounts of medical and monetary aid from all over the world, but for reasons that aren’t entirely clear a disproportional spectacle was made out of the Chinese aid package, going as far as to placing Xi Jinping billboards all over Belgrade, even though it was smaller than the EU aid package. Although EU officials were aggravated over this, it didn’t change their generally favorable stance towards President Vučić and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party. The protests didn’t change that, either — the EU didn’t go beyond a few vague and incredibly lukewarm declarations of “concern” about the police brutality, similar to the USA’s reaction. The other world-powers mostly kept quiet. There were several theories about the protests being, in some part, a geopolitical playground between the great powers related to the ongoing negotiations over the status of Kosovo, but looking back I don’t think it holds up.
Q: You had a very strict lockdown of public life, probably followed by massively increasing unemployment while the health care system is in a bad shape. Have there been any attempts of self-organization in response to the crisis?
A: Notably, “Zakrov nad glavom”3 (Joint Action Roof Over Your Head), a left-wing tenant solidarity network with branches in several cities, has been doing a COVID-19 relief campaign: finding shelter for the homeless and supplying food to the particularly vulnerable. There have also been completely grassroots local aid programs coordinated over the internet, which is quite uplifting.
It’s also probably important to mention major student protests that happened about a week before the main protest wave, over the decision to urgently evacuate student dorms in Belgrade after they turned out to have been compromised by the virus and send everyone home — for the second time this year. Of course, the students were mainly worried that it would mean jeopardizing their family members back home — the protests were a success and they were allowed to stay in the dorms.
Q: In 2017, Serbia was shaken by a wave of strikes and labor struggles (for instance at FIAT). Have there been any labor struggles during the pandemic?
A: Yes, most notably the workers of the South Korean Yura electronics factory4 in Leskovac, notorious for its terrible working conditions, have launched a wildcat strike in April, demanding to be relieved from work after the factory was reported as one of the prime COVID-19 hotspots. Unfortunately, the strike was quickly crushed. At least 15,000 of workers all over Serbia were laid off over the spring and summer, many of them by large foreign companies like Benneton or Hutchinson seeking to cut down on their costs — such large workplaces faced protests by laid off workers, but without much success.
Q: How did the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis change the role of trade unions in these conflicts?
A: I wouldn’t say that there has been a qualitative change — trade unions being an institutionalized mediator between the state and the working class in general that has been used to constrain class revolt as much as push some of the class’ limited interests. But during this crisis the unions have pretty much completely capitulated to the state, any instances of revolt have been independent of them.
Q: Was there a reaction of the government to ongoing labor struggles? Were concessions made, or was the reaction of repressive nature?
A: Well apart from a 100-euro stimulus package for every adult citizen, which was a measure meant to keep the economy afloat independent of any labor struggles, there haven’t been any real concessions. The employers were allowed to keep it up with the lay-offs, though given a stimulus package to discourage them. Some of the most vocal striking workers, like in Yura, have been targeted for “disinformation” and other offenses, by the partnership of their respective companies and the government. Overall, while the state didn’t directly intervene much, the capitalists were given completely free rein in suppressing the labor struggles.
Q: Since the shutdown of Hungarian border crossings, many refugees are stranded in Serbia. Can you illustrate their situation and how the pandemic effected it?
A: The refugees have been crammed up in overloaded reception centers, with poor access to healthcare, and basically forced to stay there like in prisons. Due to the panic over refugees spreading the virus. The police and military were organizing search patrols for refugees, arresting them and indiscriminately chucking them into camps. The situation is especially bad in the north of the country, close to the Hungarian border. Supposedly, Serbia is aiming to build a fence on the Macedonian border in order to stop the refugees from coming via that route.
Q: Do you think that (the area of former) “Yugoslavia” is still a useful frame of reference for the left in the Balkans? Or are the succeeding nation states insurmountably divided by nationalism and separated by their membership in different alliances (EU, NATO) that it’s merely nostalgia by now.
A: Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a lot of space for most things that are more significant than purely symbolic shared declarations or regional academic/NGO conferences. Most of the former Yugoslavia shares a common Serbo-Croatian language, which makes communication easier and allows for regional agitprop platforms without resorting to English, but in practice at this point it makes about as much as much sense to use it as a common political frame of reference as it would to lump Germany, Austria and Switzerland into a single frame of reference too. Each ex-Yugoslav country is by now a nation-state on its own accord, and most actual instances of politics spilling over the borders are based purely on ethnicity. Regional international solidarity will have to be rebuilt from the ground up, but I think that we absolutely have to avoid calls for a “New Yugoslavia” – let us not forget that Yugoslavia was still a (pan-)nationalist project, and that its pan-Slavic nature gave ideological credence to the systematic discrimination of Albanians and other non-Slavs on its territory.
Q: Currently, we experience a major worldwide economic crisis due to the pandemic. The total extent this crisis will have is not clear yet. What are your expectations for, say the next one or two years?
A: I’m no economist and can’t say that I’m informed enough to make a prognosis on the extent of the crisis or all of its concrete effects, but what appears pretty certain is that the geopolitical and economic position of China, apparently being the least harmed by the crisis, will grow even further in significance, and that is bound to impact the Balkans too. Vučić is likely fully aware of that, given the sudden extreme attempts of cozying up to China. I can easily see a scenario where Serbia could turn into China’s economic and diplomatic outpost in Europe.
Q: How could we in Germany support the ongoing struggles of comrades in Belgrade or Serbia in general?
A: I don’t know about Germany, but what I’ve noticed is that a significant part of the international left — mostly it’s Stalinist-aligned component — is spreading this idea of Vučić effectively and responsibly handling the COVID-19 pandemic. I think it is important to break that myth — the bourgeoisie and politicians aren’t our allies, no matter what part of the world we are talking about. Otherwise, it’s probably warranted to give another shout-out to “Joint Action Roof Over Your Head” and “Solidarna Kuhinja”5 (Solidary Kitchen) for the great work that they’ve been doing with self-organizing during the crisis. Though I’m personally not a member, I can’t see how facilitating connections with networks or organizations working on similar projects can be of any harm.