Robert Fai and Branislav Markus are both ex-workers of a Serbian pharmaceutical factory that went bankrupt in 2012 and were engaged in the strikes of 2004 and 2005. “That was the most important strike over here. It happened in other companies as well. All these strikes were caused by the privatisation of the factories. Since 2010 we formed an organisation which was financed by the foundation of Rosa Luxemburg. Now it is called ‘The Social Forum of Zrenjanin‘. We are one of the ten organisations that founded Left Summit of Serbia in 2013.
“The socialist system worked very well, what meant that the workers really took an important part in deciding and participating in the functioning of the factory.”
Zrenjanin was one of the most important industrial centres, not only in Serbia, but also in Yugoslavia. There were 52 active factories in Zrenjanin, now there are only five. None of them survived the privatisation process and they were all destroyed after the process started. Until the war started in 1991 there were lots of jobs, everybody had a job and most employees were from the villages around Zrenjanin. The socialist system worked very well, what meant that the workers really took an important part in deciding and participating in the functioning of the factory. Another cause of the factories’ destruction was the war: the workers had to go to war and left the factories without manpower.
During the Milosevic regime, the factories weren’t completely privatised, and if they were, it happened according to the law that the workers owned 70% of the factory, while the state’s part was only 30%. After 2000 and after the fall of Milosevic, it went in the other direction, because the new private owner of the factory had around 70%. The people who bought it were individuals, who were very close to the regime, the political elite and the criminal community as well. So, once they came, they usually made huge debts and then the banks became owners of the factories. After this, the banks took the factories into bankruptcy.
“All privatisation was actually meant to take the status from the workers, to reduce the manpower and to take away the power in decision-making from the workers.”
The workers and the union were very shocked and we did not have time to get used to the new system because we fell asleep during socialism and woke up in capitalism. We didn’t manage to organise ourselves. So the resistance was pretty weak. You can compare the causes and the objectives of the war with the objectives of the privatisation process. It was basically to take the social goods and make them into private goods. All privatisation was actually meant to take the status from the workers, to reduce the manpower and to take away the power in decision-making from the workers.
This was all done according to the new constitution. After the nineties, it wasn’t allowed to have social goods and social ownership anymore, only private ownership. Thus, we followed the Serbian law, and it was a decision made by the Serbian state. The decision was definitely a political one. So there is one detail that actually shows us that the global privatisation wasn’t about one person buying up factories and let them continue to produce, but just about buying it and later destroying it. More than 50% of the privatised factories ceased to exist.
The whole idea was implemented from the West, because, for example, during the war and during the nineties we received sanctions in Serbia, but they didn’t have a big impact on people, because each town – especially Zrenjanin – had their own production. So, if you want to manipulate people better, you have to kill their production, so that they don’t have anything and that they have to import everything. That was the idea of privatisation: to kill the local production and local workers, so that they had to rely on import.
“We wanted to fight for our jobs, but this was not like a conflict between a boss and his workers or the union, but between big guys and small guys that weren’t able to cope with it.”
The strikes happened right after the privatisation was announced, because the man who bought the factory was wanted by Interpol and he wasn’t even allowed to come to Serbia, he was in Macedonia at that time. The workers panicked right away and we organised the strikes. In the first year of this ownership, his objective was to take everything he could from the factory. There were no more reserve parts, he took everything from the warehouses and the production stopped. We wanted to fight for our jobs, but this was not like a conflict between a boss and his workers or the workers union, but between big guys and small guys that weren’t able to cope with it. Our only request in the strike was to stop this privatisation contract. There were no other social or work conditions we asked for. The workers wanted to continue to take part in deciding on how the factory would work and to continue the production.
This fight lasted for four years from 2003 till 2007, when finally the contract was annulled and the workers took back over. From 2007 to 2012 the factory basically worked horizontally, there was no owner. This principal also existed in socialist times, where the workers would choose their delegates and send them to the council. In this case we had like a board with either workers or academic people. So in that way we also chose delegates who would decide and defend the right opinions.
