Serbian Workers' Struggle (Paths Through Utopias, 2011)


By John Jordan and Isabelle Fremeaux (Paths Through Utopias, 2011)

Our arrival in Central Europe is astounding. Our old van struggles on the deserted mountain roads of Slovenia, giving us plenty of time to admire the forests whose fir-trees are weighed down under the snow and bathed in a pinkish golden light.

We get to Croatia without problem and go through the border in a matter of minutes whilst, on the other side, Fortress Europe reveals itself in the shadows of endless queues of waiting cars.

Along the flat, straight and empty motorways, gigantic lampposts resemble guards watching over the night and the absence of traffic. Dozens of billboards scream in English that there are now thirty LIDL discount supermarkets in Croatia whilst brand new commercial centres seem to be there to eliminate any kind of doubt that rabid capitalism has indeed triumphed. Like dots on a line, enormous empty parking lots appear every thirty kilometres or so, ready to welcome a flux of trucks and cars that are yet to turn up.

With every road sign, we must confront our scandalous ignorance of the region: the names that regularly appear are simultaneously familiar and mysterious. Mostar, Vukovar or Tuzla resonate vacuously in our memory: echoes of headlines about the war in the Balkans, synonyms of tragedies, destructions and massacres, whose details, origins or consequences we have forgotten, soon buried by other tragedies, destructions and massacres, elsewhere, themselves muddled by media always keen to move onto the next thing, at the expense of a deep analysis of events that are tearing up our times.

Getting to Belgrade is more eventful than planned after we end up in the remote Serbian countryside with no clue as to where we are. We have left the motorway in the hope of finding a calm and bucolic corner to spend the night before getting to Belgrade and meet Ivan, one of the activists of Freedom Fight, a collective supporting Zrenjanin’s workers. Unfortunately our European road map quickly shows its limits and we find ourselves driving on tiny and icy roads going from half-deserted villages nowhere to be found on our map to apparently nameless hamlets. We keep going aimlessly on bumpy and slippery roads when the bus number 387 appears in front of us. Seeing a sign in this materialisation of life, John insists for us to follow it, based on the idiosyncratic yet weirdly convincing logic, that “a bus, even in Serbia, doesn’t go nowhere, therefore it is our best chance to eventually find a place that will feature on our map.” Unfortunately this is not a foolproof reasoning as we realise after several kilometres on frozen roads where our guide never stops until he slows down in the open countryside… and turns round towards its point of departure! We give up our pastoral project and head back towards Belgrade hoping to find whatever spot to spend the night. But yet again it seems that destiny is against us: we drive round and round for almost two hours without success until we accept that we must quit and call Ivan to ask for advice. He happily assures us that we can come and sleep at his and arranges to meet up in town to lead us to his flat.

We have been put in touch with him through a Serbian friend who has been a refugee in Belgium for many years, and we have no idea whom to expect. Yet as soon as we see this skinny young man with dishevelled long hair, energetically jumping to signal his presence next to the statue where we agreed to meet up, we like him enormously. We arrive in the vast and dilapidated flat that he shares with his girlfriend Sanja and another friend. The house seems to come out straight from a Dickens novel with its large iron gate screeching on the ice as Ivan opens it, but the two Soviet looking buildings on each side remind us of where we are. Because the edifice is due to be demolished soon, the three tenants pay next to nothing for rent whilst waiting to be kicked out.

Tonight is Sanja’s birthday and we spend the evening with a few of her friends who have joined to celebrate. They all speak perfect English and are so welcoming that the embarrassment of having gate crashed the party quickly evaporates. Sanja is 23, the others are closer to their thirties. “Amongst all the people you see here, and the seven years that part us, there somehow are the various steps of the recent history of Yugoslavia” explains Ivana, a childhood friend of Ivan’s. “He and I are from the last generation of Pionneers, the symbol of the union of the different republics, whilst Sanja has grown up without even learning about the notion of Yugoslavia [since, from 1992, it only included Serbia and Montenegro]. Our own childhood in Yugoslavia was wonderful. It was so peaceful.” Fascinated, we listen to them discuss the profound differences that these few years have made to their education: the eldest remember growing up without being really aware of the various populations that made up their country since “we were the same people”, whilst for the youngest it has become natural to differentiate between a Croatian and a Bosnian name. “One should never take anything for granted. Even what you believe to be the most natural thing in the world can disappear just like that” sums up Ivan, snapping his fingers.

The conversation quickly turns into a kind of crash course about the recent economic history of Serbia. Ivan is a living encyclopaedia, brilliant, passionate, smoking and talking without ever stopping. He engulfs us in the complex and eventful contemporary Serbia. “First of all” he reminds us “it is crucial not to forget the Yugoslav specificity”. It was a communist country but free of the Soviet yoke thanks to Tito’s partisans who had managed to take control of the country without the help of the Red Army, and where self-management was introduced in the 1950s. Even though important transformations have affected the country’s economic policies over the last five decades, and even if in many respects self-management was mostly symbolic since everything was organised and manipulated by the omnipotent Communist Party, the major difference with most other countries in the Soviet bloc was that all Yugoslav companies did not belong to the State. A large number formed a very complex structure neither public nor private known as “social ownership”. Workers’ Assemblies were the ultimate decision-making body regarding internal decisions but had to follow the Party’s directions for everything else, especially economic planning and production quotas.

