• Some Notes on the Socialist Alternative in Post-Yugoslav Space

  • By Anej Korsika | 17 Nov 14 | Posted under: Central and Eastern Europe , Slovenia , The Left
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    What if nobody attacks you?

    Stane Dolanc (1925-1999) was one of the most important Slovenian politicians in former Yugoslavia and among a few of the close trusted friends of President Josip Broz Tito. During his political career he held various high posts and argued for a strong, authoritarian rule of the League of Communists1 of Yugoslavia; he also categorically opposed the nationalist tendencies stemming from various republics. The story goes that during the early 1980s student uprisings in Priština, capital of Kosovo, Dolanc was explaining the situation to representatives of the foreign press. Supposedly he failed to provide any concise political analysis and entangled himself in contradictions. To save his face he changed the subject and began talking about geostrategic issues. Confidently, he asserted, ‘If the West should attack us, the Soviet Union will defend us’, and if ‘the Warsaw Pact attacks us, the West will defend us’, insisting that the political stability of the federation was not in question. A German reporter then asked Dolanc, ‘But what if nobody attacks you?’ This question, which was dodged by Dolanc as self­evidently comical, too quickly proved a sinister prediction of the coming bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia.

    ‘Brotherhood and Unity’, the principal motto of the former socialist Yugoslavia, was shattered through wars, genocide, and nationalism, until nothing but nostalgic memories have remained. The trauma of the thorough break-up of Yugoslavia provided for a peculiar state of affairs. A multinational state that shared 45 years of common history and prided itself on the bedrock of its unified uprising against the Nazi occupier suddenly became torn apart by something quite unimaginable, its internal contradictions. It is not our intention, nor is this the time and place, to go into the analysis of the factors in breakup.2 At this point we can only schematically point out that the breakup process was not a sudden nor a simple affair. It was a long-term process, beginning at least in the 1970s, and it included a complex mixture of foreign factors (the International Monetary Fund and the Non-Aligned Movement) and domestic factors (liberal3 and nationalist tendencies). All of this must be borne in mind if one is to understand the contemporary heterogeneity of the ex-Yugoslav republics. One could reasonably argue that there is no group of countries that have been so politically and economically tightly knit together but which have then experienced such a dramatic rupture. The common history then does not simplify an understanding of the contemporary situation; it makes it more difficult.

    This paper aims at presenting the case of Slovenia, always considered somehow exceptional among the former republics of Yugoslavia. We will present a general political-economic trajectory of its period of transition, its specificities, and ultimately its catching up with the ‘textbook case Eastern European transition’. We will then focus on the theoretical and political development of Marxism and socialism, which culminated in the socialist United Left coalition’s entrance into the Slovenian National Assembly in 2014. Ultimately, we will try to present the situation in other ex-Yugoslav countries, mainly concerning ourselves with the general state of affairs and a bit more concretely with the progressive theoretical and political forces at work in these countries.

     

    Slovenia: Running the gauntlet of liberalism, conservativism, and social democracy

    Ever since the disintegration of Yugoslavia, which was complete by 2004, Liberal Democracy of Slovenia (LDS) was the absolute hegemon of Slovenian politics. Thanks to the good level of organisation of the working class and the powerful trade unions, the Slovenian transition took place much more gradually than in other countries of the former Eastern Bloc or republics of Yugoslavia. Gradual as it was, the Slovenian transition was not without its dark spots (notably, the case of the Erased4), which even surpassed some of the effects of the economic shock doctrine implemented in Eastern Europe. Towards the end of 1990s, despite the initial gradualism, an ever more intensified capital concentration began to develop, which was further intensified after the entrance of Slovenia into the European Union in 2004. It was, in fact, the process of entering Euro-Atlantic organisations that was the main political narrative presented by the liberal political bloc, the LDS. Entering these organisations, so the story went, would fulfil the centuries old dream of finally entering the ‘European family of nations’, as if Slovenia was moving away from the Balkans, especially away from former Yugoslav capital, Belgrade, and entering the real Europe, by sending its representatives to the new capital, Brussels. As if the Balkans suddenly had a monopoly on all the negative practices, such as corruption, clientelism, negligence, etc. and the EU stood for rationality, the rule of law, accuracy, etc. Indeed, such was the political and popular discourse of the time that one of the most common phrases used to justify anything was ‘This is a common European practice’.

