AN EYEWITNESS REPORT:
The day the people took over
From the early morning hours one could hear the sounds of numerous horns coming from cars,trucks and buses pouring into downtown Belgrade from each highway. Licence plates revealed that people had gathered from all over the country. Besides national symbols and anti-Milosevic slogans many of them proudly waved their union flags. Word on the street was that they came to the capital in order to finish up what they started few days ago when most of the factories in Serbia were shut down and general strike was announced. Residents were on their windows and balconies saluting the incoming vehicles. Around this time huge groups of people started to arrive on foot from various suburbs and neghborhoods. Belgrade didn't welcome them "at it's best" though since most of the janitors and thrash collectors were also on strike for days and most of the shops were closed too. When I got downtown, around noon, city streets were already jam packed and the atmosphere was electrified. People were passing food and drinks out of their trunks. They said that they are ready to camp in the streets as long as it takes and that they won't go back home until "the man" resigns. Few came armed with bars and clubs. It was clear that Milosevic wasn't ready to give up the power that easy-at least not without a fight. Some people ran through with red eyes reporting that the police is "easy on the tear gas trigger" and that few smaller incidents already took place in various locations around the city. The main gathering space was organized by the opposition leaders in front of the state parliament. Mass protests on the streets of Belgrade are not a new sight, however the author of these lines never witnessed such a huge and heterogeneous crowd. Students, teachers, different unions all of them marched separately through the city and in the end met in front of the parlaiment. Each square was covered with people and you could see heavy trucks, buses and even bulldozers parked all over serving as perfect roadblocks. "It's now or never"-was the phrase often repeated among the excited mass or "we're going all the way!"-this was the general sentiment that afternoon. Nobody dares to give an official estimate of the number of the people present downtown, but more than half a million were definitely there. Nevertheless, I could have began this saga one day earlier and not make a mistake; because the first barrier wasn't broken in Belgrade, but miles away in a "Kolubara" mining complex.
Protest gatherings in the country and Belgrade started some week ago as soon as the shady official election results were published, but this was a deja-vu in many ways. Just like in 1996 (when the establishment was forced to admit the opposition victory on a local level elections) people flowed into the squares in each bigger city across the country demanding justice and calling for an all out civil disobedience. However, this call was limited to certain social layers. Middle class professionals and the students movement were traditionally at the core of these events. Local small businisses,cinemas, theatres,schools and universities responded to the opposition calls and went on strike instantly, but the industry always remained untouched by these movements. Partly thanks to the openly elitist and anti-workers politics of the oposition leaders and mainly because of the manipulation of the unions conducted by Milosevic's Socialist party through the union bureaucracy, big wave of strikes wasn't seen in last ten years. This time things went further-much further. The turning point happened few months ago, much before the elections, in the place where the class struggle is at the highest level for years now-Kosovo. Under the weak excuse that it's destroying the enviroment some 900 KFOR "peacekeeping" commandos with the help of tanks and helicopters seized the lead-smelting plant in southern Kosovo. Workers refused to go back to work and decided to picket the plant. This event hit Serbia as big news and the establishment couldn't afford to ignore it. They gave the workers support (only in words of course) and the strike had it's place in prime time on national TV. So, this time, after the election results were published, the wave of strikes went deeper than anyone could have imagined. By mid-week , less than 100 factories worked across the state. It started with public transport and garbage collectors and culminated when the country's most important coal mines in the Kolubara district. This particular strike threatened to leave half of the country without electricity. Police squads surrounded the plant immediately and tremendous propaganda was used against them; establishment threatened with lay-offs. Despite these pressures the workers resisted, refused to negotiate and demanded from the opposition leaders to address them personally. On Wednesday evening a bus with one oposition spokesperson managed to break through the police roadblock and go inside the plant, by Thursday morning miners were on their way for Belgrade to put the final nail on Milosevic's coffin. Kolubara miners were just the most famous example, but this pattern could be applied to workers all over the state. As I noted earlier Belgrade was filled with heavy machinery and people who were confident and determined to go "all the way".