So the question is why it didn’t work anymore after 2012. It was one of the bad examples, because we failed in this idea. We were influenced by politics and the big capital, because at one side we had the Ministry who was deciding on the prices and on the other side they had banks with taxes that were to high. We had to take loans at the bank because we couldn’t meet the requirements of the European laws, regarding the medicines. Because of this and because of the wrongdoings of the previous owner, we had to take on a loan of 20 million euro. The workers were supposed to get that money back by working, but it wasn’t possible to return so much money.
“It is just not possible to make a healthy system based on a corrupted one.”
This factory is not one in its kind: it’s one of twenty or more factories that met the same faith. Here in Vojvodina, there is a similar scandal, for example. We were one of the few who succeeded to give the power to the workers during four years, which is a lot. It is just not possible to make a healthy system based on a corrupted one. We found it impossible to make it work, because the corporatisation process was based on stealing. This had a huge impact. Like I already said: the Serbian industry was completely destroyed. One of the consequences of this was that young people started to leave Serbia because they couldn’t find jobs here and Zrenjanin, which is a small town, has been losing around 1000 young people every year. In Subotica, one of the biggest cities in Vojvodina, they lost around twenty people every day.
Since the factory went bankrupt, we’ve been waiting for another buyer who would restart production for five years now. It’s on stand-by now, even though in the last few years, they opened three new pharmaceutical factories in this region. This factory was the most organised and best equipped pharmaceutical factory in the Balkans, because workers had to meet all the requirements for European standards and they did their utmost best. Now, in Serbia we don’t have such a factory anymore. Now, the conditions are controlled by a control centre that checks if the light, humidity and other conditions are at the preferable norm for the production. Everybody lost their job because the Ministry didn’t allow them to sell their products at competitive prices. One example of this: there is a medicine for high blood pressure that costs 36 dinars and when media asked the Ministry to increase the price for a few dinars, they didn’t do it because they would have losses. The next thing they did is importing the same medicine from Bulgaria for 50 dinars.
“All these social democratic parties wanted to discuss the problems of the workers and the bankrupt factories, but in the end it all became irrelevant for them.”
In 2007 we started a local political party and people from the bankrupt factories joined it. The goal was to protect the workers rights and to prevent this to happen again. We had enough votes to have four representatives in the city council. We were allowed to make a board of our own. The representatives joined the democratic party that was ruling in that time and the idea was that once they were one of the ruling parties, they would manage to push their ideas. But unfortunately that didn’t happen either. When they joined the democratic party they were very enthusiastic, but unfortunately they weren’t strong enough to push their ideas on the agenda. After some time they lost their energy because they were constantly pushed aside by the party. And then the common people stopped believing in them as a workers’ party, because they were in coalition with the ruling party. All these social democratic parties wanted to discuss the problems of the workers and the bankrupt factories, but in the end it all became irrelevant for them.
“So now it’s more dangerous to live and yet, we have gained freedom of speech.”
I think that communism in Serbia never existed, it was always socialism. Communism was just an idea that we were forever evolving to: it was an ideal for us but it was never implemented. When I think about that period I cannot think about one bad thing, because life was good, people had jobs and Zrenjanin attracted a lot of people from the villages. We had enough jobs, but lacked workforce. There were many jobs vacant. My father was a policeman and my mother worked in a pharmaceutical factory as well. We lived a normal life, went to the seaside once a year, had free education, free health insurance, it was all as it was supposed to be. Most of the regular people and the older generation are pretty nostalgic when it comes to the time of Tito, but in the media it is presented the other way around. The people who are in high positions right now criticise Tito and his politics. But there is an example of an ex-mayor of Zrenjanin, who once said that at that time, you could sleep on the street without having to be scared that anything would happen to you or something would be taken away. But you weren’t allowed to speak freely, and now it’s the other way around. So now it’s more dangerous to live and yet, we have gained freedom of speech.