    Although practically unchallenged in its power for almost twelve years (1992-2004), the liberal bloc had to face its first defeat in 2004, when the conservative bloc under the leadership of the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) of Janez Janša, came to power. The defeat of the liberal bloc triggered a dramatic crisis in the ranks of LDS, and the party experienced a gradual process of disintegration, with the continual formation of new parties through which former high representatives tried their luck in future elections. Janez Janša, whose mandate as a prime minister lasted from 2004 to 2008, began his mandate with the proposal to implement a flat tax. After the intense backlash from trade unions, he had to downgrade his ambitions around tax reform and transform the former five tax groups into merely three. A direct consequence of this tax was that the state of Slovenia has diminished its annual tax revenues by some 900 million euros ever since the reform was implemented in 2006. These fiscal shortcomings are now, in times of crisis, dealt with by means of austerity measures and cuts to the public sector, policies that are highly detrimental to people with low incomes and insecure jobs. The wealthy are now able to afford private healthcare, while the mass of the population is ‘stuck’ with public health services, which are seriously underfinanced and understaffed. In a time of high economic growth (in 2007 the annual GDP growth was a record 7 per cent), the first Janša government carried out a procyclical economic policy. Its results became visible when the Social Democrats (SD) won the elections in 2008 and Borut Pahor became the prime minister. Already in 2008 growth was halved to 3.4 per cent, while in 2009 it collapsed to -7.9 per cent.

    The Social Democratic bloc, in comparison with the liberals and conservatives, won its chance to govern in a time when the crisis was already in full swing in Slovenia. Despite fantastic promises, like the ones from the finance minister at the time, Franc Križanič, that the government would double the minimum wage by the end of its mandate (which would mean it would reach around 1,000 euros), nothing of the sort happened. On the contrary, with the proposal for job market reform, similar to the German reform involving ‘mini jobs’, the government effectively tried to spread the precarious labour regime, endemic to student work, across the the whole population. Alongside this reform, it also proposed a pension reform that would raise the pensionable age by another three years. Both proposals were forced to be submitted to a popular referendum, along with two other proposals, one proposing reforms that would limit the extent of illegal work and the other regarding the accessibility of the state archives. All four referendum proposals were rejected by popular vote, the contra vote ranging from 70 to 80 per cent. In 2011 public polls showed that around 84 per cent of the people believed the government was incompetent. In September of 2011 the government fell after a vote of confidence in parliament. Early elections were announced and took place on 13 July 2014. Looking at the last twenty years, what prospects are we currently facing?

     

    How far the mighty have fallen

    Let us focus on the last five years in order to best see the exponential growth of the crisis and its human toll. Since 2008 when the state debt was at 22 per cent it has more than tripled and now amounts to more than 71 per cent of GDP. In the same period, the budget deficit has risen from 1.8 per cent to 14.7 per cent. While five years ago the unemployed numbered around 59,000, the figure now is almost twice as high. Politically speaking, the sad state of the Slovenian economy corresponds to the sad state of ‘the big three’ political blocs we have briefly analysed.

    Janez Janša, president of the SDS, the biggest right-wing party, is currently serving a two-year prison sentence. He was charged with partaking in the corruption practices that occurred while he was prime minister when the government approved a substantial order of military vehicles from the Finnish producer Patria. Although he was already in prison when the electoral campaign for early parliamentary elections began, he represented one of the main issues of the campaign. The party built an image of its president as a political prisoner who has already experienced violations of his human rights5 and is now, once again suffering for the cause of political freedom, etc. His supporters regularly organise protests in front of the Supreme Court in Ljubljana demanding justice for their president. Still the biggest party, numbering more than 30,000 members, it is yet to be seen how long a party can function with its president in prison.

