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End of Yugoslav Federation Brings Struggle for Political Power - 2003-02-06

The formal end February 4 of the Yugoslav federation recasts the political debate in Serbia, where two rival reformers, a president and a prime minister, are locked in an increasingly bitter struggle. With the end of Yugoslavia one of the reformers is out of a job while his adversary has gained the upper hand.

In the battle between Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, the prime minister appears to be winning. Mr. Kostunica no longer has an official position from which to speak and analysts say Mr. Djindjic wants that situation to continue. Mr. Djindjic, who heads an unwieldy coalition, has over two years proven to be skillful in controlling the Serbian parliament, a new center of power in a newly democratic country.

Knowing that his job would end when the Yugoslav federation between Serbia and Montenegro disolved, Mr. Kostunica, the country's most popular politician, last September contested and won the election to be president of Serbia. However, the results of that election and a subsequent one in December were thrown out because voter turnout fell short of the 50 percent required by the Milosevic era constitution. Mr. Djindjic and his allies declined to amend that provision.

Damjan de Krnjevic-Miskovic, a Canadian citizen, closely observes events in his native Serbia as an editor of the Washington-based publication National Interest.

"You have the situation in Serbia where the people who control the levers of power are democrats," he said. "They are free marketers. They are pro-reform, probably a little too pro-reform. They want to get everything done as quickly as possible. But they don't have the same kind of popular support that Vojislav Kostunica does."

Work is underway on a new constitution for Serbia but it is not expected to be ready for at least six months. Analysts say elections for a president and parliament, whose timing is subject to much political debate, are unlikely to occur under the current constitution. They say delaying elections until late in the year works against Mr. Kostunica.

Prime Minister Djindjic recently surprised many when he said that Serbian troops should be allowed to return to Kosovo, the Albanian dominated Serbian province administered by the United Nations. Mr. Krnevic-Miskovic believes Mr. Djindjic may be seeking to broaden his appeal to the Serbian nationalists who have supported Mr. Kostunica.

"Djindjic is the only politician in Serbia that has not paid any attention to Kosovo, until very recently," he said. "And he came out with a statement that basically said, look, we need to resolve this problem now. It is time to have direct negotiations with Pristina, right now. So we know what the end result is going to be. Let's talk about final status now. And by doing this he goes against the entire international community and the entire political class in Serbia."

Sonja Biserko, the head of Helsinki Watch, a human rights group in Belgrade and opponent of Mr. Kostunica, regards Mr. Djindjic's pronouncements on Kosovo as significant.

"I think he is trying to avoid Kosovo becoming an issue in his possible election campaign next year," she said. "Which is one thing. And second, I think he is now heading towards partition of Kosovo, which is something that has full political consensus in Serbia. And so it depends on the how the west will perceive this new move."

Observers say the political scene in Serbia is in flux. New alignments appear to be forming in the run up to parliamentary elections. Cooperation with the Hague tribunal and the final status of Kosovo are becoming contentious.

One analyst says that in choosing to raise the issue of Kosovo now, Serbian reformers are recognizing that time is not on their side. He says they believe they must act now to slow down the ethnic Albanians drive towards full independence.