Nationalist resurgence

Published : Jan 30, 2004 00:00 IST

Supporters of the Socialist Party of Serbia hold pictures of former President Slobodan Milosevic at an election rally in Belgrade on December 25. - AFP

Supporters of the Socialist Party of Serbia hold pictures of former President Slobodan Milosevic at an election rally in Belgrade on December 25. - AFP

A deteriorating law and order situation and a declining economy prompt Serbians to move closer to the nationalist parties, as is evident from the results of the recent general elections.

THE first genuine general elections in Serbia since the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 have thrown up unpleasant surprises for the West. Although Milosevic is in the custody of the United Nations Tribunal at The Hague facing war crime charges, his Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) fared well in the elections, winning 7.6 per cent of the votes polled and 22 seats in the 250-member Serbian Parliament. Moreover, the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) emerged as the largest party, with 81 seats and 27 per cent of the votes. Its leader, Vojislav Seselj, is also being held by the International War Crimes Tribunal after he surrendered himself for trial. Both men head the list of candidates of the respective parties.

The results of three presidential election held in the past two years were declared invalid because the turnout in each case was less than 50 per cent. (Under the Serbian Constitution, at least 50 per cent of the electorate has to vote for the election to be valid.) Vojislav Kostunica, the leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), defeated Slobodan Milosevic in the presidential election of 2000, with the support of all the Opposition parties. Milosevic, who initially refused to concede defeat, was forced to surrender power following mass demonstrations.

The two of the more nationalist parties, though they are short of a majority, hold between them more than 40 per cent of the seats in the new Parliament. On the other hand, the liberal democratic parties espousing reform are now under pressure to come together to form a coalition durable enough to resist the nationalists and prevent another round of elections. The governing centrist coalition led by outgoing Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic of the Democratic Party (D.S.) was plagued by infighting and was unable to realise political or economic reforms. The inability of the reformist parties to work together precipitated the elections one year ahead of schedule.

Meanwhile, acknowledging that the ultra-nationalists had been strengthened, the European Union's (E.U.) foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, emphasised that they would not be able to form a government. Solana said: "I appeal to all democratic forces to work together in order to ensure that a new government based on a clear and strong European agenda can be formed rapidly." He added that the "the E.U. would extend its full support to such a government". Maurizio Massari, the representative for Serbia of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said that he was "disappointed" by the election results. The U.N.'s Chief War Crimes Prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, told the Swiss radio that she was "used to having problems with Belgrade". Del Ponte said: "I hope that the new Serbian authorities will not hinder our work and they will know how to show themselves to be reasonable."

The SRS has offered to form a coalition with the DSS, the second largest party with 52 seats. Both parties had opposed the 1999 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) intervention in Yugoslavia and have been critical of the Western pressure on Serbia to cooperate with the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal. Kostunica's party had, however, declared earlier that it would not ally with the SRS. The performance of the ultra-nationalists is pushing Kostunica towards an alliance with the D.S., founded by former Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated outside his office in March 2003. Kostunica had refused to join hands with the D.S. in the election campaign, mainly on account of the fact that Djindjic had not helped him in the inconclusive presidential election in which he had emerged the front-runner. For the time being, the search for a President has to be put off until after the formation of a new government.

THE Serbian transition, which began with the collapse of the socialist regime of Milosevic, has been marked by such intense rivalry between the reformist parties that it led to the disintegration of the alliance that had come together to oust the former strongman. The D.S., the DSS and the G-17 Plus, a party of economists and technocrats, which began as a non-governmental organisation (NGO), fell out with one another once in power. Among them, only the D.S. remained in the outgoing government, which won 38 seats and secured 12.6 per cent of the votes.

The chaos of the transition in ex-Yugoslavia was starkly highlighted by the assassination of Djindjic. Djindjic founded the D.S. in 1989, thus making it the first Opposition party in the Serbia ruled by Milosevic. Djindjic himself often took refuge in the United States and had the backing of the U.S. administration and other European governments. He played a major role in overthrowing Milosevic and, later, in handing him over to the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal following pressure from Western governments. As Prime Minister, Djindjic presided over the official dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation with its renaming as the Union of Serbia and Montenegro in February 2003.

A major element of the Yugoslav transition has been the growing clout and wealth of various criminal syndicates and clans, which thrived in the conditions created by the U.N. sanctions in the 1990s. In getting around these sanctions, the state often colluded with groups of smugglers and thus helped reinforce the criminal-politician nexus. This nexus found its savage articulation in the Balkan conflicts, through the various paramilitaries and in the campaigns of ethnic cleansing.

The fall of Milosevic worsened the law and order situation in the country. Criminal gangs fought each other openly with sophisticated arms leading to a spate of killings and kidnappings. There were lucrative contracts for rebuilding infrastructure and interests in state enterprises that were being privatised, which businessmen sought to garner, often in association with local mafias and corrupt public officials. Djindjic's killing is said to be the work of criminal gangs who felt threatened by his moves to crack down on them.

The deterioration in the law and order situation occurred in the context of a sharp economic decline. Market-oriented reforms have resulted in high unemployment, public services have been reduced to a minimum, and the welfare state has been dismantled. Pensions, for instance, remain unpaid for months. Despite privatisation and the major drive towards a market economy, the living standards of the majority have been under severe stress, particularly since 1999. The malaise extends beyond Serbia to over a wider region in the Balkans, which explains to a large extent the renewed popularity of the nationalists. In Bosnia and Croatia, both devastated by wars that broke up the Yugoslav Federation in the 1990s, nationalist parties are in a dominant position after the recent elections.

Ironically, the decidedly pro-West Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic blamed the West for the good showing by Milosevic's party. Referring to Milosevic's trial, Zivkovic said: "The international community is to a great extent responsible for having revived the popularity of the Milosevic regime." Also implied in this accusation is the issue of Kosovo, which would continue to excite nationalistic passions as long as it remains unresolved. Kosovo, regarded by Serbs as the cradle of their culture, is under the provisional administration of the U.N., though U.N. Resolution 1244 describes the territory as an integral part of the Yugoslav Federation. The Union of Serbia and Montenegro has legally inherited the international obligations of the Yugoslav Federation. The U.N. Mission in Kosovo is itself regularly confronted by problems arising out of the anomaly in its mandate. While Serb refugees are unable to return to Kosovo, those few Serbs who remain in Kosovo live under the protection of U.N. troops. Their plight figured repeatedly in the election campaign in Serbia.

Besides the emotive issue of Kosovo, Serbians have other grounds of grievance against the international community. A Stability Pact signed in 1999 by several European countries and designed to finance the reconstruction and development of south-eastern Europe has almost remained a dead letter. Resources released under the pact have been progressively reduced or have been spent badly. The E.U., despite its repeated exhortations to Serbia and other nations to move towards a "European agenda" and economic reforms, continues to apply a strict visa regime in the case of Serbia, Bosnia and Albania. This serves only to increase their sense of isolation and the feeling of being betrayed by Europe.

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