    The immense absurdity of the situation is that Janša ran in the parliamentary elections and was voted into parliament. Due to some legal ambiguities concerning the status of an MP in relation to his criminal record, Janša is currently participating in parliamentary sessions while serving his sentence. This bizarre situation is due to the fact that apparently nobody thought of providing specific legislation for such a case. The law is very clear on those MPs guilty of criminal charges; in this case their mandate is immediately suspended, and they serve out their prison sentence like any other citizen. However, the case of Janša is exceptional because he had already started serving his sentence, then participated in the elections, and was then voted into parliament. Absurd as it is, this now represents one of the main issues both from the perspective of legal experts, who are debating the matter, as well as from the perspective of the media industry, which is intensively reporting on the whole issue. It goes without saying that this negatively effects both the work of parliament and the attitude of the general population towards politics as such. However, the narrative of ‘political-prisoner president’ did not pay off in the end. In comparison to early elections in 2011, when the party won 26 seats, it has now fallen to 21.

    Although the Social Democrats (SD) are currently a member of the ruling coalition, objectively speaking the party is in very bad shape. After a long period of Borut Pahor at its head (he has just been re-elected president of the republic), he was succeeded as party president by Igor Lukšic, a professor of political sciences and a former minister of higher education. His presidency resulted in the party’s disastrous results in the European elections. It more than halved its vote in the last European Parliament (EP) elections and lost one MEP. When it became obvious that Lukšic was generating a lot of discontent among the rank and file, he did another manoeuvre and put himself in first place on the party list for the EU elections. This move, however, was unsuccessful, because through their preferential vote, voters have re-elected Tanja Fajon who had already been an MEP in the last legislative period. After this debacle, the party forced Lukšic to resign, and Dejan Židan, two-time minister of agriculture, was named as acting president until the next party congress. Although a more capable politician, this did not help him in the early national elections in July of this year. The party that won the elections in 2008 with 29 MPs, fell to ten MPs in the early elections of 2011 and experienced a further decline in the July 2014 elections, when it was able to elect only six MPs. This is by far the worst result for the party in its more than twenty years of existence.

    If the liberal bloc was once unified within the LDS, which governed for twelve years, later, after its electoral defeat, it started to fragment and lost its MPs to other parties (mainly to the SD). Meanwhile, former prominent figures of the so-called ‘old LDS’ also started establishing new parties; however, none of this offspring, though initially successful, managed to reach the parliamentary threshold. Thus, in 2011 early elections were the first held since 1992, when the former hegemon LDS also failed to enter parliament; the same occurred in this year’s parliamentary elections, and it seems safe to say that all thing considered LDS will not experience a comeback. However, the liberal bloc as such recycled itself through ‘new’ faces and managed to gain substantial power through such manoeuvres. In 2011, the so-called Positive Slovenia, the party of Ljubljana’s mayor, Zoran Jankovic, was established and entered parliament with 28.5 per cent of the votes. Although it was the relative winner, in the end it did not manage to form a government; instead, Janez Janša, was able to form his second government, which lasted for a year (2012-2013). This was a period of intense protest, never before seen on such a scale ever since the workers’ strikes at the beginning of the 1990s. In the span of a couple of months from late 2012 to early 2013 there was a series of popular, so-called all-Slovenian upheavals,6 which protested against both right-wing and left-wing parties. The protestors demanded an end to corruption, more transparent governing, direct democracy, and an end to austerity measures and public cuts. Because of this popular pressure as well as the report of the anti-corruption commission that damaged both the Prime Minister, Janez Janša, as well as the opposition leader, Zoran Jankovic, the government received a no-confidence vote and fell.

    The new government was formed by another prominent member of the former LDS and now a member of Positive Slovenia, Alenka Bratušek, who managed to form a parliamentary majority and lead the government from 2013 to the early elections in July 2014. A new phenomenon appeared in these elections, which can still be perceived as a part of the liberal bloc, the Party of Miro Cerar (SMC). The party achieved a landslide victory and gained a record number of MPs (36), which is more than any party since independence. What is specific to Miro Cerar and his party? Is there something new under the sun? Cerar always presented himself, his policies, and ultimately his party as based on sound ethical principles, objectivity, ideological neutrality, etc. But this is far from the truth. In an article he published last year, ‘Why Capitalism?’,7 Cerar argued, ‘Now we are already well aware that we have caused the Slovenian financial, economic, and social crisis mostly by ourselves with our unethical grasping after material goods and superficial splendour of all kinds’. It goes without saying that Cerar’s government will continue with the privatisation process, austerity measures, and all other policies dictated by Brussels. At the time he wrote his article, Cerar had managed to form the government, and the Finance Minister had already confirmed that privatisation would have to continue, and that strict fiscal policy and public sector cuts were here to stay and would even be intensified. It is also perhaps noteworthy that Cerar, a law professor, has gathered around him a team that largely comes from academia, the idea being that they are unburdened by any specific ideological predispositions but are qualified by their expertise. Such a technocratic moment is reminiscent of the former Italian government headed by Mario Monti, who presented his policies as self-evident and almost natural.