In 1989, Prime Minister Marković launched the first wave of privatisations, at the discretion of the workers’ assemblies, whereby a company’s capital was turned into shares, a number of which was offered to each worker at a low price (if some shares remained “unsold” they were put on the market). In this configuration, the state was not earning anything. It is interesting, Ivan points out, that this took place at the end of the decade during which the IMF and the World Bank had started to get involved in Yugoslavia. The economic crisis resulting from the oil shocks in 1973-74 had not spared the country, whose foreign debt had tripled between 1970 and 1975, rising from $2bn to $6bn to reach $20bn in 1980[1]. The IMF and the World Bank insisted for this debt to be contained by emphasising exports, thus diverting domestic production and generating a severe degradation of the general standard of living in the 1980s. It is estimated that the latter fell by about 40% between 1982 and 1989, when an estimated 60 percent of Yugoslav workers lived at or below the minimum income level guaranteed by the state[2].

“But it really is after 1989 that everything started to accelerate” adds Ivan. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the opportunity was seized to make Eastern Europe join the neoliberal project, whether it wanted it or not[3]. In January 1990, an agreement was signed with the IMF requiring that expenditures cuts amount to 5% of GDP. According to Canadian economist Michel Chossudovsky: “Although inflation had eaten away at earnings, the IMF ordered that wages be frozen at their mid November 1989 levels. Prices continued to rise unabated, and real wages collapsed by 41 percent in the first six months of 1990.”[4] Inflation in 1990 was in excess of 70%. In 1991, it reached 140% to soar to 1134% in 1993[5]. Furthermore one of the major demands of the IMF was that the federal government and the financial authorities should cease to fund “loss-making” companies[6]. The consequences of this policy were such that in 1990, 1.9 million workers, out of 2.7 million, were made redundant[7].

Because of the magnitude of the economic crisis and hyperinflation, President Milosević decided to cancel the first wave of privatisation and all the shares acquired under Marković were taken back from shareholders. However in 1997, another wave of voluntary privatisations (still at the discretion of Workers Assemblies) took place. Yet it was stipulated that only 70% of the company’s capital could be sold as shares to the workers of said company and to other workers unable to access this “privilege” (if they worked in the public sector or if their own company’s Workers Assembly had rejected privatisation for instance). For Ivan, this new approach proved to be a very smart way to introduce a neoliberal policy without seeming to do so, since the State was keeping a third of the companies’ shares. “It is through this privatisation law that the idea that adult citizens have the right to own their shares of socially owned properties was introduced” he explains tirelessly, between two cigarettes puffs and a sip of beer. “And behind the mask of social justice there actually was the plan to deprive the workers of all decision making power. Indeed if 30% of the capital belongs to the State and 35% belongs to ‘outside’ shareholders only interested in profit making or selling at a good price, then only 35% of the votes at the assembly of shareholders actually represent the workers’ interests” he adds, visibly disgusted.

The coup de grace fell on Serbia in 2001 with the “real” privatisation, this time compulsory and imposed by the IMF in exchange of funding for the reconstruction of the country, after it had been destroyed by almost ten years of drastic economic sanctions and “humanitarian” NATO bombings[8]. All the socially owned companies were nationalised - “confiscated by the State” clarifies Ivan – in order to be forcefully privatised: the State sold 70% of the capital of these companies by auction or by tender whilst the other 30% were distributed to workers, for free. “Which is a suitable price for something that is shit anyway, since a sole owner with 70% of shares could gain absolute control over management” says Ivan bitterly. Serbia had 7 years to privatise all of the country’s companies, which partly explains the violence of the process. “In the majority of cases, the State sells its shares very suddenly, which triggers a wave of panic amongst shareholders who start selling too. In a matter of a few days, workers lose the control they had over their own company and a large number find themselves redundant before they have had the time to understand what is going on” Ivan tells us.

The more Ivan describes the situation the more I have the feeling that we have just stepped in an incomparable case study of The Shock Doctrine, the latest book by Canadian investigative journalist Naomi Klein, which I am just finishing. She describes how, over the last thirty years, fundamentalist ideologues of neoliberalism, applying Milton Friedman’s teaching like a dogma, have imposed their “shock therapy” in various countries across the world (from Chile to Poland via Russia or Bolivia). This strategy consists in implementing what Klein calls “Friedman’s Holy Trinity”: privatisations, deregulations and drastic cuts in social spending.

Klein brilliantly demonstrates the horrific consequences of such programmes characterised notably by astonishing rise of unemployment and the appalling impoverishment of millions of people whilst a minority gets immensely wealthy. Russia is thus a striking example of this merciless scenario and helps me understand Ivan’s descriptions of his own country. In the name of “democracy”, western governments effectively supported a coup d’état (by Yeltsin in 1993), hardly criticised a bloody war (in Chechnya) and above all pushed for economic reforms whose impact was unimaginably harsh. According to Klein, the Russian economic reforms precipitated 72 million people into poverty in less than 8 years.

In Yugoslavia, the outcomes of such shock therapy have proven just as horrendous. Several experts thus clearly link the neoliberal policies imposed by the IMF and the World Bank with the decade of war that tore the federation apart in the 1990s. Chussodovsky makes an unambiguous connection between the dismantlement of the Yugoslav Federation and the macro-economic programme of restructuration imposed upon the Belgrade government by foreign creditors.