Indeed it's really hard to explain everything that was happening that chaotic afternoon. To a casual observer it might appear that the people have "gone mad"and many people will tell you that they witnessed "anarchy", but as Trotsky noticed long tome ago:" Revolution appears to a conservative as collective madness only because it raises the normal insanity of social contradictions to the highest possible tension" It is exactly thanks to this "insane majority" that the history keeps moving along. It is exactly because of this half a million "lunatics" that we got rid of the parasitic bureaucracy that was on our backs for decades. Anyway, I'll try to describe what I saw (or what could be seen through the tear gas clouds).
By 2 p.m. hundreds of thousands of people have already gathered in the area around the state parliament. Opposition leaders held speeches and decided to give Milosevic a 60 minutes deadline by which he has to resign. The biggest mistake, however, would be to believe that the organizers had some kind of absolute influence, power or control over the crowd. Everything that happened that day grew directly out from the general atmosphere and the initiative came from the people. Opposition leaders got "caught unguard" and were pretty hesitant and got left behind in the beginning. The masses made them go probably further than they imagined in their wildest dreams. Around 3 p.m. the crowd ran out of patience. Surprisingly, police roadblock at the front of the parliament was not that massive. This sight encouraged the crowd and first wave took charge on the main staircase. After a short fight with the cops the staircase was won. This symbolic act released cries of support and cheering from the masses. People climbed the stairs and started to celebrate vigorously waving their flags and chanting. However this turned out to be a trap. All of a sudden tear gas bombs started to fall on the staircase and into the crowd from all directions. Police obviously had agent provocateurs inside the crowd and strategically placed people on the rooftops of local buildings "showering" the crowd with tear gas. At that moment all the hell broke loose. So much teargas was released that you could see a huge cloud of smoke rising from other part of the city. People were crying and coughing all over Belgrade. Crowd was chased away from the staircase and people were outraged. "They are trying to suffocate us all!"-screams could be heard. If the crowd came angry, by this time it was already raving mad. Second wave took charge. What was expected the whole day finally took place. The crowd split in dozen smaller groups and dispersed all around the parlaiment and across the area. Police also scattered and abandoned their position and vehicles-nothing could stop the sea of people. Police cars were put on fire and now nothing stood between the protesters and the parliament. You could see individuals climbing and entering the building through smashed windows. While one part of the protesters was entering the building others organized in split of the second. Arming themselves with police equipment that they took over and with bats and shields made out of the parlaiment furniture many chanted "RTS, RTS!" (Radio Television of Serbia-much hated national television building controlled by Milosevic) marking the next target located nearby. All along rain of smoke bombs were falling all over. From this point on people organized spontaneously and took over crucial buildings. Most "private" TV stations and newspaper that were also controlled by the regime were freed without much trouble. Local apparatchiks and "program directors" started to "abandon ship" like rats before the flood. Many of them got caught in front of these buildings and beat down. "Get out, Get out!" -demanded the crowd. They were helped by the staff inside these buildings that refused to take orders and joined the protesters. National Television was guarded by police forces for short period of time. Police already scattered. Many of them took of their uniforms and joined the masses, others desperately tried to stop the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets (real shootouts were also reported). With the help of a bulldozer Television building entrance was pushed through and soon enough the whole building was in flames. The parliament was also set on fire and people kept getting out with "souvenirs". People seated themselves in "minister sofas" which they placed in the streets and enjoyed themselves reading classified documentation and papers with parliament seal. "Rioting" and" looting" was reported all over, however targets were obviously not picked by the level of material gain. Only particular shops were looted. Foreign observers may not understand this , but each object that was torn down had some kind of symbolic significance. For example an exclusive perfume shop in the centre of the city was looted because it is believed that it belongs to Milosevic's son. The parliament represented political oppression, National TV building media propaganda and lies on which this system laid it's foundations-they were both burned to the ground. Of course, local police station was not spared either-unknown quantities of weapons were taken from this station before it was set on fire. By the evening hours most of the battles were already won. "Belgrade is ours!"