Social resistance to neo-liberal policies in Serbia

with Milenko Srećković from the organization “Pokret za Slobodu”

ParisMinutes of the meeting

Association pour l’Autogestion, ATTAC and the Assemblée Européenne des citoyens

February 3rd, 2014, CICP offices, Paris

By Kassia Aleksić

Translation from French to English by Dorothée Genovese

During the first International Gathering of “The Workers’Economy” (January 31st – February 1st, 2014), workers, activists and researchers shared their experiences on self-management and factory occupation as alternatives to the devastating effects of capitalism. For the occasion, we invited Milenko Srećković, the founder of “Pokret za Slobodu” (Freedom Fight Movement), an organization that is actively involved in the Serbian workers’ struggle in a country that is still too often pictured through the demonized image of Slobodan Milošević and the 1990’s wars. What happened to Serbian society from 2001 onwards? What are the effects of the radical neo-liberal measures implemented on its way to the European Union? Milenko Srećković takes stock of two decades of transition to capitalism (1989-2014) in Serbia and talks about the resistances it found.

From the FRALIB occupied factory (in Aubagne) to the CICP (Centre International de Culture Populaire), rue Voltaire in Paris, the minutes of the meeting.

The Milošević years (1989-2000) violence, sanctions… but survival.

A 20-billion-dollar debt left uncompensated; austerity measures imposed by creditors (International Monetary Fund, Word Bank); the rising of nationalism and the digging of inequalities within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the 1980’s… set the premises of a “foreseen war” [1]. Slovenia declared its independence in 1991 and was followed by Croatia in 1992. Wars subsequently took place in Bosnia (1992-95) and in Kosovo (1998-99). Massive waves of refugees and displaced people flew to Serbia while population flew away from it: between 500,000 and 600,000 people since the beginning of the 1990’s[1]. Serbs also faced external sanctions: trade embargoes (1992-95 and 1998-2000) and NATO bombings (1999). The 3-month “humanitarian intervention” resulted in almost 30 billion dollars of damages. The economic sanctions imposed on Serbia triggered the worst hyperinflation in history. Between October 1st 1993 and January 24th 1995, prices rose by 5 quadrillion percent. This figure is made up of the number 5 followed by 15 zeros: 5 000 000 000 000 000.

Milenko Srećković tells us that devaluation was so quick that the amount of money needed to buy a potato bag in the morning wasn’t enough to buy the same item in the evening. He remembers pensioners queuing in front of the post office early in the morning before it opened. They wanted to make sure they collected their pension before it lost all its worth during the day. There was a joke about the huge figures on the money bills: “We’re the only billionaires in the world who cannot even buy bread!“.

hiperinflacija 1994 srj dinarAnd people survived. Milenko quotes a UNICEF report [2] according to which the country’s mortality rate didn’t increase during those dark years. “Our national production was high enough to resist such external sanctions. We could meet our basic needs“, above all, thanks to the pharmaceutical and food industries. People did not only survive – they protested as well. After electoral fraud was unveiled in 1996-97, Serbs took to the streets and demonstrated for months. The people’s discontent reached its climax on October 2nd 2000 when electoral fraud was attempted once more. Milošević was overthrown.

“Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia was presented as the last socialist country to resist privatization”… wrongly, writes economist Catherine Samary[3]. The main impact of the 1990’s political instability was the freezing of the “economical restructuring” process started in the 1980’s under the IMF and the World Bank’s pressure to settle the country’s debt. Such neo-liberal “reforms” were intensified as soon as Milošević fell, during the so-called “transition” period. Still, they were described as a “democratic” answer to the people’s revolt.

The neo-liberal “transition”: a democratic crisis (2001-2014)

Milenko Srećković holds the state responsible for the bankruptcy of almost 2/3 of companies. Out of the 3017 companies privatized between 2001 and 2011, about 2000 went into bankruptcy (or are about to). As a result, 600,000 workers lost their jobs. Privatization had been depicted as a means to make the country more “accessible”… by opening the market to new owners, and by selling national companies to destroy the economic monopoly held by an oligarchy and make them more profitable. Instead, corruption and criminal networks, which had become wealthier during the 1990’s, largely benefited from the companies’ buyback: tens of billions of dollars were transferred to tax havens through money laundering. Assets were sold, companies filed for bankrupcy and salaries remained unpaid.

Privatizations mark the destruction of national production, as Serbia’s government opens the country to foreign investors. Banking “reforms” introduced private and foreign banks with high interest rates, leading national development banks into bankruptcy. Milenko reminds us that such social banks guaranteed a flow of investments into national economy. Investments are now under the responsibility of the Ministry of Finance that would rather grant such funds to the service sector – to hairdresser’s for example – rather than to industrial ones. Furthermore, the EU’s Stabilization and Association Agreement attracts Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) granting total tax exemption in specific “free areas” while society gets poorer.

