Serbia: Political instability persists

by Stavros Tzimas

(“Kathimerini”, 5 January, 2004)

A deeply religious people, the Serbs have been spending the days leading up to January 7, when they celebrate Christ’s birth, peacefully. Politicians who played a leading role in last Sunday’s elections have had no choice but to join in the seasonal piety, even though the country has no government, no president and no constitution.

They have left deliberations over the formation of a new government until after Christmas, possibly in the hope that the star of Bethlehem might lead them out of the impasse.

Not only have the Parliamentary elections in Serbia not solved the problem of political instability which has plagued the country since the overthrow of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, but they have complicated matters.

The ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) of Vojislav Seselj won the poll, but it seems likely that those who will be asked to form a government are three or four democratic parties, the largest of which won only 17.5 percent of the vote.

All kinds of predictions are being made in Belgrade, but nothing is happening behind the scenes in the offices of the diplomatic corps, since nothing is happening officially because of the holidays, nor are the media discussing the looming developments.

According to analysts and the first statements of the protagonists after the results were announced, the most likely outcome is the formation of a government by moderate nationalist Vojislav Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia, which won 17.4 percent of the vote, the Democratic Party of the late Zoran Djindjic—led by Boris Tadic, who was probably out of his league—which got 12.7 percent, G17 Plus, led by liberal economist Miroljub Labus, which got 11.4 percent and the Together for Serbia Coalition led by monarchist Vuk Draskovic, which got 8.2 percent.

There may be a minority government for a certain period, committed to implementing specific goals, such as voting on a constitution and some basic laws, followed by new elections.

There is little to no likelihood that Vojislav Seselj’s ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) or Milosevic’s Socialist Party will be part of the government.

Pressure for cooperation is coming from the West, which actively attempted before the elections to influence voters in favor of liberal parties and prevent the hardliners from taking power. Brussels’ first reaction, in the form of a call for cooperation addressed to the democratic parties, was a sign of what was to follow. It must be assumed that European Union High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana will not sit with his arms folded.

How powerful and viable can a government be when it comprises parties with different ideological and political bases, which were vehemently opposed to one another before the elections? How, for example, can Kostunica govern with Tadic, when even on election day the former kept accusing the ruling Democratic Party of ties with the Mafia, corruption and illegality? How can government cohesion, on the question of the continued existence of the state of Serbia and Montenegro, be ensured when Labus is in favor of Serbia’s independence? And how can the government further democratic constitutional reform when Draskovic is in favor of the reinstatement of the monarchy?

Whatever government emerges from the procedures behind the scenes, it will be called on to implement in a short time what the previous government did not achieve in its three-year term, and facing a militant, nationalist opposition.

How easy will it be for a weak government to take, and above all to implement, decisions which impinge on the interests of all-powerful organized crime and the new economic oligarchy, or which will be painful for the sorely tried populace who don’t really feel that much has changed in their everyday life since the overthrow of Milosevic?

This is the big question and this is why everyone predicts a prolongation of the political instability and fluidity in a country which continues to be the black hole of the western Balkans.

However one interprets the outcome of Sunday’s elections, some observers in the West and certain circles in Brussels and Washington seem pleased that the overall percentage of votes won by the liberal parties amounts to 59 percent. Others are horrified at the thought that 41 percent of Serbs voted in favor of Milosevic and Seselj, who are on trial for war crimes.

The reality is somewhat different. The support for the ultranationalists was a vote to punish the parties which took power after the fall of Milosevic. A large part of the population, disappointed by the inability of the present leaders to meet its hopes for a higher standard of living, expressed its dissatisfaction at the ballot box by supporting the hardliners. “Seselj’s lot make me sick, but this lot have to go” said one voter leaving an electoral center in Belgrade.

Seselj’s party did not contest the elections under the banner of ultranationalism, nor did it speak openly about extending the borders to include all Serbs, even though that is its political and ideological philosophy.

In contrast to the democratic parties’ fuzzy declarations about European ideals, reforms, liberalization of the economy and society, it addressed poor villagers of the provinces, pensioners in the cities who cannot pay their electricity bills, promising it would reduce the price of bread from 30 dinars to 2.

It addressed refugees from Kosovo and the Kraijna and Chetniks (Serb nationalists) to rebuild their wounded national pride, winning a high percentage. It might rise even higher if a formula for a strong government is not found and the country goes to the polls again soon.

The West’s responsibilities

The West is not free of blame for the rise of Seselj’s extremists and the threat that they may dominate political developments in Serbia.

The awkward fashion—sometimes verging on outright blackmail—in which the arrest and handover of politicians and soldiers suspected of war crimes was handled, linking the input of aid with the satisfaction of various demands by Carla del Ponte, chief prosecutor of the International Court of Justice at The Hague, hit a sensitive nerve with the Serbs.

Threats in the press that they would not receive some millions of dollars that were absolutely necessary for crucially important projects such as the construction of hospitals or replacement of destroyed factories unless one person was arrested or another sent to The Hague, not only did not favor the liberals’ policies but played into the hands of Seselj and Milosevic.

Is a demand such as del Ponte’s for the arrest and handover of a Serbian army official who may have committed crimes still a higher priority for the international community than economic and political aid to the democratic parties with the aim of lifting Serbia out of the crisis?

Perhaps Brussels and Washington will think it over after the result of last Sunday’s elections and give substantive aid to the citizens of long-suffering Serbia. Unless they want to see at the top of the power pyramid in Serbia fans of Hitler, (far-rightist Jean-Marie) Le Pen and (Russian nationalist Vladimir) Zhirinovsky, as Seselj and his circle have never denied being.

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