Secessionist tendencies were fuelled by economic factors and ethnic divisions grew especially during a period of brutal impoverishment of the population. “Historical divisions between Serbs, Croats and Muslims were exacerbated during the economic crisis; the demands of the global market and of international financial institutions forced the republics of ex-Yugoslavia to become rivals, so much so that the internal consensus of the Federation broke down.”[9] In other words, as American analyst Susan Woodward summarises: “To explain the Yugoslav crisis as a result of ethnic hatred is to turn the story upside down and begin at its end.”[10]

It is 4am when we finally go to bed, shocked, exhausted and dizzy with alcohol and information.

&&&

The rain freezes as it hits the windscreen, creating a 1970s dappled frosted glass effect not very useful when driving in ice rink conditions. It is pitch dark and it would really help to see where we are going. The camper van is encased in a layer of ice that gets thicker with each lashing of freezing rain and added to that the heating doesn’t work inside. Yet, heroically, John doesn’t lose his cool nor his humour as he drives us towards Zrenjanin, accompanied by Ivan and Milenko, our second guide and interpreter.

We have met the latter a few hours ago in a trendy café in Belgrade: caramel cappuccinos and smoothies on the menu, mirrors on the wall, waiters in American looking uniforms… bizarrely we could have been in London or New York!  Milenko is as calm and reserved as Ivan is impetuous and talkative. Above the short dark beard, the gaze is straight and intense, but his sombre face often brightens with a large soft, almost childlike, smile. They both co-founded Freedom Fight, an organisation supporting workers, refugees and students’ rights. They maintain the website and publish Z Balkan, a magazine in Serbo-Croat inspired by the eponymous American publication, as well a monthly newsletter for workers and refugees. The relationship between these young people and Jugoremedija workers is marked with such trust that the latter actually finance the magazine Z Balkan.

After the four hours needed to drive 80kms that link Belgrade to Zrenjanin, we are finally welcome by Radislav and Milovan, two Jugoremedija workers, who show us the way to the flat of Zdravko Deurić’s, nicknamed “Zrenjanin’s Che” since he’s led the pharmaceutical factory’s victorious struggle. He is on holiday for most of our stay here and has generously insisted for us to sleep in his home in his absence. We drop our bags in the small and comfortable flat and get sucked into Radislav and Milovan’s extraordinarily warm enthusiasm. They are respectively a driver and a mechanic at Jugoremedija, have been strikers from the beginning and took part in all the battles to reclaim their factory. They are exuberant and cheerful, and despite our paralysing inability to communicate, try their very best to be welcoming. This notably consists of multiple invitations to drink some raki, a 50 degree strong fruit brandy that burns our unaccustomed throats but which we do not dare to decline for fear of seeming impolite or ungrateful. After a few rounds, Radislav invites us all for dinner at his place. Thankfully Milovan feels that we have had our fair share of driving-on-ice and offers to be our chauffeur. We arrive at Radislav’s house, just outside of Zrenjanin, where we are welcome with the same hospitality (and more home made raki!) by his wife and daughters. The delicious dinner of fried fish and Russian salad, cooked by Radislav himself, is followed by the screening of extracts of a film written and directed by Ivan about the struggle for Jugoremedija. With no subtitle and only sporadic translation from our interpreters, the images don’t make a lot of sense yet it is clear that our hosts are still very emotional as they watch, for what is probably the umpteenth time, scenes of strikes, occupation and conflicts between workers and police. We understand very well this quasi addiction to recollections of such moments. We have never occupied a factory but we know the taste of these moments of solidarity where everything seems possible, where those who join forces to stop us must give in to our determination, where suddenly one discovers collective strength and power. To revisit these instants of resistance is an incommensurable pleasure and often seems necessary to remind oneself that one did not dream them.

As soon as the film is over and the nostalgic moment digested, we head towards Bek, the second occupied factory in Zrenjanin. In the smoky infirmary that has been turned in the occupation HQ, a group of workers get ready to spend the night to ensure that the buildings are never empty. Sat at the Formica table next to the small electric radiator going full blast, Milena finishes the occupation schedule for the next few days: 5 people each night, 10 during the day. Her voice turned hoarse from the chain smoking, her labourer’s hands red and rough, her gaze straight and determined under bizarrely thin eyebrows, she discovered that she had the qualities of a leader when Bek was declared bankrupt in March 2007.

“The company was privatised in 2006 and less than a year later, it was put into bankruptcy because the new owner had incurred enormous debts” she explains. “But we are certain that it is a fraudulent procedure. It has become a very common occurrence: a tycoon buys the majority of shares of a company, he makes sure to put it into debts with other ‘shell companies’ that he, in fact, also owns. When bankruptcy is declared, all labour agreements are cancelled, shareholders lose their stakes and the tycoon gains absolute control through his shell companies, which miraculously are creditors and allow him to buy the shares for peanuts. Obviously it is completely illegal and we have spent months writing to the Privatisation Agency and all sorts of other institutions for them to understand the situation and ask them to act. But since we never got any kind of satisfactory answer, we decided to occupy the buildings in October.” The way she tells this explication in one straight go, without hesitation or ever looking for words, one can easily guess that she has described the situation many times.

The occupiers have already won one victory: the cancellation of the privatisation contract between the new owner and the State. Each privatisation is underwritten by a contract through which the main shareholder commits to a number of points that can lead to the cancellation of the contract if they are not respected (and therefore the return of the shares to the State). On December 6th 2007, the Privatisation Agency admitted that there were irregularities and accepted that the 70% of Bek’s capital that had been acquired by businessman Vladan Beštić be renationalised. “It is a positive first step but obviously it is not enough: as long as the bankruptcy itself is not cancelled, it does not change anything for the workers who are still without salary after months being unpaid. What we need is to have the bankruptcy cancelled so that we can start production again” whispers Ivan to me before leaving to discuss strategy with Milena.

