Tuesday, 15 September 2015


'Serbia's October Revolution'

The article below was written in January 2001 by Brian Bamford
then working as Northern Editor for Freedom, and was first published on the
  A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E   http://www.ainfos.ca/ 
 after being sent to them on Sun, 25 Feb 2001 from Madrid by
Chris Robinson, a Canadian anarchist then linked
to the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist trade union CGT trade union. 
It was published on that site after having been rejected by
Freedom then edited by Toby Crow, a friend of Donald Rooum. 
The article below is of some interest now because Serbia is now on
the route to Hungary being followed by many of the refugees from
WAS the storming of Belgrade by enraged citizens of Serbia in October of 2000 really a piece of showmanship comparable with the script in Eisenstein's film October?  Some independent writers in the Belgrade press and the Belgrade anarchists are sceptical about some of the more theatrical scenes portrayed in the media, with crowds leaping up the steps of the Federal Parliament and flames flaring from the television studio RTS on October 5 2000 while the NEWS cameras whirled. 

What the Belgrade anarchists are cautioning is that people should distinguish between those features of the Serbian October revolt which were orchestrated and those that were spontaneous. And if stage management occurred who was behind it? 

My main contact in Belgrade, Vladimir Markovic, called what happened on the final day the Agit-Prop Revolution". He urged us to consider the stagecraft and media management used to arouse in the public mind the idea that something world shattering was happening - something like a 'revolution'. On reflection, he and other Belgrade anarchists feel the events of October 5th, with the change of rulers of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, though  necessary and overdue were less significant than the media images suggest.   


The Belgrade anarchists do not just base their doubts about the degree of  political change in Yugoslavia after October on their own anarchist dogma.  They are employing practical reasoning and straightforward observation of the groups, parties and individuals acting in Serb society. 

They are keenly aware of the entrenched nature of the economy which has evolved since the West imposed sanctions in 1992. And because they have insights into the developments in the regime which go beyond the websites and newsprint, they know what to expect from opposition leaders like the Federal President, Vojislav Kostunica and Zoran Djindic the boss of the DOS (Democratic Opposition of Serbia) coalition. More importantly for anarchists, they have grave misgivings about 'Otpor' (Resistance) in which many anarchists outside Serbia have had high hopes.

The British anarchist paper Freedom ran in October (2000) a front page report stating:
'The biggest catalyst for change ... has been the movement known as Otpor (Resistance), a leaderless (and for that matter anarchistic) organisation, with no formal membership.' 
Ratibor Trivunac disputed this in his Summary of the General Strike in Serbia, in October last year. When I spoke to Vladimir Markovic, Ratibor's friend and another Belgrade anarchist,  he confirmed Ratibor's criticisms and gave me an outline of the nature of Otpor. 

Otpor was founded in 1998 and was made up mainly of students. It claims to be a 'leaderless movement'. Markovic admits that as an organisation in the universities Otpor was a useful campaigning group to begin with, and it still has decent people among its members. But Markovic claims the organisation does have senior figures in it who lead the organisation, and that this leadership is composed of about ten key individuals. 

These star figures, it is suggested, work closely with both elements within the party system of the new regime and co-operate with foreign agencies. I wasn't given hard facts, the local anarchists in Belgrade are in the main working on hunches here. Their claim that the US authorities are linked to the Otpor leaders can only be speculation. What they do argue persuasively is that here is an organisation which seems to be well funded, and had no trouble mounting expensive protests during the era of Milosevic and his Socialist Party of Serbia. Markovic argues that eventually Otpor got backing from people inside the Milosevic establishment, from media people and from people in the opposition parties. 

Inside Otpor Markovic says the Council of Otpor operates. He says this is made up of professors from the universities and members of the Academy of Arts and Sciences. The novelist and politician, Dobrica Cosic, has links with this Council of Otpor. Cosic was President of Yugoslavia in 1992 and 1993. He has long been a promoter of the idea of the culture of Serb nationalism.