    Here we have to do with a clear example of the belief Karl Marx already criticised in Adam Smith, that is, that capitalist social relations represent the natural order of things. Classical political economy, according to Marx, always perceived older production systems and economic beliefs as historical, that is, as having a beginning and an end. However, in explaining the relations in capitalist society, classical political economy represents and perceives this society as natural, as here to stay. Despite such obstinate and unfounded beliefs, there have been, ever since Marx and Engels, organised anti-capitalist forces, which challenged this artificial ‘natural order’ of things. In the early elections of 2014 one such force managed to enter the Slovenian parliament. The United left (UL), a socialist coalition, elected six MPs, and for the first time since the disintegration of Yugoslavia an openly declared socialist party entered the Slovenian parliament.

     

    Socialist alternative

    UL is a coalition of three parties (Democratic Labour Party, Initiative for Democratic Socialism, Party for the Sustainable Development of Slovenia) as well as a fourth group which includes representatives and organisations of civil society. As such it is a unique political formation, both in the sense of the diversity of its components as well as its political programme – democratic, ecological socialism. The UL was the only participant in the European elections that put forward a rational and critical position on the European Union.8 It emphasised the disastrous and capital-driven austerity measures that are a direct outcome of Slovenia’s membership of the EU. UL argued that the actually existing EU is by its very nature an undemocratic organisation, explicitly established to serve the interests of large European capital and oligarchies. Its historical development confirms this judgement since one can clearly see the trajectory of this political project as one that has over time become ever more calibrated to the interests of capital. With the crisis, these contradictions, which have accumulated during the past decades, have erupted and become very visible. The contradiction between European north and south, between core and periphery is, at the end of the day, the contradiction between capital and labour. This disillusionment with the EU project is now clearly visible in Slovenia: ten years ago 90 per cent of people voted in favour of entering the Union, but recent polls show that less than 30 per cent of Slovenians still trust the EU. Being a new and well articulated political force and the sole critic of EU policies, the UL managed to address issues that people have started to feel in their everyday lives and that other parties have ignored.

    Despite refusing this type of European integration, the UL never espoused the Eurosceptic position, and it strongly believes that international cooperation and integration is crucial. Instead of advocating the EU, we in the UL argued that we should start building different political foundations, such as would enable us to build a socialist Europe. All this proved to be positive in the early parliamentary elections, which happened less than two months after the European elections. These elections were organisationally, financially, and in all other aspects much more demanding. With very little experience, an extremely short timeline and little to no financial sources, the UL faced a very difficult task. Hundreds of hours of unpaid labour, good organisation, and a consistent and well-communicated programme, gave us the ability to achieve a much greater votes-to-financing ratio than all the other parties. Again, the distinguishing feature was a clear stance against any policies that would benefit capital and further immiserate workers. The UL was the only political group that has categorically opposed privatisation and advocated alternative socialist policies. Instead of further tax cuts for the rich, it proposed higher taxation for capital, a 1:5 ratio between the lowest and the highest wage, and a complete stop to all privatisation, etc. These were policies that clearly differentiated the UL from other ‘leftist’ parties, especially the Social Democrats. Putting socialist policies back on the agenda was our explicit goal, since these policies can only be implemented with the broad support of the people. Therefore it is even more encouraging that the young (i.e., people from 18 to 24 years of age) have voted strongly for the UL, providing more than fourteen per cent of all votes the UL received. Although this might seem a modest percentage, one should bear in mind that other parties only got an average of one to 2 per cent of the growth rate and that many of those who voted for the UL had abstained from voting altogether in earlier elections.