We leave the cold and gloomy factory, deeply impressed by the obstinacy and the bravery of these workers who have had to dive in the byzantine depths of financial procedures and regulations, organise themselves to occupy their factory and keep looking for other ways to be listened to and finally be taken seriously.   

&&&

Ivan and Milenko are camping on the sofa bed in Zdravko’s flat and together we have breakfast with the Serbian TV on. It is an opportunity to discover “turbo-folk”, an explosive mix of traditional music and electro-pop rhythms, sadly associated with 1990s nationalism but whose success has never faltered amongst the Serbian youth.

Mid-morning, we leave the overheated flat and are once again struck by THE COLD. Even our two indigenous guides, whom we imagined accustomed to harsh winters, complain about the temperature which they assure us is exceptional. With teeth shattering in unison we head towards Šinvoz, which has been occupied for a few days only and was until recently the largest train factory in the region.

In the huge industrial zone wrapped in a deep icy fog that gives it an almost unreal quality, Šinvoz’s vast hangars emerge at the end of a long path next to a railway line. Some workers are expecting us on the parking lot and look rather incredulous when they see me trying to park our van on 4cm of ice… but they welcome my success with large smiles and take us to what used to be the company’s main building. 

At the end of a long chilly corridor, a meeting room (the only one to be heated) has become the main centre of resistance in Šinvoz. A dozen workers are playing cards around a long table covered with worn velvet or try to watch blurred and twisted images on an old black and white TV. “We try our best to fight off boredom but we have almost no money so we must satisfy ourselves with little” comments Radovan, one of the workers-occupiers, who has reluctantly taken on the role of spokesman. “It is with Mita that you need to talk: he knows the situation inside out and can explain it all really clearly. But he has become a father last night so he can’t come just now” he explains, visibly ill-at-ease but full of good will to answer our questions.

“Šinvoz was privatised in 2004. There were problems before because the economic sanctions of the 1990s had been very harmful, but as soon as the company was privatised, it got much worse.” Similarly to Bek, the new main shareholder incurred massive debts to shell companies that belonged to him. When the workers understood what was going on, they contacted the relevant organisations and requested controls, but the Privatisation Agency remained deaf. A first strike was organised in June 2006 because of the deterioration of working conditions. Moreover the new owner had increased his shares by making an “investment”. Yet, not only was this manoeuvre absolutely illegal since he had not obtained the agreement of the shareholders’ assembly, but more importantly the investment in question was a bunch of dilapidated train carriages and locomotives, some of which did not even have wheels!

“Even the Privatisation Agency had to concede that it was impossible to consider this pile of scrap as an investment. We hope that it will lead to the cancellation of the privatisation contract. But what pushed us into occupying was that the situation worsened even more in 2007: the new owner did not sign any contract to maintain production, we went from 807 workers in 2004 to 470 and we were put into bankruptcy on November 16th this year. And then one day in court during a hearing about the bankruptcy, we heard that he wanted to have some equipment delivered in the building. We immediately understood that it was to have it pass as the necessary investment to keep the privatisation contract with the State and avoid its cancellation. So we thought that he just could not dispossess us like that.”

Radovan, who was made redundant in March 2007, is a principled man : when the new owner offered to take him back to coordinate the team of security guards that had been appointed to watch the site, he squarely refused: “I just could not part take in this betrayal of the workers.”

Instead, he decided to resist and joined the team organising the decisive assembly, with the help of Jugoremedija workers. The solidarity between the victorious rebels and those who are still struggling is crucial: “The guys from Jugoremedija have helped us financially to buy advertising space in local media to organise the shareholders' assembly, which we hoped would vote to support us. We spent 6 days non-stop calling and visiting workers, retired people, every person who had shares and whom we thought we could convince that we were being swindled and were all about to lose our job. I hardly slept for a week but when I saw the number of people who had come to support us in the blockade and the occupation, I was so relieved!” About 500 people turned up to show their solidarity to Šinvoz’s workers. Ever since, Radovan has been coordinating the occupation shifts and transport for the occupiers, the majority of whom live in the countryside and do not own a car.

After an unavoidable glass of raki and coca-cola, the workers offer to show us the site. We walk through cold and cavernous hangars, full of machines reduced to silence. On one of them, a short handwritten letter has been fixed with 4 simple bits of sticky tape: it is the note left by a worker so overcome that he committed suicide a few months earlier. Ivan holds back his tears as he translates the few handwritten sentences.

Outside, antediluvian, rusty, broken carriages and locomotives are piled up behind the warehouses. “Here is our new owner’s ‘investment’!” explain the workers, whose sarcastic laugh hardly hides a rage still raw. “We built this factory. It doesn’t belong to us because one day we bought some shares, but because every day we have worked here. This factory is the outcome of our labour during the socialist years” they repeat tirelessly. I slowly understand that here lies the great difference of value between these rebel workers and the majority of the Western world, “normalised” by two centuries of capitalism: whereas most small shareholders buy shares to make money, here there still is this idea that shares represent a concrete part of the company, which rightly belongs to workers because it is the fruit of their labour and, as a matter of fact, gives them some rights. For decades, they were co-owners of their factories and have no intention to let this vanish in the name of the “post-communist transition”. No one is fooled by the promises made by the ideologues of a triumphant and salvaging capitalism, supposed to bring progress, democracy and wealth. “This company was born in 1887, it has gone through the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, two world wars and the communist years. And the first time that it is forced to stop is under the ‘democratic transition’” bitterly says Mita, arrived late in the afternoon specially to meet us, despite the exhaustion after a sleepless night watching over his newborn. In the eyes of this stocky man in his thirties, whose hair has precociously gone white, one can read a fighting spirit matched only by his quiet anger. “We have another name for this ‘transition’. It is called theft” he concludes.