Misha Glenny, in his book The Fall of Yugoslavia (1992) claimed 'Cosic and some like-minded academics from the Serbian Academy of Sciences had been behind a notorious document called the Memorandum - in 1986 - (t)his bitter attack on the Kosovo policy of the then Communist authorities anticipated the atmosphere of national intolerance which was about to smother reason in Yugoslavia.'  

Curiously both Misha Glenny, the BBC journalist, and Vladimir Markovic, the Belgrade anarchist, identify the intellectuals at the Academy as being the chief culprits culturally creating the conditions of new Serb nationalism.

Misha Glenny argues 'The Memorandum (of 1986) both prepared the ideological ground for Milosevic by focusing public opinion yet more tightly on the Kosovo issue and indicated to this ambitious apparatchik that here was a real base among intellectuals for a nationalist assault .. '

Some anarchists, like most Marxists, are intellectual snobs who focus readily on the politician's dirty hands but who avert their eyes from the vanities of the ideas merchant who creates the cultural conditions in which the politician works. Vladimir Markovic was one of those anarchists who wanted to stress the danger of what George Orwell called The Dictatorship of Theorists.

Here we have the image of the intellectuals at the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences and theologians in the Serb Orthodox Church sowing, while politicians like Milosevic merely reaped. Markovic maintains that the Serb intellectuals were the dogmatic nationalists, and the politicians practical people at once more utilitarian and pragmatic. But it was these practical men who ended up with dirt on their hands. Meanwhile the illustrious theorists, like Dobrica Cosic, at the Academy and in the church go on to sow more seeds.


The Balkans, with its legacy from the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs, is often seen as a bridge between East and West. This seems to be important to understanding what is going on in the new governments of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Serb Republic and, importantly, in Otpor.

The theorists of Otpor, according to my informants in the Belgrade anarchists, have developed their ideas rooted in ancient attitudes and hatreds of all things they see as being 'Eastern'. These ideologues are stirring up the concept of a culture clash in Serbia between two traditions - one eastern, the other western.Vladimir Markovic calls this Cultural Racism; the dichotomy is thus defined:

An alien Asian, oriental culture which was introduced by the Turks in the 14th century and continued by Tito in the 20th century. Crudely classified as 'Oriental Despotism', an era of Turks, Sultans and Communist Commissars, belonging to a history which the Serbs should shed, together with the music and way of life that goes with it, like dead skin. 

The Otpor idea is that Serbian 'real' culture is Western, European and of the Enlightenment, but curiously it also embraces the Serbian Orthodox Church as part of this tradition. This approach proposes the spirit of individual enterprise and liberal values in contrast to Muslim and Middle Eastern ideas and values. This, according to Markovic, is a Western Enlightenment vision at once intolerant, totalitarian and ignorant.   

Let us consider the sinister sequence of events which started in 1986 with the Memorandum; in April 1987 Slobodan Milosevic made his dramatic speech at Kosovo Polje which one Kosovo Serb, Miroslav Soljevic later said 'enthroned him as a Tsar'; on May 8th 1989 Milosevic assumed the presidency of Serbia, but timed the ceremony to coincide with the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, which took place on June 28th at Gazimestan on the battlefield in front of all Yugoslavia's top politicians and an audience of one million.   

The Memorandum was put together by academics at the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, some then in the Serbian Communist Party (now re-named the Socialist Party of Serbia); today some of these same people, like Dobrica Cosic, are now influentially linked to Otpor and the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS). In an essay written last June, entitled 'The Serbian opposition during and after the NATO bombing', Vladimir Ilic warns us about the efforts of the then opposition to the Milosevic regime to recruit 'elite' figures from the University, Writers' Union, Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He says 'These institutions were the ideological strongholds of ethnic nationalism in Serbia and gave a big contribution to the creation of the  phenomenon that is most frequently coupled to Milosevic's name.'   

What the Belgrade anarchists and other critics are now arguing is that, with the fall of Milosevic regime and development of the new system dominated by the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, Serb politics is undergoing metamorphosis. This is the kind of change which occurs when the maggot becomes a bluebottle. Thus Serbian intellectuals at the Academy of Arts and the Universities, who previously influenced the Serbian Socialist system of Milosevic, are now admired by the elements in the new regime of Kostunica and Djindic, and among the supporters of Otpor (Resistance). 

