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Serbian Parliamentary Elections Highlight Difficulties in Country - 2004-01-02


Though its leader is an indicted war criminal imprisoned in The Hague, the ultra-nationalist Radical Party gained the largest vote – 27.5% - in Serbia’s recent parliamentary elections. This will make it harder for the various pro-democratic parties to form a government that can resolutely deal with Serbia’s problems. They are now negotiating to put together a coalition that has some chance of lasting and not precipitating another round of inconclusive elections.

From his cell in The Hague where he is awaiting trial for war crimes, Vojislav Seselj directed his Radical Party’s election campaign by phone. His isolation did not seem to hurt since the party won the largest number of votes – 27.5%, assuring it three times as many seats in the new parliament. Mr. Seselj won a seat in absentia.

True enough, says Charles Ingrao, professor of history at Purdue University. But look at it this way. The voter turnout was greater than before, showing Serbs are taking their politics more seriously. The Radicals came out ahead, he says, largely because they concentrate on Serbs’ grievances rather than plausible policies. “As far as Seselj is concerned, I think his vote is always going to be a protest vote,” he says. “The economy continues to suffer. There is, of course, the continued humiliation in the eyes of Serbs that they are forced to give up indicted war criminals to The Hague. And that continues to erode support for democratic, pro-western parties. But I do not think we are ever going to see Seselj get a majority in free elections.”

In time, grievances subside, says Professor Ingrao. But Serbs have not quite reached that point. So many cling to ethnicity instead of broader concerns that would include rule of law and rights of minorities. The war crimes trials in The Hague became a major campaign issue because they seem to express to Serbs the outside world’s contempt for them. Radicals as well as other party leaders said they would send no more Serbs for trial in The Hague.

“They really want to focus on their own suffering,” he says. “And that is going to make them suffer more because the international community does not have the same agenda that any one particular group in the Balkans does. It wants to see a people who are more multilateral in their understanding of the rights of man.”

The Radical Party still envisions a greater Serbia beyond its current borders. For this and other reasons, the pro-democratic parties are unwilling to form a government that includes the Radicals. But their election gains will make it more difficult to put together a coalition of parties that are divided on various grounds.

Professor Ingrao notes the outgoing coalition government, DOS, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, failed to unite and produce needed change. “You are going to see a re-assembly of this very loose, mutually suspicious DOS coalition of old,” he says, “and they are going to face the same problems. Are they going to make tough economic decisions, and are they going to talk to the people about what happened in the 1990’s? If they refuse to do so, then you will continue to have this sort of endless end game, where not much will happen and Serbia will make no progress from where it has been for the last 15 years.”

Yes, the narrow, fragmented victory of the reform parties does not assure any change, says Daniel Serwer, director of the Washington Institute of Peace Balkan Initiative. “With the Radicals this strong in parliament,” he says, “it is going to be hard to do some of the things that need to be done. But a lot depends on how tightly the reform factions can hold together. The problem is that some of the reformers, especially the Kostunica faction, the Democratic Party of Serbia, is clearly on the record wanting slower reform, not faster.”

Yet meaningful reform is essential, says Mr. Serwer. Above all, the security forces - the army and police - need to be purged of elements still loyal to former President Slobodan Milosevich, who was overthrown by pro-democratic forces in 2000 and is now awaiting trial in the Hague.

The security forces are an unhealthy mix of former Communists, organized crime and assorted war profiteers. They continue to prosper because the Serbian judicial system is also rife with holdovers from the Milosevich era.

Industrial production in Serbia declined by 3% last year with unemployment as high as 30%. State monopolies still hinder the establishment of small business vital to economic progress. A lack of transparency and openness in government adds to economic uncertainty.

Daniel Serwer says in this regard, the election has not helped. “A Serbia in which 35% of the population is voting for parties where war criminals serve at the top of the list is not a Serbia in which any reasonable person in the West would be interested in investing,” he says.

The Radicals clearly do not want reform, says James O’Brien, former senior U.S. envoy to the Balkans, and they will use their large bloc in parliament to thwart it. The trouble is the reformers are also not that enthusiastic about reform. “The parties are fractured on how to proceed on reform,” he says. “Few of the leaders have shown themselves committed to reform, especially in the private sector. That is really the test for the next few years. Who can deliver economic change in Serbia? My fear is that too many of the political leaders run based on who they were in the 1990’s, not on who they are going to be for the next few years.”

An obsession with the past does not augur well for the future, says Mr. O’Brien. It leads to extremes, not to the moderate policies that are needed. Even so, he thinks there are grounds for optimism. “It’s remarkable and reassuring that nearly 60% of the voters cast their votes for parties still committed to reform and to joining the West,” he says. “This after a tough three years of a world economic downturn, a world that has turned its attention away from the Balkans, the assassination of the real leader of the opposition in the middle of a set of political scandals that set the bar very high for the democratic opposition.”

Mr. O’Brien expects leaders to emerge who will confront the issues of today. They will then be in keeping with leaders of surrounding countries who are growing closer to the European way of doing things. “I hope politics matures in the next years,” he says, “so that people feel they can vote for a right-of-center party, a left-of-center party, and then fewer and fewer feel they need to go to the extremes on either side.”

Meanwhile, the extreme exists in the form of the Radical Party. Overcoming that will be the ultimate test of the democratic forces, says Mr. O’Brien. It is crucial not just for Serbia, but for the region. “I think further paralysis would be a disaster for Serbia,” he says. “The rest of the region is going to move forward. Croatia has real chance to move toward the European Union. Romania and Bulgaria are moving forward, and nobody is going to wait for Serbia any longer.”

So other nations are just as anxiously awaiting the new government as are Serbians. More than Serbia is at stake.

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