Ivan adds: “Most of the factories in Zrenjanin are now in bankruptcy and it is not because of the inefficiency of the old self-managed system, like the government never ceases to repeat, but because of privatisation. All these promises in 2001 about the so-called efficiency of private property, it really was bullshit!”

These forced bankruptcies are not isolated cases and the long list of scams described by Ivan, Mita or Milena are not the figment of the imagination of a few people into conspiracy theories. As a matter of fact, the G17, a think tank originally set up by 17 economists and turned political party that controls the Finance Ministry and the Serbian Central Bank, clearly announced, as soon as 1999, their version of a “radical programme of economic reforms” and showed that they had no illusions about its forthcoming popularity: “Immediately after taking the office, the new government shall abolish all types of subsidies. This measure must be implemented without regrets or hesitation, since it will be difficult if not impossible to apply later (...) Any future democratic regime is likely to face substantial public resistance to privatization and the socio-economic reforms that will accompany it (…) The purchase of Serbian firms by wealthy domestic and foreign investors may also generate resentment, especially as it will represent a radical break with the former Yugoslav tradition of workers' or ‘social’ ownership.”[11]

No surprise, then.

&&&

In the courtyard in front of the gloomy building of meat processing factory Bek, all the workers have gathered. They have brought bottles of coca-cola and of raki and, following the tradition, thrown maple branches in a big bonfire. Milena goes from one to the other, warm and smiling, and gives each of them a small bag filled with a few nuts, chocolates and a Clementine. In this simple gathering around a fire, in the attitude both humble and proud of all these men and women staring intensely at the flames, in the courtyard of a factory that they have had to seize to reclaim what is theirs, lies the expression of a profound solidarity that moves us.

After having watched, with the same emotion, a similar ritual in Šinvoz, we accompany Ivan, Milenko, Mita and Milena as well as Milovan and Radislav to a strategy meeting in a trendy bar of Zrenjanin, where they meet up with Nebojsa Popov, an antinationalist intellectual, supporter of workers’ struggles. The aim is to think about the best possible approach for an occupation of the Trade Unions Hall in Belgrade, which is planned on January 15th to demand a solution for the specific situations of Bek and Šinvoz. More than 180 workers have committed to take part in this spectacular action, it is therefore essential to ensure that it is a success. The discussion is lively and the need for concentration from everybody does not allow Ivan or Milenko to translate. Yet we notice after a while that the latter is visibly annoyed: he disagrees with Popov and is frustrated by the influence that he exerts on the others. “He is a very famous intellectual in Serbia and has been very open in his support for Jugoremedija from the beginning of the struggle, so he is really influential. But he really believes in the worker-shareholder model, and I don’t” explains Milenko. “It is a system that can degenerate very quickly: as long as the shareholders are effectively the workers and that they are decision makers, like is the case in Jugoremedija at the moment, of course it works. But when these retire, give their shares to their children or sell them, one quickly finds oneself in a situation where those who work are no longer those who own the shares. And the risk is high that the same problems emerge: to pay workers less to produce more profit, make them work harder, save money on working conditions. Personally I am more incline to defend the model of a company that belongs to the workers and is managed by them. The reason why it did not work in the past in Yugoslavia is not because it is a bad system but because the Communist Party was in charge.”

&&&

Today is Christmas in this Christian Orthodox land and Radislav has invited us to share this important day with his family: his daughter Yasmina has returned from Austria where she has migrated with her husband a few years ago and all are happy to be able to share this family reunion with us.

Radislav tells us that he never used to celebrate Christmas or Easter during his childhood because his father was “a man of his time”, that is a devoted communist. “It is not that religion was officially banned but all ‘good communists’ took Tito as a model for everything. I reclaimed these traditions because religion is important for me” he explains. The discussion naturally drifts onto his life under Tito, his opinion on the recent events that have effectively destroyed the country where he has lived the major part of his life. “There were good things under the socialist regime, but they only kept the bad ones” he explains. “In fact the current political situation is not so different from Tito’s regime since absolutely everything is controlled by an elite. It is called ‘democracy’ but the system is the same.”

Yasmina cannot help to intervene and show her disagreement with her father’s ideas: “We are still paying for the debts incurred during the socialist years. It is a disaster.” “Maybe she is right” concedes Radislav. “Still, today there are 35000 unemployed peopled in Zrenjanin [out of 85000 inhabitants]. So if this is democracy: people who have no work or must struggle in the street for their rights, and courts without any independence, then to hell with their democracy!”

He is interrupted by his wife who, according to tradition, has covered the table with all the Christmas dishes: veal escalope a la Milanese, Russian salad, mashed potatoes, pickled red peppers salad and a dozen of various cakes. “After four years of struggle it is the first time that I have a full table for Christmas. If you had come during the last few years, you would only have had salt and bread” Radislav declares with emotion, whilst inviting us to come to the table. We feel overwhelmed by this avalanche of generosity and, yet again, despite Ivan’s best efforts to translate, our inability to communicate our gratefulness for being invited to share this first Christmas of relative abundance is crippling.

