Anti-Privatization Protests in Serbia
Interview with Milenko Sreckovic,
prepared by the Global Balkans Network
The IMF recently concluded a one-week mission to Serbia, during which it extended the second-tranche of a EUR 4.3-billion loan package to Serbia. However, it gave the government until late October to reign in public sector spending as a condition for disbursing the third-tranche of the agreement (worth EUR 1.4-billion) by the end of the year.
The tough negotiations come at a time when the incumbent government of Serbia is facing a 4% contraction in its economy and a determined workers movement that refuses to bear the burden of economic restructuring after years of corruption that has bound together key Serbian business and political interests in the squandering of public funds. 2009 is also the self-imposed deadline set by the government for completing the sell-off of all ‘socially owned’ (i.e. formerly self-managed) companies in Serbia.
There are currently over 30 strike actions throughout the country, many of which have taken-on radical forms in recent months, including: factory occupations, railway blockades, city-hall and police station takeovers, sleep-ins, boss-nappings, hunger strikes, even a case of self-mutilation. In these actions workers are often seeking to prevent shady privatization deals from occurring, or trying to save their jobs and enterprises from bankruptcy (following such privatizations). The main concern of most workers in these actions is to ensure the continued payment of salaries, compensation, etc… upon which their survival and those of their communities depends. Many of these strikes have been organized at the factory level, with little input from the mainstream unions in Serbia.
In recent days a number of Strike Committees have come together to form a Coordinating Committee for Workers Protests in Serbia (CCWPS). Currently five Strike Committees have joined the CC representing workers from 3 cities and 5 branches of industry (electrical components, pharmaceuticals, rail-products, food-processing, and confectionary products). One of the groups in the new Coordinating Committee, the workers of Zastava-Elektro from the city of Raca are currently in Belgrade in front of the headquarters of Serbia’s Privatization Agency.
The Global Balkans collective interviews Milenko Sreckovic of the Freedom Fight movement in Serbia, and a Secretary of the Coordinating Committee for Workers Protests in Serbia, about the current situation in the country.
(1) The IMF was just recently in Serbia to negotiate re: the disbursement of a EUR 4.3-billion loan to the country. What is the current situation in Serbia with respect to the economic crisis? What makes 2009 an important year in Serbia’s privatization attempts?
The current economic collapse in Serbia would have occurred even without the ‘economic crisis.’ It’s the direct result of a range of neoliberal economic measures. The privatization process in Serbia, which is a central component of the neoliberal project, brought about the ruin of many factories and the near total de-industrialization of the country. This process began in 2001, in its most extreme form, when the new ‘democratic’ government of Serbia introduced a new Privatization Law. At that time all socially owned property was confiscated and its privatization became mandatory. A deadline was imposed by state authorities for the completion of the privatization process. That deadline runs out at the end of this year!
However, following eight years of privatization, the general opinion is that privatization only served to ravage an economy that somehow managed to survive the sanctions of the 1990s and a [three month] NATO bombing campaign in 1999. Of course, it wasn’t the most prosperous economy in Europe at the time, but it had the potential to develop and employ a large number of people given the right approach.
By 2002, a number of domestic development banks [i.e. Beobanka, Investbanka, Beogradska banka, Jugobanka], which could have extended credits to industry at low-interest, were deliberately driven into bankruptcy by the government. With this move the space was created to open branches of foreign banks (none of which had a developmental function).1 This [financial reform] was supported by the IMF and the World Bank and implemented by the IMF’s domestic cadres. These cadres [like Mladjan Dinkic] have been permanent fixtures in every Serbian government [since October 2000]. Domestic industry, already shaken up by 10 years crisis [in the 1990s], suddenly found itself without a source of favorable credit.
The state has shown little interest in maintaining production in those enterprises that employ a large number of workers. Receipts from the sale of factories were used to fill the state-budget and purchase social peace, while enabling a favorable infrastructure for foreign investors to be created so that they could engage in green-field investments in the newly opened “free zones.” These “free zones” are characterized by working conditions that offer minimal pay, thereby allowing foreign investors to use cheap-labour (which is cynically called our “comparative advantage” by local neoliberal economists).
Currently there is a marked increase in labour protests largely due to the non-payment of wages and benefits, or because of layoffs, etc… Workers are increasingly demanding from the [Serbian] Privatization Agency put an end to a spate of bad privatization deals. In fact, this Agency is the best evidence that the new ‘democratic’ authorities totally retained the model of a centralized state from the communist period, since they now need this apparatus to introduce neoliberal reforms. That is to say, this type of Agency is an integral part of the state wherever such massive privatizations occur. Such a powerful state agency has never existed in Serbia (regardless of which Empire ruled in the region!).
