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Will the Real Serbia Please Stand Up?

Kosovo’s independence declaration on 17 February 2008 sent shock waves through Serbia’s politics and society, polarising the former in a manner not seen since the Milosevic era.

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I. Overview

Kosovo’s independence declaration on 17 February 2008 sent shock waves through Serbia’s politics and society, polarising the former in a manner not seen since the Milosevic era. Rioting led to attacks on nine Western embassies, destruction of foreign property and massive looting. The government fell on 10 March, split over whether to pursue a nationalist or pro-Western path. Belgrade’s efforts to create a de facto partitioning of the north of Kosovo threaten the new state’s territorial integrity and challenge deployment of European Union (EU) missions there, and Serbian parliamentary and local elections on 11 May are unlikely to change the basic policy towards the new state, even in the unlikely event a pro-Western government comes to power. They may, however, well give Serbia’s nationalist parties new leverage.

The election campaign is heated. Verbal attacks have increased against opposition parties, independent media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that disagree with the hardline nationalist policy on Kosovo. After the polls, one of two main scenarios is likely, since no party will win enough votes to form a government alone. Nationalists from the Serb Radical Party (SRS) could form a coalition with the “People’s Bloc” led by Premier Vojislav Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and the late dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s old Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS).

If nationalist forces win, Euro-Atlantic integration will come to a halt and Serbia will enhance its ties with Russia. They will support a more belligerent response in Kosovo, and Kosovo Serbs’ use of low-level violence. They may encourage Republika Srpska to leave Bosnia-Herzegovina, and meddle in Macedonian internal affairs. A backlash against pro-Western parties and their supporters and an increased climate of media repression can be expected. Uncertainty will lead to a fall in foreign direct investment and economic growth.

Alternatively, pro-Western forces might form a weak government, but only with the support of nationalists, such as the DSS or SPS. Serbia could then anticipate the same kind of domestic instability it experienced under the outgoing government. If the more pro-Western Democratic Party (DS) tried to chart an openly pro-EU course, it would face the type of obstruction and opposition that led to Premier Zoran Djindjic’s assassination in 2003.

At best, the EU and U.S. will have limited influence for many months, until a new government is formed, which may not be until September or later. Meanwhile, the public anger over Western support for Kosovo’s independence is such that any attempt to pressure or even induce Belgrade into more cooperation risks strengthening the nationalist vote. Brussels and Washington would be well served to lower levels of rhetorical support for the more pro-Western Democratic Party (DS) of President Boris Tadic, G17+ and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and end interference in the campaign via promises of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA).

More specifically, in this pre-election period the EU and the U.S. should:

  • stop intervening directly in support of one or another political force;
     
  • not sign an SAA unless Serbia gives full cooperation to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY); and
     
  • offer increased support to civil society.

 

Belgrade/Pristina/Brussels, 23 April 2008

Serbia's Changing Political Landscape

On 11 July 2004, Boris Tadic was inaugurated as Serbia's first president since December 2002. Voters chose Tadic in the second round of the election, on 27 June, by a vote of 53 per cent over the ultra-nationalist Tomislav Nikolic of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS). Tadic's victory suggests that a slim majority of the electorate wants to see Serbia on a pro-European reform course.

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I. Overview

On 11 July 2004, Boris Tadic was inaugurated as Serbia's first president since December 2002. Voters chose Tadic in the second round of the election, on 27 June, by a vote of 53 per cent over the ultra-nationalist Tomislav Nikolic of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS).[fn]In the first round, 47.7 per cent of the electorate voted and 48.7 per cent in the second round. Three previous elections (29 September and 13 October 2002, 8 December 2002, and 16 November 2003) were annulled due to insufficient voter turnout. Subsequent changes in the election law removed the requirement for a 50 per cent voter turnout and made it possible for this election to succeed.Hide Footnote  Tadic's victory suggests that a slim majority of the electorate wants to see Serbia on a pro-European reform course. However, the Radicals' strong showing demonstrates that Serbia's electorate is deeply divided, and a pro-reform course should not be taken for granted, particularly if economic difficulties continue. Most importantly, the top three vote-getters in the first round of the presidential election came from parties that were not part of the government and did not support it in parliament.

Since the election, Tadic has indicated that he will support the government of Premier Vojislav Kostunica, thereby reducing the influence of the Socialist Party (SPS). However, the office of president holds little authority over day-to-day policy-making, and Tadic's election may not necessarily translate into real change for Serbian politics. The election leaves Serbia's minority government highly vulnerable to pressure from the nationalist right as well as the pro-European centre. Upcoming country-wide municipal elections and provincial elections in Vojvodina -- both scheduled for September -- will be seen by the government as a crucial test for possible early parliamentary elections.

Despite Tadic's election, the Serbian government appears reluctant to restart cooperation with the war crimes tribunal in The Hague (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia [ICTY]). Rhetoric and ever-increasing international pressure aside, it is uncertain if anyone sought by the ICTY will be arrested or transferred prior to the September elections. Reform legislation has stalled, and relations with minorities in the ethnically mixed Vojvodina province have worsened noticeably and could be subject to further deterioration.

In this presidential election, Serbia's electorate demonstrated increased sophistication and signalled that it is no longer obsessed with the politics of nationalism. The economy dominated the election debate -- neither Kosovo nor the ICTY played a significant part in the campaign rhetoric. Both the first and second rounds of the election signalled broad disenchantment with the transition process and with politics as usual. But the emergence of a new face from the oligarchy -- one-time Milosevic crony Bogoljub Karic -- as an increasingly powerful political force sends a powerful message to Belgrade's self-absorbed political elites of possible populist trends in the future.

Belgrade/Brussels, 22 July 2004