After the meal, we let Radislav celebrate Christmas amongst his family and head towards Novi Sad where Ivan and Milenko have organised the screening of a documentary about the Zapatistas before which they’d like us to present our journey to local activists. After all the efforts made by our two friends over the last week, we are delighted to do them this favour. We arrive in CK13, a brand new social centre: political posters against fascism or the G8 cover the walls painted black whilst a cooperative bar serves the fifty activists who have come to take part in the evening. Tamara, one of the volunteers who run the place, tells us that the social centre has been funded by German activists in order to strengthen the antifascist struggle in Europe.

We present our journey, answer our hosts’ questions and give way to the screening of A place called Chiapas. On this occasion we discover that Milenko has translated, with his uncle, a novel about the Mexican rebels and we slowly understand the influence that these have had on the young Serbian activist.

“We see the factory like a community whose relations we try to change from the inside. By working with the workers, following the Zapatista principle of “Leading by obeying”[12], we have discovered that this struggle transforms all those who get involved in it” he explains. “When the workers realised that we obey them because they have values and demands which are profoundly human, they start listening to what we have to say, it becomes a real dialogue. Many of them have changed, they are much less nationalistic for instance. And we have changed in return. We are not here to lead the struggle but to carry it out together.”

Marija, his young girlfriend, adds in excellent English: “There are many people who criticise these workers (and criticise us too, by assimilation) because they are ‘pro-capitalism’, since they are fighting to keep their factory, to gain a pay rise or because they vote for the Radical Party[13]. Well I think that it is very easy to stay at home to write the perfect revolutionary theory, but it does not change much. The work we do together with these workers, at least, is real: it is a real struggle with real people.”

This approach of a relationship with workers based upon mutual respect, and rejecting any notion of the intellectual leading the ignorant masses, is profoundly rooted in these young activists. For Ivan it is a lesson from history: “I completely identify with the Zapatista principles but they are not what gave me my frame of reference when I started getting involved in politics. For me it was much more the terrible experience of Communism as the Avant Guarde of the People, which destroyed Yugoslavia. We must avoid this at any cost.”

The journey of the young strategist of Zrenjanin’s worker struggle is atypical: he started in the antinationalist and antiwar movements, with the group The Other Serbia. “At the time many of the antinationalist activists tended to support privatisation because they saw many workers backing Milosević and his warring policies” he explains. “In this logic, the reduction of the workers’ decision making power was seen as a positive thing, since they were not trustworthy. I have to admit that, as far as I was concerned, privatisation was not really at the core of my preoccupations and I did not really question that approach.” Things changed for Ivan when he started working for the Anti Corruption Council. “After reading hundreds of workers’ testimonies about how privatisation was carried out and had ruined their companies, I realised that privatisation itself was an extremely violent process and could not bring democracy. I also understood that there was a genuine problem with the Other Serbia movement, which has since become a fervent pro-neoliberal supporter.”

Meeting Zdravko proved a turning point: here was a worker who had a genuine strategy, a profound passion for justice and enough energy and leadership to lead the arduous struggle that was expecting them without losing his colleagues’ support. “I very quickly realised that I was dealing with an exceptional man” confirms Ivan who, from that point on and for more than three years, dedicated every minute of his life to Jugoremedija’s reclaim by its workers.

&&&

After almost a week in Zrenjanin, we finally get to visit the company thanks to which our journey has led us here: Jugoremedija, a pharmaceutical factory and quasi mythical symbol of workers’ struggle in this post-Soviet Eastern Europe.

We are welcome with the now traditional Zrenjanin’s breakfast: Turkish coffee so strong that it could wake the dead, coca-cola and raki. It’s a shock that we have come to dread but always accept as it offered with so much generosity. Jugoremedija’s entrance hall and offices look like any other factory: exhibition of the main products on glass shelves, comfortable chairs in the waiting room and aerial photographs of the factory in the Council room. That is where we meet six of the workers amongst the most active during the strike. They tell us about the three and a half years of ruthless struggle to “reclaim what had always been ours” they repeat: the majority of the shares of their company. It was privatised in 2000 on the basis of 58% of the shares belonging to private shareholders (including the company’s workers) and 42% to the State. In 2002, the latter accepted, even though it was completely illegal, that businessman and renowned crook Jovica Stefanovic, who was wanted by Interpol, become owner of 68% of Jugoremedija’s shares. Under this new boss, working conditions quickly deteriorated. So much so that in December 2003, a strike and an occupation of the factory (the first ever in Eastern Europe) supplemented the lawsuit filed against Stefanovic in order to have the recapitalisation annulled. Workers formed a new organisation, The Union of Workers and Shareholders of Serbia, which even demanded the creation of a Constituent Assembly so that everybody would regain decision making power in their work place. In 2004, Stefanovic managed to recover the control over the factory, although not without having ordered an eviction that sent several dozen workers to the hospital, and promptly sacked 200 workers. This only served to further energise the struggle, which lasted another two years during which the workers made jobless had to resort to all sorts of tactics to carry on with their fight: demonstrations, petitions, occupation of the offices of the Privatisation Agency. “We even went on hunger strike. I was one of them, it was awful” says Radislav without getting annoyed at his colleagues’ jokes about his need for a slimming diet. Eventually their determination and dedication paid off: in May 2006, the Supreme Court of Serbia determined that the recapitalisation of Jugoremedija was illegal and in February 2007, Zrenjanin’s Administrative Tribunal gave the workers their original 58% shares. This allowed the workers to elect their own Board of Directors at the head of which they quickly voted Zdravko in, the fearless mechanic who had led the struggle without ever losing faith or courage.

