Charges against activists in Serbia supporting striking workers

Last week, activists Anja Ilić and Marko Stričević received court orders for allegedly organizing a public gathering held without advance notification to legal authorities on June 16th 2017. The gathering in question was a show of support to workers’ strikes in FIAT, Goša, Gorenje, and JP Ratko Mitrović, as well as to social workers and raspberry farmers. Funds were also collected for the workers of Goša, a railway vehicle factory, who went on a hunger strike the following day. In addition to our members, Svetlana Pandžić – a former worker of the now-defunct IMT (Motor and Tractor Industry) and a leader of protests for re-starting production within it – was also charged with organizing the gathering in question.

As none of the accused were approached by the police at the gathering itself, and were instead identified based on the speeches they gave, two women completely unrelated to the action also received court orders. They neither attended nor organized the gathering but simply happened to have the same names as two of the speakers.

If any of the charged activists were to claim sole responsibility for organizing this act of solidarity, they would be negating the collective effort of dozens of people who reacted to the announcement of the hunger strike in Goša by calling for donations. Faced with an overwhelming lack of media coverage of workers’ strikes, those people thought that the least they could do to show the workers that they are not alone was to organize a show of support, and make their fellow citizens aware of the ongoing battle for workers’ dignity. The more people join this battle, the closer we are to a workers’ victory – the victory for dignified work and life of ordinary people in Serbia.

The 7 Demands movement – whose work we have actively participated in since its inception during the April protests in Belgrade – coordinated with the Student Movement of Novi Sad to organize support for the strikes in Belgrade and Novi Sad. 22,410 Serbian dinars (around 190 EUR) were collected and sent to the Goša strike committee. All of us, as organizers of the solidarity action, are proud for having done the right thing: standing with the workers abandoned by the state. During the FIAT strike, the government sided with the Italian investor, demanding termination of the strike as a precondition for starting negotiations with the workers. This demand violated the collective contract as well as the current Strike Law, meaning that the State ignored its own legal system in order to cozy up to the private investor. At the same time, the State is more than ready to apply the law at any occasion when it can be used to establish budgetary surpluses.

Namely, the fines prescribed by the 2016 Law on Public Gatherings are absurdly high in relation to both the severity of the infraction in question and the income of the average Serbian citizen. However, in the eyes of the State which stands to profit from these fines they appear to be less absurd. The lowest fine under this law is 30,000 dinars (250 EUR), issued to individuals who decline to leave the location of a public gathering once its organizers declare that it is being stopped by the authorities. The fines facing our comrades – charged as organizers of the gathering – are significantly higher. They range from 100,000 to 150,000 dinars (approx. 850 – 1250 EUR) – per person.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the police didn’t terminate the gathering on the spot, despite being present and having the authority to do so. Instead, they reported five people as organizers – without actually collecting their information at the time and relying solely on their speeches as means of identification – who received court orders half a year later (including the two misidentified women). The regime has been using these strategies of repression and filling budgetary holes through fines since October, when first orders were sent to the participants of the April protests. It is useful to remember that over the duration of these protests, the president of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić and the Minister of Interior Nebojša Stefanović often stated that there are “no police present at the protests” and that “everyone is entitled to peacefully express their dissatisfaction”. However, in November the police reported that charges were being been pressed against 23 participants of the above-mentioned protests. All of the publicly known accused are charged for the same offence: organizing a public gathering without advance notification to legal authorities.

The April protests and the summer strike wave represent last year’s most significant political events in Serbia. The fact that the protests which started as a direct reaction to the election results didn’t have any formal leadership and, thus, no unified set of demands around which a strategy could be formed, meant that they couldn’t have led to the fulfillment of any of the multitude of demands that arose from them. They erupted, peaked, ebbed and faded out as a spontaneous outburst of popular discontent. However, they represented a significant first experience of direct political struggle for a large number of people. Despite starting as protests against electoral fraud, they eventually started addressing a broadening spectrum of issues: from the partocratic character of the state and low levels of freedom of press, to the discredited and incompetent formal opposition forces, to the disastrous economic policy that limits people’s access to education, healthcare, work and general decent living standards. The far-right, which, in the early days of the protests attempted to overtake them, was expelled from the demonstrations with relative ease as left-wing forces raised issues with which an overwhelming majority of the population could identify.

The workers’ strikes were at a level which has not been seen in Serbia for a long time. The workers of Fori tekstil from Kragujevac were the first to demand an eight (instead of twelve)-hour work day, as well as no overtime or night shifts for minimal wages. The biggest catalyst for further strikes was the Kragujevac FIAT strike, even though it was eventually defeated through the combined efforts of the strike committee that didn’t respect the workers’ demands and the State which protected the interests of the private investor. However, the Valjevo Gorenje strike did manage to win a wage increase. Activists from 7 Demands and our own organization contributed to linking the workers’ struggles and aided them in the exchange and development of tactics and strategies. We visited the cities where workers were on strike, talked with them, and assisted the organizing of protests and other actions of solidarity. It is of utmost importance to us that we stood by the workers in times of victory – as was the case with Gorenje, but also in times of struggle, when they were failed by the state which fishes for foreign investments with promises of “high-skilled, low-cost labor”, falls silent at hunger strikers and workers’ suicides, and threatens workers’ rights activists with six figure sums.

These charges will not stop us in creating and developing an economic and political alternative in Serbia, nor will they hinder our work on connecting and strengthening the struggles aimed at demolishing the system of exploitation and profiting off of people’s misery. Join us in front of the Belgrade Misdemeanor court (Ustanička 14) where our comrades will face trial on the 7th of February at 10 AM. Let’s support the struggle for dignified lives of working people. Solidarity is our strength!

This article first appeared on the Serbian Website marks21

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