“Actually, it was never up to [the people] to choose who would rule since it has always brought to them in a way that they don’t have a real choice.”
In Serbia we often talk about Yugoslavia and most of the people would say that old times were much better because being a socialist country brought up protection. However, every time it comes to voting in elections, most people vote for capitalist parties. That means that people don’t understand how it was and how politics work, basically. But we shouldn’t blame everything the people: a more realistic response would be that actually, it was never up to them to choose who would rule since it has always brought to them in a way that they don’t have a real choice.
“There are no leaders, we don’t believe in that kind of hierarchy and we are trying to create a political front, organise debates and different kinds of public engagement.”
When I came to the factory, I was already in favour of the left-wing politics and in favour of the workers’ party. At the moment, in Serbia, we don’t have a real left-wing party, so what we should work on is creating the new socialism, because we are in the 21st century and Tito has been dead for 40 years. We should shrug off the constraints of our past and create new ways of organising socialism and left-wing parties. When it comes to education, we are focusing on what is happening at the moment around workers’ fights and workers’ problems both in and outside Serbia. We are still taking small steps and creating a modest platform. On a local level, we are trying to talk about these topics with people and colleagues. But what is important for us, as we were one of the founders of the Left Summit, is that there are no leaders, we don’t believe in that kind of hierarchy and we are trying to create a political front, organise debates and different kinds of public engagement.
In 2013 we organised a round table and invited all the workers leaders in Zrenjanin. The topic was success and failure of workers’ fights, and the idea was to unite students, workers, LGBT+ community, agricultural communities from north and south as a solidarity movement. We organised a three days event in the centre of Serbia, to discuss this ‘Left Summit of Serbia’ and the name stayed. For us, that was the only way to protect ourselves and not to act separately.
“The Left Summit of Serbia is always trying to focus on solidarity and networking between the workers”
The problem here is people would just go back to work if a strike was a success. They didn’t care about others who were in the same situation. It’s important to wake up and engage in a kind of solidarity between the workers. The Left Summit of Serbia is always trying to focus on solidarity and networking between the workers. We are trying to attract different small organisations that share the same values and we have a list of requests and basic ideas we are supporting. We organise different events, debates and platforms to talk about these topics. The idea is to create a political party one day that would be in favour of these ideas.
“This is one thing that gives us hope: that some new ideas will be defined and that there will be new faces in politics.”
Basically, it is so that within our political elite for the last twenty to thirty years, we always encounter the same names. People are discouraged to go to vote, because every time it’s all the same. Our hope is founded on the idea that one day, Left Summit will be recognised by some future generations, that people will hear it and recognise it as their own fight, as something that is personal and that can help us move forward. But it’s a slow fight and a long one, so it’s going to be hard. But probably in the next years we will try to go to the elections and want to find ourselves among the political parties. This is one thing that gives us hope: that some new ideas will be defined and that there will be new faces in politics.
“So basically left-wing parties [in the Balkan] have to fight not only capitalism, but also nationalists and neo-fascists.”
You don’t have to be the biggest left person or socialist to see and to know that capitalism is one of the things that destroys our planet and our society. I am hopeful that some socialist movements will be able to get to the people and can make them understand how important it is to change the perspective. However, talking here about capitalism in Serbia might be a bit different from the discourse about capitalism in Europe because each Balkan country has a very strong national identity and there are a lot of nationalistic movements. So basically left-wing parties have to fight not only capitalism, but also nationalists and neo-fascists. Zrenjanin was named after one of the heroes from World War II and the nationalist movements want to change it to an older King Peter, for example. Nationalism is very much alive and kicking here. We are not afraid of the right-wing populists in Serbia, however. We wouldn’t act as a left party if were afraid.
We definitely believe in connecting with other movements in Europe, mostly we work regional. So we made a legal Balkan Left with people of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia. So we try to push the idea to interact with other colleagues from Europe.”
Interview by Victoria Deluxe
Photo by Sam David