Of course, it was precisely such a strong Privatization Agency that was needed to secure the ultimate goal – to allow new private owners to purge these newly acquired assets of their workers, while retaining ownership over all the plant, capital and land of these factories. They could then either sell or rent this newly ‘freed’ space to other businesses. In this way they were able to create a high-rate of unemployment, creating an important precondition for “green-field” investments. Workers have taken to pointing out the persistent involvement of the Privatization Agency’s functionaries in such criminal activities that have driven many factories to ruin [often in direct violation of the stipulations regulating their privatization]. However, the legal system is set up in such a way that the Agency is always right, and even when it has clearly failed to uphold the law [everyone knows that] nothing will happen. This is because a good portion of the proceeds from privatization have gone into the financing of political parties (both among those in the current government and for those in the oppositions ranks).
(2) How has the workers movement responded?
The independent, grassroots workers’ movement in which we’re participating draws on the experience of the workers’ struggle in the city of Zrenjanin from recent years. This is a model that we’re trying to spread to other cities in Serbia. Zrenjanin, which was one of the industrial centers of both Serbia and the former Yugoslavia, suffered a total collapse of local industry. The current unemployment rate there now stands at 35%.
However, in Zrenjanin there were also factories where workers offered strong resistance, like in the Jugoremedija pharmaceutical factory – where they succeeded in removing the new owner who was leading the company into bankruptcy. These workers recently succeeded in installing their own management, restarted production and saved their jobs. Having solved their own existential problems, they continued to struggle in solidarity with their local community, establishing a working-class political party known as Ravnopravnost (Equality) and extending their solidarity to workers from other factories in Zrenjanin that were caught-up in similar struggles. The movement has received the support of the local community, as well as many organizers and public figures from outside Zrenjanin, including some engaged intellectuals like Nebojsa Popov (the editor of Republika) and Ivan Zlatic, an activist from the Freedom Fight movement, etc…
The movement we’re building is based on the right to work, or I should say more precisely, the right of workers to decide on the fate of the factories in which they’re employed and from which they themselves, along with their families and their local communities, live.
Another important stronghold of this movement is in the city of Raca, near Kragujevac. Raca has become the site of one of the most determined and most radical workers’ struggles for the preservation of their work-places. During the past month we managed to link together the representatives of Strike Commitees from several enterprises and suggested that, in moments where there’s a real possibility and need, that they could coordinate their efforts and struggle for their rights together. On this basis we founded the Coordinating Committee for Workers Protests in Serbia (CCWPS) (more information).
(3) Tell us about the new Coordinating Committee?
During the recent, August 11th, Zastava-Elektro workers protest in front of the Privatization Agency in Belgrade [during which the workers spent the night in front of Agency], we invited workers from similarly affected enterprises that we’ve been working with to join us. The intention was to extend the solidarity that existed between workers in a given city to workers from other cities that might be at quite a distance from each other. It was in this way that we created the basis for a Coordinating Committee that was established by the representatives of workers from the Zastava-Elektro [electrical components] factory in Raca, the Srbolek [pharmaceutical] factory in Belgrade, as well as workers from Sinvoz [rail-car production] and BEK [food processing] plants in Zrenjanin. We put a callout for other Strike Committees in Serbia to join us.
A few days later, workers from the Ravanica [confectionary] factory in Cuprija joined the Coordinating Committee. We’re expecting more Strike Committees to join us in the coming days. The plan is to be prepared for the fall when an escalation in worker discontent and rebellion is expected throughout Serbia. The main aim is to struggle in solidarity with one another against the collapse of our factories and the protection of our jobs. The government has already put together its team for the suppression of workers protests, with the aim of silencing our concerns. Now we must demonstrate that we’re strong, united and organized, because otherwise the entire democratic potential of the workers movement will disappear into case-specific negotiations with the government working group.
(4) What concrete successes has this Committee already had?
We are struggling to ensure that the government’s “working group” accepts the [democratically elected] representatives of the Strike Committees as their interlocutors in any future negotiations. The government has already chosen its own partners in carrying out the so-called “social dialogue,” which were obviously chosen from the leadership of the mainstream unions. The workers in Serbia are deeply disillusioned with the behavior of the big unions, especially in the course of the past year – and especially since the onset of the economic crisis – because they’ve shown themselves to be allies of the government in attempting to slow down the current strike-wave. In some cases they were even directly involved in sabotaging some actions by workers. It is for this reason that we’re asking that the governments main interlocutors on the side of the workers be a coordinating body that represents the interests and demands of the actual workers’ Strike Committees [at the factory level]. We’ve put some real pressure on the government, and we’ll continue to do so. We’re hoping for positive results.