-could be heard from thousands of throats. Anger slowly transformed into happiness and rioting into celebration. People gathered once again from all sides in front of the "liberated parliament" and two trucks carrying huge speakers made it's way through the crowd that was singing and dancing to the music. Already legendary bulldozer was exhibited for the people and fire extinguishing vehicles were let through to water the burning parlaiment. People already started to debate and organize among themselves spontaneously. Some of them took things out of the parliament and TV building and continued to destroy what was left of it,; others claimed that things should be collected in one place and saved because they are all "our things"and we're going to need them in the future. However, not a single person could completely relax. People did not throw away their "arms" immedieately, since the counterattack and the army was expected. A roumor started to circulate that the army tanks are already on their way to Belgrade. Opposition organizers and politicians finally re-appeared and started to make speeches and "calm down the mass". Vojislav Kostunica (the opposition president candidate) was announced as the "new president of the country" and people greeted him with cheers. During his speech a spontaneous chant started to come from the crowd: "Let's go on Dedinje!"("Dedinje" is a residential area where most of the high profile bureaucracy players and army generals live-including Milosevic). People felt that it is time to seize the moment and "go all the way" while the enemy is still breathless. Kostnica assured the crowd that it is all over ;that there is no need for further fighting and that police won't intervene. In the meanwhile news broke out that the tanks stoped and that the army won't go "against it's own people". The party had started. In the moment that I am writing this the celebration is not over yet. People are still in the streets beeping their horns and taking pictures by the burned out parliament. TV channels began broadcasting once again, but this time publishing uncensored news and playing formerly blacklisted artists. Tons of foreign media journalists are mingling around also. This morning a French reporter asked me to give a statement. She asked me:"what can the European Union do for you now?"--"Leave us alone and let us continue what we started yesterday"-I answered. Confused journalist taught that I misunderstood her and said that she referred to credits and investment. I began to explain how all of this did not bring any good to the people of Eastern Europe or Russia, but she told the cameraman to cut and went along looking for a suitable comment and a victim.
A ceremony was held today honouring the newly formed government and the president. Vojislav Kostunica is not an unanimous political figure in Serbia. He formed and is a leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia- one of many opposition petty bourgeoisie currents. Western media label him as a "moderate nationalist", however I remember him as a right wing reactionary par excellence-a person who never said a single word against Milosevic's war crusades and fetishizes market economy and private property. He does not hesitate to point that he is speaking for and addressing to the Serbs in the country (since, in his words, they are a majority and hence hold the biggest responsibility for the fate of the country) and that he will help us to finally step out of the "communist stone age" and jump on the train with the rest of the "civilized world". Not surprisingly imperialist powers give Kostunica full support. They already mentioned that the sanctions against Yugoslavia will be lifted, but I doubt it will be done completely-at least not without a long list of uncompromising demands delivered straight to Kostunica's office.
The opposition alliance organized a concert for the people and held speeches today. "Kolubara" miners were mentioned and the crowd gave up a big applause, but instead to the miners microphone was passed to a local church figure who said a collective prayer. Kolubara union issued a proclamation today though that will reach the people despite the opposition effort to silence them now that they are "not needed anymore". The strike is not over yet . They demand from the new government to dismiss still active minister for energy and mining from his function or Belgrade will loose electricity once again. This clearly indicates that very valuable lessons were taught during the last few days. Working class got it's courage back and became aware of it's power and the people lost the illusion (if there ever was any) that things can be changed by papers being thrown in a wooden box.