Markovic illustrated this by describing an Otpor demo last year in his in southern Serbia.  At that demo the organisers invoked the epic poem The Mountain Wreath, declaring:

Have done with minarets and mosques!

Let flare the Serbian Christmas-log;

Paint gaily too the eggs for Easter-tide;

Observe with care the Lent and Autumn Fasts,

And for the rest - do what is dear to thee!

It continues in a warlike tone:

Though broad enough Cetinje Plain,

No single seeing eye, no tongue of Turk,

Escap'd to tell his tale another day!

We put them all unto the sword,

All those who would not be baptiz'd; .

We put to fire the Turkish houses,

That there might be nor stick nor trace

Of these true servants of the Devil!

Now however suitable this kind of literary epic may be in seminars at the Academy, one wonders if it is seemly that it should be profiled at a political function in Nis. Least of all at a gathering of Otpor, who some claim has libertarian and anarchistic credentials, and many credit with contributing to the popular overthrow of Milosevic and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS),. Time Judah writes in his book 'The SERBS - History, Myth & the Destruction of Yugoslavia' " . it is essential to understand that many Bosnian Serbs went to war in 1992 elated and in the spirit of . The Mountain Wreath.'


Under the Tito regime the ethnic elites in Yugoslavia sought to restrain the nationalism of their various regions. In June 1968 there was uproar at Belgrade University as it followed in the trail of events in Paris, Prague and other places that summer. The Belgrade student strikes focused on conditions at first, but quickly became political. Authoritarianism, unemployment and the Vietnam war were denounced, but there was no sign of Serb nationalism. Much of the inspiration came from the philosophy faculty of Mihailo Markovic and others associated with Praxis, the liberal Marxist journal.  

Initially Tito declared his backing for the students. He went on TV and protested that the nation's bureaucracy had obstructed the common aims he shared with the students. Two weeks after the students surrendered the University, Tito demanded the sacking of Markovic and others in the philosophy department on grounds that they were corrupting the country's youth.

Some of today's anarchists in Belgrade trace their history back to those events in 1968. By the 1970s Zoran Djindic, now leader of the governing coalition in Serbia - the DOS - became an anarchist and remained so for about 10 years. Today younger people are in evidence among the Belgrade anarchists.
Some of these young anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists are wary of the students in Otpor and the whole university scene. Ratibor Trivunac claims:

'Otpor is a nationalistic, neo-liberal organisation which is led by a few organisers . , they are also funded by western countries.'  

Even in 1991, Misha Glenny describes how the politicians were using the students:  
'I bumped into Zoran Djindic organising his student battalions.  Djindic was in his element - a leading and respectable D.S. (Democratic Party) parliamentarian, he had never been able to discard his Marcusian memories gained as a disciple of the Frankfurt School.'  
The political writings of the anarchist academic, Noam Chomsky, had been selectively published under the Milosevic regime to justify its own case against the west. In such publications Chomsky was not identified as a libertarian socialist.

These Belgrade anarchists now look to the workers' movement and some of the trade unions as a focus of resistance to the new DOS regime of Djindic and Kostunica. To them the General Strike and the spontaneous actions of workers in the coal mines, at Cacak and in Belgrade, were crucial to the final overthrow of Milosevic. They see the more photogenic scenes outside the Federal Parliament on October 5th, 2000 as largely froth.

The Belgrade anarchists are seeking a meeting with Branislav Canak, President of 'NEZAVISNOST' - United Branch Trade Unions (UGS). This union federation has 157,000 members based in engineering, education, public utilities, transport, agriculture and mining. Canak himself voiced his backing for the demonstrations in Seattle against global capitalism. The fairytales which the Belgrade anarchists are challenging are: the 'anarchistic' credentials of Otpor; the 'revolutionary' status of the new regime and the nature of its transformation, which they would liken to metamorphosis; and the 'radical' role of the intellectuals in Serbian society. The Balkan experience ought to warn us all against absurd generalisations and cookbook critiques drafted in a rush on far-flung  campuses to prop-up some grand theory of global politics. 


Northern Editor of Freedom UK, January 2001

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