    The success of the UL has certainly had a very positive effect on the progressive forces in the region. However, one must bear in mind that Southeastern Europe, despite or perhaps exactly because of its common history, is currently an extremely heterogeneous political region. Countries like Hungary and Macedonia in effect already have autocratic governments with obvious elements of fascism, and the situation for progressive socialist forces is perhaps the most difficult there. In Romania and Bulgaria such forces are very limited and marginalised, and further constrained by electoral laws.

    Apart from the already mentioned protest movement in Slovenia, massive protests also occurred in other Balkan countries, for example Bulgaria and Bosnia. We can agree that these protests all had a common denominator in, broadly speaking, the increasingly worsening living conditions of workingclass people. However, the way in which this dissent was articulated took on very different forms. In Slovenia, one of the main motifs of the protest movement was the fight against corruption. An important qualitative step forward was achieved through understanding the protestors’ belief that ‘they’ (the left-wing and right-wing parties and politicians) are all the same. What we tried to further articulate is: ‘yes, they are all the same, they are all willing servants of capital’. In Bosnia, the protests and, later, the plenums, were perhaps the most important achievement of civil society since the disintegration of Yugoslavia. For the first time in more than twenty years people started to talk about class instead of ethnic divisions. In Bulgaria, the protest movement was largely characterised by a mistaken belief that the EU can bring about the desired changes. Without going into too much detail or making claims as to how representative the Slovenian protests actually were, it is clear that socialist forces have an enormous ideological task ahead of them.

    Currently, ex-Yugoslav countries are perhaps most similar in terms of the level of development of the critique of political economy, i.e., Marxism as a theoretical apparatus. Besides Slovenia, the other strong theoretical centres are especially Croatia and Serbia. Organisations from these three countries have by now experienced a couple of years of intense theoretical cooperation, organising joint conferences, hosting lecturers from the other two countries, etc. This in itself represents a huge and important qualitative leap forward and provides a solid basis for further political work. This being said it should be kept in mind that the social, political and economic situation in each of the former Yugoslav republics is dramatically different. The objective social bases for building a socialist alternative as an organised political force are therefore very diverse. If Slovenia had the best predisposition, countries like Macedonia and Bosnia Herzegovina one extremely difficult places for establishing and strengthening such a political force. The UL provides a positive entity which can encourage and support comrades from other republics. Socialists from these countries now, more than thirty years later, do not face the threat of being attacked by the Warsaw Pact, nor is it imaginable that NATO would have an interest in intervening in these countries, especially since a lot of them are NATO members.

    However, it would be wrong to conclude that all is quiet in the Balkans. On the contrary, once again the region is showing itself to be a European periphery, the weakest link in the larger chain of the European Union, and people are now under attack, an attack which comes in the form of austerity measures dictated from Brussels with a local comprador bourgeoisie that willingly collaborates in this economic warfare, that is, class struggle. Once again, the socialists from the region need to concentrate all of their forces on first building strong national political forces and then unifying them into an even stronger regional network, which could and should reach across the borders of former Yugoslavia. This is the only humane and rational perspective for the peoples of the Balkans to effectively challenge, resist, and ultimately completely reject the onslaught of austerity measures and build a socialist alternative.

     

    Literature

    Baurmann, Jana Gioa, ‘Die Euro-Krise erreicht den Osten’, Die Zeit, 5 April 2013, <http://www.zeit.de/wirtschaft/2013-04/slowenien-euro-krise#comments>.

    Cerar, Miro, ‚Zakaj kapitalizem‘, Dnevik, 17 July 2013, <http://www.dnevnik.si/mnenja/kolumne/zakaj-kapitalizem>.

    Gracner, Brigita, Slovenia’s ‘Zombie Uprising’, Counterfire, 1 March 2013, <http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/articles/international/16323-slovenias-zombie­uprising>.

    Korsika, Anej, ‘Impressive performance of the Socialist Forces’, transform!, <http://www.transform-network.net/en/focus/the-eu-elections-from-a-left-perspective/news/detail/Programm/slovenia.html>.

    Korsika, Anej, ‘Slovenia – United in Austerity’: <http://www.rosalux.rs/en/artikl.php?id=209>.

    Slameršak, Aljoša, ‘Slovenia on the Road to Periphery’, The International Marxist Humanist, 25 June 2013, <http://www.internationalmarxisthumanist.org/articles/slovenia-road-periphery-aljoa-slamerak>.

