“Perspective” or “eclipse”

European Union declares upcoming parliamentary elections in Serbia a turning point

Top politicians and diplomats from EU countries are meeting in Belgrade these days. Ahead of next Sunday’s parliamentary elections, in numerous declarations they call on Serbian citizens to elect "democratic forces" and thus preserve a "European perspective" for the country. If it comes nevertheless differently, with a new "isolation" of Serbia is threatened.

No parliamentary election in Southeastern Europe has aroused so much diplomatic activity in recent years. This week alone, the heads of government of Greece, Austria, Sweden, and Slovakia paid flying visits to the Serbian capital.

Already in early January, the German ambassador in Belgrade, Andres Cobel, had set the tone in an interview. If a "pro-European" government is elected in Serbia, the country has the "perspective" of joining the EU in the foreseeable future. If, however, the "forces of the past" – the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) – were elected, Serbia would be threatened with "darkness. In recent days, the British head of government, Toni Blair, the EU Enlargement Commissioner, Olli Rehn, and the EU Security Coordinator, Javier Solana, have made similar comments.

The reasons for the blatant influence on the Serbian election campaign are easy to identify. The participation in the government of the spectre of the nationalist SRS and the socialists of Slobodan Milosevic, who died last year in The Hague, would seriously damage the European Union’s policy in the Balkans. And this in several respects. First, an electoral victory of the EU opponents meant the failure of the costly and risky attempt to fundamentally change the balance of power in Serbia through the NATO bombing in spring 1999 and the subsequent massive support of the "democratic opposition" against Slobodan Milosevic. Secondly, the further pace of the Union’s long-term enlargement strategy adopted at the EU summit in Thessaloniki in 2003 was called into question throughout Southeastern Europe. And thirdly, the coming to power of an EU-critical government in Belgrade would make the "solution" of the already delicate Kosovo problem, planned for the coming weeks, much more difficult.

The danger of new violence in Kosovo and a resulting deterioration in the security situation in the Balkans is considered high by observers. It was not without reason that German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized in her first speech as EU Council President to the European Parliament in Strasbourg last Wednesday:

In Kosovo, the Union will accompany the implementation of a solution to the status question. Stability in the Western Balkans is in our common interest. And I would add: Without a European perspective for the states in the Western Balkans, there will be no such stability.

Government formation uncertain

Contrary to many fears, the election campaign has so far been surprisingly fair and without any major violence. Nevertheless, tension lies over Serbia. For the formation of a government seems quite uncertain according to all known polls. Relatively sure, however, seems to be the place order of the three rough parties. According to the results, the Serbian Radical Party will actually be the strongest faction in the future parliament, with about 30 percent, as before. In second place was the liberal Democratic Party (DS) of the incumbent President Boris Tadic. The national conservative electoral alliance of incumbent Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) is expected to come in third.

Several smaller parties, such as the Socialists, the economic liberal G17 and the pro-Western Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), are fighting to get above the 5 percent hurdle. Their results could ultimately decide the possibilities of forming coalition governments. Rough surprises are not excluded, since many voters will decide only at the last moment, and polls in Serbia often prove to be untruthful.

The decisive questions in forming a government will be whether the much-vaunted "democratic forces," which in Serbia generally include the DSS, DS, G17 and LDP, can together obtain a mathematical majority of seats and agree on a joint coalition. Both are uncertain. A problem could arise if the dynamic LDP, which was founded last year, achieved a good result and the previous governing party G17, which recently split, remained below the 5 percent hurdle. Then a majority of the "democratic camp" would be blocked. It is highly unlikely that the LDP and Kostunica’s DSS will sit together at the same cabinet table.

The chairman of the LDP, Cedomir Jovanovic, is currently the sharpest critic of the Kostunica government in Serbia. As the leader of the student protests against Slobodan Milosevic in 1996/97 and deputy prime minister in the government of Zoran Djindjic, who was shot in March 2003, Jovanovic never misses an opportunity to sharply criticize Kostunica as a forerunner of the return of old Milosevic cadres to positions of power. Jovanovic and his alliance of human rights activists and Vojvodina autonomists also boycotted the referendum on the treaty last October.

The LDP is the only party in Serbia that can imagine a secession of Kosovo. This is a frontal opposition to Kostunica and the DSS, which ran its election campaign under the slogan "Long live Serbia"!"and put the Kosovo ie in the foreground. Kostunica, on the other hand, has for Jovanovic only disparaging remarks about his alleged involvement in organized crime.