According to official figures, unemployment touches almost 25% of the population and rises above 50% among young people (from 16 to 25 years old). However, these figures don’t take reality into account. “The national employment center holds a set of tactics aimed at reducing figures”, claims Milenko. A million workers are actually jobless. The government works on a project on work legislation. It would drastically reduce the rights of those who actually work (a little more than 1.7 million people) and includes the reduction of annual paid leave, 2-year work contracts, temporary workforce with potential transfer in any region of the country at the mercy of employers’ will [4]… in the name of the sacrosanct “flexibility”.

The project holds similarities with the French “first employment contract” (Contrat de Première Embauche, CPE) that authorized unlimited lay-offs of young people under 26. The CPE never came into place thanks to the 2006 mass social demonstrations organized. In Serbia, the “reform” of labour law was withdrawn before being even introduced to the parliament thanks to the mobilization of the country’s two main trade unions in January 2014. Does that presume the existence of “new radical left-wing politics”? [5] Milenko Srećković puts the enthusiasm of a French audience into perspective. The trade unions were financed by political parties and followed the logic of clientelism.

Social Resistance…

As workers couldn’t (entirely) rely on trade unions, they turned to self-organization. They blocked roads, arranged demonstrations and sit-ins in front of national institutions for days, held employers prisoner, used deliberate self-harm and hunger strikes in order to protest against the unpaid salaries and the deterioration of their working conditions. Jugoremedija, a pharmaceutical factory (that fought for more than four years until 2007) is one example of self-management. The awakening of the Yugoslav socialist experience? In 1948, Tito distanced himself from Stalin and established self-management as the Yugoslav national ideology, leading to institutional failure, but to some social successes as well. “I don’t think that self-management is enough to face some of the challenges ahead, underlines Milenko Srećković. Serbia faces problems that mostly result from macroeconomic instability. Since many companies were destroyed by privatizations, there’s nothing left to self-manage…

Founded in 2004, “Pokret za Slobodu” supports the worker’s fights. “Our objective is to provide them with more visibility at a national level”, underlines Milenko. “Our organization doesn’t have any system of membership. Everything is self-managed locally”. “Pokret za Slobodu” initiated the Coordinating Committee for Workers Protests in Serbia during the workers’ demonstrations in 2009. In a centralized country such as Serbia, one of the challenges was to make demonstrators come all the way to the capital. In 2009, more than 200 workers from the Zastava elektro (Rača) factory demonstrated in front of the Privatization Agency in Belgrade, “Pokret za Slobodu”‘s main target.

The organization’s objectives are clear: cancel privatization contracts; dismiss employers; fight against the deindustrialization of the country and the land-grabbing process carried out by private companies, as well as the transfer of funds towards multinationals; conduct investigations on fraud and money laundering operations linked to the privatization process, and take action to turn towards a more democratic economy and a local management of companies.

Questions and prospects

Images of strikes and demonstrations are broadcasted: the demonstrators are mostly older, notices someone in the audience. Are young people stigmatized as being left-wing, thus bearing the memory of socialism? Milenko Srećković thinks that the majority of the population is directly affected by the austerity measures and supports the demonstrations, passively at least. The 1990’s left a trace. Opposition materialized to contest the outwardly displayed “communism” of Milošević. Hopefully, Serbia will be normalized by entering the European Union’s free market, a democratic model that was fully tried and disappointed. As for left-wing values, a genuine educational work remains to be done at the people’s level to get rid of the ideological blurring of the 90’s thanks to which the “opportunistic dictator”, as Milenko Srećković calls him, played the card of capitalist realpolitik, anti-imperialism or partisan resistance.

Have you developed international networks of solidarity? Yes, we have. With Via Campesina, the Confédération Paysanne, ATTAC, today the Association pour l’autogestion and the network and most particularly the militants of the republics of ex-Yugoslavia. Do you manage to overstep national divisions and join forces through class struggle? A debate that would incorporate social and national issues in a progressive way is needed, said Catherine Samary to us, a few days later. We’re in front of a café at the Gare du Nord, where espressos get an extra shot after 3pm. I was taught to distinguish nationalism from national rights and sentiment. Let’s put the debate on potential EU integration aside. Let’s use its weaknesses, its contradictions, what it needs in order to gain legitimacy, to compromise its competition-based economy.

We would have never imagined that a new “Spring” would come from Bosnia and Herzegovina a few days later. All in all, what are our alternatives?


[1] Catherine Samary, “La fragmentation de la Yougoslavie, une mise en perspective”, Cahiers d’études et de recherches, numéro 19/20, 1992 (en ligne)

[2] Economic Sanctions, Health, and Welfare in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia 1990-2000 (en ligne)

[3.] Catherine Samary, “Réinsérer la Serbie dans l’analyse de la transition. Rapports de propriété, Etat et salariat”, Revue d’études comparatives Est-Ouest. Volume 35, 2004, N°1-2. Sortir de la transition bloquée: Serbie-Monténégro. pp. 117-156

[4.] “Droit du travail en Serbie: le grand bond en arrière”, traduit par Claire Vallet, Blic, 8 janvier 2014[5.] “Serbie: l’émergence d’une “nouvelle gauche” radicale”, Courrier des Balkans, 28 janvier 2014