However, if this question is hinting at the success achieved in light of the recent offer by the owner of Zastava-Elektro, Ranko Dejanovic, to return the factory to the ownership of the workers (following six months of radical strike action)… I have to let you know that we’ve rejected the owner’s offer. The negotiations with the government are always tied-up in avoiding a number of traps that they’re trying to set for us. This offer [from Dejanovic] is one of these traps, even though the media presented it as a big victory for the workers. In fact, all they’re giving us is a factory that the current owner has overburdened with serious debts and mortgage issues. It would be only a matter of days before such a factory faced bankruptcy. It would be hard to resume production so long as the state refuses to cancel all the debts accumulated by Dejanovic (debts accumulated in partnership with functionaries from the Privatization Agency, which allowed him to retain ownership for so long – even though he was clearly violating his obligations [under the terms of the privatization agreement]).
The struggle for the future of Zastava-Elektro continues to this very moment. Today, workers will again hold a protest in front of the Privatization Agency (unless, of course, the police again tries to prevent bus-companies from driving the workers from Raca to Belgrade). If this happens, we’ll again have to blockade either the communal police station, the city council, or the main railway-line near Raca.
(5) What is the position of women and minorities in the workers movement?
There is no exclusion in this movement of anyone on the basis of their gender or nationality. Every well-intentioned person is welcome to join this workers movement, regardless if they’re male, female or belong to an ethnic minority group. In fact, I’d draw your attention to the fact that the workers collectives in which women are in the overwhelming majority are more steadfast in their struggles. In the cases of Jugoremedija and Zastava-Elektro, more than 70% of those employed are women.
(6) What are the strengths and weaknesses of this movement?
The greatest strength of this movement is the mutual trust that exists within it. This trust is invaluable and it took years to build. The biggest problem that we’re confronting is the fact that Serbia and the former Yugoslavia have a longstanding legacy of authoritarian intelligence agencies which, in the current context, aren’t able to carry out their repression against people in the open. Instead, in the interests of the powerful, they attempt to sabotage the resistance to injustice and exploitation through manipulation and corruption. Many people had their lives completely destroyed when they decided to say enough is enough to the authorities. Its depressing when you see a government calling itself democratic, but as soon as it feels its hold on power slipping, resorts to all kinds of provocations, intrigues, bribery, sophistry, blackmail and threats. However, people have really had enough of everything.
(7) Is there a danger of the right capitalizing on popular discontent as a result of this crisis as it has elsewhere?
The right has, for the most part, profited during elections as a result of popular discontent. Their demagogic approach to social policy is convincing to many. The biggest opposition party at the moment is close to the extreme right. On the other hand, the so-called ‘pro-European’ and ‘democratic’ parties are corrupt, are loyally implementing neoliberal policies, while their social policy is catastrophic. Workers are increasingly recognizing the need for their own party, which we’ve already seen happen in Zrenjanin. I firmly believe that we’ll soon see the current political scene filled with authentic working-class parties, so that the workers discontent will no longer be misused by either the right or the false champions of ‘social justice.’
(8) What can folks from the outside do to support local resistance to neoliberalism?
The most important thing is that information about our struggle be disseminated in an accurate way. Even though the problem of workers and oppressed groups in society are similar throughout the world as a result of globalization, every context also has its own specificities which we must come to know in detail before making any conclusions. These specificities can often be the source of misunderstandings, since everywhere one can find opportunists and grandstanding individuals among leftist activists who do things only to impress their friends on the international scene. Such activities may not be related to the local context in which they operate in any way, but they’ll still take such actions. Such opportunists in fact can bring real harm to actual struggles occurring in their local context. For this reason it is important that the situation in Serbia is understood and transmitted in a precise way, so that there is no room for manipulation. •
Global Balkans is an activist research, media, and organizing network that works both locally and in solidarity with Balkan social movements to investigate, publicize and impact political, social and economic struggles in the former Yugoslav and wider Balkan region. We are working to build a transnational, anti-nationalist, anti-capitalist, and anti-authoritarian network with a pan-Balkan and internationalist outlook (currently based in San Francisco, Toronto, and Montreal). We can be reached at globalbalkans[at]gmail[dot]com.
The Global Balkans Network will be holding a Montreal Launch & Benefit event on October 7th, with speakers from Global Balkans, film clips from "tranzicija / transition," an upcoming documentary on the neoliberal transition in Serbia, and Balkan music. All proceeds go to the Coordinating Committee for Workers’ Protests in Serbia & Voice of Roma. For more information and updates, please go to www.globalbalkans.org