“Jugoremedija is ours” concludes a female worker with a pink jumper. “It has always been ours, we only fought to keep what belongs to us. But the strike has been really positive, since now it is better than before here. It was really very hard but today we have a genuine influence on the decisions that are made in the company.”

As we leave the meeting room, Milovan insists to show us the workshop of which he is in charge, reminding us that it is where the struggle was born. “Zdravko was working in the mechanic workshop at the time. He explained the situation to us and how he thought we could obtain justice. He asked us ‘Are you with me? Can I count on you?’ and we said ‘OK, we’re behind you.’ And this is how it all started.”

Workers under Milovan’s responsibility tell us about salaries cut in half, the humiliations under the old boss who made many highly qualified workers to clean the gardens or empty bins and went as far as prohibiting access to the common room thus forcing some workers to stand outside in the snow during their breaks. “Today it is completely different: there no longer is this invisible line not to cross for fear of being bullied and if there is a problem, we sort it out collectively” one of them tells us. “Me, I was employed by the old owner during the strike. When the workers took the factory back they kept me and I never was treated any differently to the others, I never was under any pressure” adds another, demanding that we film his testimony. Milovan explains later that Zdravko was adamant that there should not be any vengeful acts after the victory and even strike breakers were allowed to keep their job.

After this clarification, he introduces us to Milana Vukov and Radovan Javanov, respectively production director and director of quality control of the factory. For health and safety reasons we all have to put on protective wear, boots and hat made of a watery green paper that give me the giggles as we all look completely ridiculous. The seriousness of our hosts stops my chuckles and we walk through the sterilized corridors, observing lab technicians working on mysterious experiments or examining huge machines spitting out multicoloured pills.

To include a pharmaceutical factory in the middle of journey about utopias might seem incongruous and the impressions from this visit are disconcerting. After having reflected, from Landmatters to Can Masdeu, from Cravirola to Longo Mai, upon notions of work and property, finding ourselves in a factory where dozens of workers labour on factory belts for an industry that we despise is rather unsettling.

Yet as we listen to Milana and Radovan explaining to us, with unbridled pride, that not only they had managed, together with their colleagues, gained victory in their fight but also had demonstrated that they were perfectly able to manage their company satisfactorily, we have no doubt about the teachings to be drawn from Jugoremedija. For the two executives, the granting of the norm ISO9001 only three months after the restitution of the shares to the workers is the best evidence of their professionalism. “Many people expected us to fail: those ‘stupid workers’ are not meant to be able to handle the management of their own factory. Yet in terms of profits, we have done better in a few months than ‘normal’ owners in years. Jugoremedija is the living proof that workers can self-manage very quickly and very efficiently. The norm ISO is certified by a Swiss organisation that has recognised that we were at the same level of quality as any other European company. Such acknowledgement is really important for us. Especially since it has demanded such a huge amount of work from all of us!” concludes Radovan.

However now is not the time to rest since the factory must face to a new challenge: to ensure that Jugoremedija meets the GMP quality norms required by the European Union. “Serbia is not yet part of the EU but it is the only way to access its markets. The GMP norms are terribly constraining and we must work really hard to be ready for the deadline in August” explains Milana. “Given our structure, we cannot succeed with a great trust between the workers. Therefore we have to spend a lot of time building and consolidating this trust. It is a kind of permanent training!” she adds whilst walking us to the exit.

Thus Jugoremedija is a success story of the working class. Yet , as Ivan and Milenko explain to us, many perils still jeopardize the company: external pressures upon Jugoremedija – the government, the intellectuals who assert that workers simply cannot manage their own company, the tycoons who scream that this is theft – all form genuine risks. “It is very hard to keep on working, producing, sustaining the other factories that are fighting when on top of it all you have pretty much everybody against you. I hope it will never end up compromising Jugoremedija’s victory. But it is always a possibility!” Milenko explains grimly.

“Moreover one must not forget that out of the 58% of shares that belong to ‘small shareholders’, only 30% are effectively controlled by Jugoremedija’s workers (either they belong to them or to ex-workers now retired or their children)” adds Ivan. “It means that the other are probably only interested in gaining the best possible price for their shares, just like the state. We must not be deluded: for the moment they are waiting for the GMP norms to be reached. I think that when that will be done, we will face a new kind of pressure, far stronger, because the value of the shares will triple and they will want to sell. We are preparing for that.” The workers thus are trying to explore all possible avenues to gain 100% control of the company. One of the possible strategies is a compensation claim from the state for the damages caused by Stefanovc’s scams. Instead of demanding money, the workers would demand 100% of the shares of their company in order to control it. In other words, the struggles carries on.

&&&

After this full morning, Milovan invites us to his for lunch with his inseparable companion Radislav. Milovan lives in the near countryside of Zrenjanin in the rudimentary house that he built himself and where his wife Yasmina welcomes us with open arms. Whilst she serves the traditional dishes of cabbage stuffed with meat and rice, cold meats and pickled vegetables, Milovan tells us about the hardship of the months of struggle. “During the strike, we were all living in one room, in this kitchen, with my mother’s pension as only income, except when I could manage find a small job as a builder. We did not even have enough money to buy coal and we went hungry. It was so cold that there was ice forming on the ceiling and I could see my old mother, sitting here on this sofa all wrapped up in blankets, shivering. It was breaking my heart.”