     

    Notes

    1. The Yugoslav Communist Party directly opposed Stalin; as such it was the only one in the history of the Eastern Bloc to successfully challenge the hegemony of the Soviet Union. As a consequence, Yugoslavia was expelled from the Cominform and developed its own path towards socialism. The party changed its name to the League of Communists and developed and pursued the politics of socialist self-management.
    2. Here I can only recommend a lecture by Branko Bembic, member of the Institute for Labour Studies and the Initiative for Democratic Socialism, who developed an important basis for such a theoretical approach. One of his most recent lectures The Shifting Balances of Class Forces in Slovenia, is also highly informative on this issue. The lecture is available at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3UCx4sfVKQU> (accessed 18 September 2014).
    3. The liberal trends within Yugoslav communism: Stane Kavcic (a Slovene liberal known for the so-called ‘highway affair’), the Croatian MASPOK (Maspok is an acronym for ‘masovni pokret’ or ‘mass movement’ – otherwise known as the ‘Croatian Spring’ of 1971), or Marko Nikezic in Serbia (a leading figure in the liberal wing of the Serbian League of Communists and purged from the organisation in 1972). These movements opened up fundamental questions, which were suppressed by the League of Communists at the time, but are even more suppressed in public discourse today.
    4. ‘The erasure from the register of permanent residents implemented by the administrative bodies of the Republic of Slovenia was an arbitrary act that did not have any basis in the law, as was established by the Constitutional Court. The erasure mainly (but not exclusively) affected people born in other republics of the former Yugoslavia who had Yugoslav citizenship and also citizenship of another republic of the former Yugoslavia, but lived in the former Socialist Republic of Slovenia where they had permanent addresses.’ For more information on some 18,000 ‘erased’ see <http://www.mirovni-institut.si/izbrisani/en> (accessed 18 September 2014).
    5. Janez Janša, once an ardent member of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, so much so that some have called him ‘The Red Khmer’ because of his uncompromising orthodox stance, already served a prison sentence at the end of 1980s. At the time he became an outspoken critic of the system, a civil rights campaigner, a dissident, so to say. His imprisonment had a very mobilising effect for civil society as such and a Commision for the Human Rights of Janez Janša was established; it encompassed a wide variety of civil society organisations, movements and individuals, from church to LGBT activists, from ultra-leftist Marxists to nationalist writers and poets. It goes without saying that Janša later changed his tune and became ever more conservative and right-wing, he himself becoming a violator of human rights (e.g. in the case of the Slovenian Erased). When his party members now try to portray the situation as somehow parallel to his imprisonment more than twenty years ago, one can only say: first as tragedy, then as farce.
    6. Members of the Initiative for Democratic Socialism as well as foreign reporters have written numerous articles about the protest movement as well as the Initiative, these are just a few: Aljoša Slameršak, ‘Slovenia on the Road to Periphery’, <http://www.internationalmarxisthumanist.org/articles/slovenia-road-periphery-aljoa-slamerak>; Brigita Gračner, Slovenia’s ‘Zombie Uprising’: <http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/articles/international/16323-slovenias-zombieuprising>; Anej Korsika, ‘Slovenia – United in Austerity’, <http://www.rosalux.rs/en/artikl.php?id=209>; ‘No easy way out for Slovenia’, Deutsche Welle, <http://www.dw.de/no-easy-way-out-for-slovenia/a-16805351>; ‘Die Euro-Krise erreicht den Osten’, Die Zeit <http://www.zeit.de/wirtschaft/2013-04/slowenien-euro-krise#comments>; ‘Kuda ide Slovenija’, Aljazeera, <http://balkans.aljazeera.net/video/kontekst-kuda-ide-slovenija> (all accessed 18 September 2014).
    7. The article is available (in Slovene) at <http://www.dnevnik.si/mnenja/kolumne/zakaj-kapitalizem> (accessed 18 September 2014).
    8. For a more detailed analysis of the 2014 European elections in Slovenia, see ‘Impressive performance of the Socialist Forces’, available at <http://www.transform-network.net/en/focus/the-eu-elections-from-a-left-perspective/news/detail/Programm/slovenia.html> (accessed 18 September 2014).

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