Is there a "democratic block?

The conflict between the LDP and the DSS makes it clear that the established division of the political camps into "pro-democracy" and "nationalist" in Serbia has long been questionable and was perhaps never correct. In fact, in this election campaign, the DSS has in some ways overtaken the SRS and SPS nationalistically.

Vojislav Kostunica, who was removed from the Faculty of Law for "nationalism" as early as 1974 under the rule of long-time Yugoslav communist President Josip Broz Tito, has not missed an opportunity for months to emphasize Serbia’s claim to Kosovo. He uses not only serious and justified arguments of the people’s rights, but also mythical blood and soil rhetoric. For example, in a speech in the Sud Serbian town of Krusevac, the seat of King Lazar, who, according to myth, fought the legendary Battle of Blackbird Field in 1389, Kostunica declared:

We will not give Kosovo! These words were spoken here many centuries ago. And speaking of Kosovo, this is definitive. Kosovo is the first and the last word of the Serbian people. In the whole history of Serbia there was no other opinion. No Serb has yet been born who would give Kosovo away and say that Kosovo is not ours, that Kosovo is not Serbia.

After the successful fall referendum that established Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia (New entanglements, new conflicts), that Kostunica will indeed leave no stone unturned to prevent Kosovo’s secession. The prime minister is not squeamish in his choice of political partners either. Kostunica concluded an official alliance with the head of the Jedinstvo party, Dragan Markovic.

The mayor of the city of Jagodina is not unknown. Markovic was for years a close associate of the well-known paramilitary leader Zeljko Raznatovic, alias "Arkan," who is blamed for numerous war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia and was himself shot dead in 2000. Arkan’s widow, the popular sanguine Svetlana Raznatovic, better known by her art learning name Ceca, announced on 13. January in Belgrade an election campaign concert in support of Kostunica, in which according to treasures up to half a million people participated. The 13. January is the Serbian Orthodox New Year, which has been increasingly celebrated on the streets for some years now.

How radical are the radicals?

In reality, Kostunica’s Kosovo campaign in recent months has not taken a new course, as many Western observers believe. In fact, the lawyer is much more likely to continue his policy from the 1990s, when as an opposition politician he was to the right of Slobodan Milosevic on many ies. It was Kostunica who criticized Milosevic for concluding the Dayton Agreement, which ended the war in Bosnia at the end of 1995. And it was Kostunica who urged the rehabilitation of the monarchist Chetnik movement from the Second World War, which Milosevic always treated rather stepmotherly. Only at the end of 2004, under Prime Minister Kostunica, a rehabilitation of the Chetniks was proclaimed in parliament.

In some respects, a DSS alliance with the nationalist SRS of former paramilitary leader and avowed right-wing extremist Vojislav Seselj, who is in custody in The Hague, would not be surprising. Seselj and the SRS were also always to the right of Milosevic in the 1990s. What may have prevented Kostunica, however, is the international stigmatization of the SRS as "right-wing extremist". The SRS leadership’s attempt to present the party in a moderate light during the election campaign is therefore significant. Although the SRS maintains the rhetorical propaganda for "coarse Serbia". The campaign of the radicals, however, is anything but radical. Their campaign slogan is tame: "To make things better today"." The operational leader of the SRS, Tomislav Nikolic, even tries to address "soft ies" such as violence in families. It exhorted the husbands not to beat up their wives. He was the only politician to raise this ie during the election campaign.

Whatever the outcome of the election: The two leaders of the DSS and DS, Prime Minister Kostunica and President Tadic, who face each other with distance, will first try to form a center-right coalition without the radicals. The prere from the EU and the USA will be great to enforce this formation. But such a project can fail. The involvement of SRS in a new government has become more likely mainly due to the urgency of the Kosovo negotiations, which may take on the character of a diktat in the coming weeks.

Out of consideration for the election campaign in Serbia, UN mediator Martti Ahtisaari has set the announcement of his long-awaited proposal for the future international legal status of the disputed province for a few days after the elections. It is no secret that this proposal is expected to provide for "conditional independence" of Kosovo. If this proposal, which is unacceptable to most Serbs, is to be pushed through before a new government is in place in Belgrade, the real radicalization of the political landscape could only be imminent after the elections. As the well-known sociologist Milan Nikolic from the Center for the Study of Alternatives in Belgrade says, in this situation the formation of a coalition including DSS and SRS would be possible.

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