It didn't take that long for the united opposition, led by the newly elected president Vojislav Kostunica, and Milosevic's Socialist Party to find a common ground and something on which they can both agree on. "Chaos" and "Anarchy" are the words most often used by the establishment politicians to describe the current state of the country. They are referring, mostly, to the present situation in the state institutions, companies, schools, banks and the factories. The wave that was initiated on the 5th October is still pretty strong and is crushing everything that dares to stand on its way. Inspired by the recent mass uprising, working people all over Serbia are getting rid of the old managers and directors placed by Milosevic in most state owned companies. Workers and their unions are spontaneously creating "crisis committees" and taking over the control over their workplaces putting the newly elected president in a very difficult situation. Because of it's petty bourgeoisie shortsighted political platform the united opposition never bothered to establish any stronger ties with the unions. This omission came back with a vengeance now, because they have absolutely no control over this process. On one hand, many of these "crisis committees" are openly sympathetic to the opposition forces. However, many stay "neutral" and state that their only interest is the "well being of the collective". Committees are formed mainly under this banner: " To protect the state owned property from the possible robbery conducted by the ousted criminal buearaucrats". This went that far that one of the local opposition spokesperson characterised it as "the revival of worker's self management in Yugoslavia". Kostunica is hesitant to give support for this "bottom up" restructuring insisting that a change must come through the institutions of the system as soon as the new "transitional government"(with ministers from different parties which would be in power until the new elections for the state parliament planed for December are held) is created, otherwise things might get out of control and the country will be in chaos. Indeed, most of the bourgeoisie politicians are expressing "concern" over this phenomenon spreading fear through the media. Union bureaucrats joined this hysteria stating that the unions mustn't be "politicised and abused". There are few things in Yugoslavia today that are not "politicised" though. The students are marching through Belgrade once again, this time insisting that the infamous "university law"(passed by Milosevic in order to stop the frequent student strikes) must be overturned. Two soccer games were interrupted in Belgrade today too- the fans of local popular soccer club ran into the field and smashed the seats. Apparently, they are not satisfied with the "way the club officials are treating them", so the usual soccer songs got replaced by the chants: " management out!". Keeping all this in mind, it's not surprising that the opposition is insisting on their control of the crucial ministry of internal affairs(police) in the transitional government. Kostunica also conducted many meetings with the army generals. This way the opposition is faced with a worker's resistance from the jumpstart-one can not help but imagine what will happen when the new government establishes itself and starts to conduct it's"economic reform program" which consists of rapid and massive privatisation of the state owned companies.
Milosevic's Socialist Party is in a complete dissaray with many purges and local chapters asking for the "reform", also there are many reports of certain individuals trying to change sides at the last moment . At the same time, the "united opposition" is not in a much better shape either. Formed by a number of different parties and petty bourgeoisie currents the Democratic Opposition of Serbia is everything , but a coherent political force. Everything still looks calm on the outside,but now that Milosevic has been overthrown they do not have much in-common and it is only a matter of time before the stiches break between various interests. Kostunica already complained to foreign journalists that :"Certain members of the Democratic Opposition are compromising his authority". Massive youth anti-Milosevic organization -"the Resistance"- issued a statement today claiming that they "still support the opposition", however a point was made they are "keeping their eyes wide open" and reminded the opposition leaders that the people supported them mainly because they were "anti-Milosevic", not because of their political program. As I am writing these lines another proclamation came from the Socialist Party's central committee member and minister for science in which he explicitly states that no decisions made by the so called crisis committees will be respected in any case.Another indicative statement by Kostunica was published today:"I can not justify everything that is happening"-he said. "On the surface we have a calm democratic transition, but under the surface we still have some kind of unpredictable volcano". Indeed, I have to admit that Mr. Kostunica has a pretty good" 6th sense" for an average bourgeoisie politician, but what Kostunica doesn't realize is that this is not an ordinary small scale volcano . Judging from the recent developments both Kostunica & his imperialist friends will have to face a Fuji!