I ask Yasmina what was her experience of the strike but she simply shakes her head as she answers: “I do not want to think back about that time, I just hope we will never have to go through that ever again.” Radislav tells me that his own wife has been so traumatised by the experience that she also refuses to talk about it. “I was forced to sell my little fishing boat, which meant the world to me. There was nothing that I loved more than going by myself, catch fish, bring them fresh home and cook them myself. But we were so poor, we had to sell everything. I would not wish this to my worst enemy.”

Despite the horrendous living conditions that they had to endure for many long months, Milovan explains, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, why they never lost hope:

-      During the strike, everybody around me was saying that I was crazy: my neighbours, my wife, they all thought that it was a lost cause

-      And you, have there been moments when you lost faith, when you felt like giving up?

-      Never

-      Why?

-      Because I knew that we were right.

Little by little, probably helped by the raki, lunch turns into a scene at once funny, warm and slightly puzzling: Milovan and Radislav shout, laugh, insult each other, roll their eyes to the ceiling every time one of them says something, alternate blows and hugs in a sort of mad whirl that has disarmed even the very composed Milenko, who eventually gives up on his interpreting role. I cannot help thinking of this reflection by Nicolas Bouvier in The way of the world about his own journey through Serbia in the 1950s: “France might be – as the Serbs love to tell us again and again– the brain of Europe, but the Balkans are its heart, which we will never overuse.”

&&&

On the eve of our departure, we finally meet the legendary Zdravko about whom all those we have met over the last ten days have told waxed lyrical. We discover a man at once humble and generous with extraordinary charisma. That he has been able to lead a struggle for more than three years in dire conditions seems completely obvious: determination and authority shine out of this stocky man with a firm and frank gaze. He invites us for dinner in a good restaurant in Zrenjanin where a band of gypsy musicians bounces between tables to the sound of violins, guitars and an impetuous accordion.

Considering the way Zdravko enquires about the way we have been welcomed in Zrenjanin, checking if so and so has satisfactorily carried out the role that was assigned to him, it is clear that he is still the leader of his troupe. After a few beers that he washes with a glass of raki, the conversation obviously takes us to the situation of Bek and Šinvoz. He seems very optimistic about the future of the latter and ensures that in his opinion production could start again in a matter of a few weeks. Ivan doesn’t share his view and starts a detailed explanation of what he understands the situation to be; it is so complicated that he apologetically discontinues his constant interpretation in order to focus on a precise briefing. Having finished it, he announces, visibly reassured and with a tone of voice that says much about the confidence he has in the qualities of the trade unionist: “Ok, now Zdravko has understood the situation, things are going to start moving!”

One of the priorities is the demonstration of January 15th so that it is as productive as possible. Zdravko gets onto organising it without waiting a minute: resorting to methods that proved efficient during the fight for Jugoremedija, the mechanic turned CEO states that he is going to organise the blockade of the motorway to Belgrade this very minute, notably by using Jugoremedija’s delivery trucks! Seeing that those will be insufficient and without getting distracted by the dishes being served, he phones the leader of the farmers’ trade union in order to obtain the support of tractors on the blockade. And to finish off, he calls the chief of the local police to ensure that none of the drivers will be stopped during the action. Putting his mobile phone back on the table with a satisfied smile, he grabs the bill brought by a waitress and jokes about how that he is now director he can invite whomever he wants. Ilena, the young marketing director of the company, smiles mockingly: “The first word that Zdravko has learnt in English is ‘boss’!”

As we say good bye, Zdravko offers us two jars of honey that he has made himself since he owns a few hives on the countryside: “That’s how I survived during the strike.”

[1] This represented over a quarter of national income

[2] http://www.country-data.com/cgi-bin/query/r-14874.html

[3] According to Michel Chussodovsky, “Yugoslavia's implosion was partially due to US machinations. (…) [T]he Reagan administration targeted the Yugoslav economy in a "Secret Sensitive" 1984 National Security Decision Directive (NSDD 133). The latter advocated "expanded efforts to promote a 'quiet revolution' to overthrow Communist governments and parties," while reintegrating the countries of Eastern Europe into a market-oriented economy”. ‘Dimantling Yugoslavia; colonizing Bosnia’ Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 31, No 9 (2 March 1996) p521

[4] Chussodovsky, M opcit

[5] Idem

[6] In 1989 some 248 firms were liquidated and 89,400 workers were laid off. But more was to come. In the first nine months of 1990 a further 889 enterprises with 525,000 workers were subjected to bankruptcy proceedings. In September 1990, the World Bank estimated there were another 2,435 "loss-making" enterprises. Beams, N, opcit.

[7] Chussodovsky, in Beams, N idem

[8] In his article “Economic terrorism”, Chussodovsky demonstrates that the funds for reconstruction are in fact “fictitious money”: in 2001, a $151 million loan was signed by the IMF on the condition that 130 million would be used to repay arrears to them. Thus “what remains after the IMF ‘has reimbursed itself’ is a meager influx of 21 million dollars”, not quite enough to rebuild a completely destroyed country.

[9] Aguirre, M “Un tragique enchaînement d’erreurs” in Le Monde Diplomatique, Novembre 1996.

[10] Woodward, S The Balkan Tragedy. Chaos and dissolution after the cool war (p18).

[11] Chossudovsky, M ‘Economic terrorism’ (2001)

[12] Mandar obedeciendo : one of the most important zapatista principles by which those who govern must do so by obeying the people. This notably involves decision making assemblies where all can take part (from the age of 12) as well as an important turnover of those in leadership positions.

[13] A right wing nationalist political party.

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