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Analysts Look to Signs of New Minority Government for Serbia

Nearly two months after indecisive parliamentary elections (December 28, 2003) in Serbia, a new government has still not been formed. There are signs that a minority government of reformists, supported by the Socialist Party of Slobodan Milosevic, will take power in the next week.

Analysts in Belgrade expect the new prime minister will be Vojislav Kostunica, the moderate nationalist who became president of Yugoslavia three and a half years ago, when he defeated incumbent Slobodan Milosevic. The soft-spoken law professor has been putting together a minority government of three reformist parties that would rely on Mr. Milosevic's Socialists for a parliamentary majority.

The former dictator, who still leads the Socialists, is on trial for war crimes at a U.N. tribunal in The Hague. The reformists had to resort to the Socialists' support if they hoped to form a government without the ultra-nationalist party that won the most seats in the election.

Vladimir Matic, a Serb political analyst who teaches at Clemson University, in South Carolina, believes the new government may be more stable than skeptics assume. "The government of the three parties, supported by the Socialists in the parliament, all have a vested interest to make this endeavor last," he said. "But at the same time, if you look at their programs, I don't see many chances for continued reforms."

Obrad Kesic, a Serb political analyst in Washington, believes it is likely that Mr. Kostunica's reformist coalition will be broadened to include elements of the Democratic Party of slain former prime minister Zoran Djindjic, with whom he was at odds over the pace of reforms and depth of cooperation with the Hague tribunal.

"My thoughts have been that, if there is going to be a majority government there has to be a change inside the Democratic Party," said Mr. Kesic. "I think the chances are very high that you'll see a new reshuffling of the government that is being formed now, and you'll have the Democratic Party enter a majority government."

Professor Matic believes the political scene in Serbia and the western Balkans has changed significantly in the past year. Serbs, he said, have turned against cooperation with the international war crimes tribunal, believing that Serbia has been unfairly singled out for blame. Serbs similarly feel that economic reform has failed and that the previous reformist government did little to overcome corruption.

Mr. Matic believes both majority Albanians in the province of Kosovo and people in Montenegro will feel less secure, knowing that Mr. Milosevic's party has regained legitimacy. The three entities are all that is left of the former Yugoslavia, now called Serbia and Montenegro.

No matter its composition, Obrad Kesic said, the new Serbian government will not last very long. "Even in the best case scenario, a successful government will be short-lived," he said. "Because the number one task before it is to write a new constitution. Once a new constitution is written, by consensus, and by some interpretations by law, there will be new elections."

Professor Matic said if new elections are held, the Serb radicals who came out ahead in this latest election are again likely to do well. That nationalist party, he said, represents a populist alternative to reformists, who are perceived to have failed.

Short-term, Mr. Matic is pessimistic about Serbia. "It's just a time out from accelerated transformation," he said, "until they get their act together and decide really what they want to do and what kind of Serbia they want to build." Longer term, said Professor Matic, he is optimistic.

Observers are troubled by the political gridlock in Serbia. Reformers are split, with no vision of the kind of society they wish to build. Serbs, say the observers, have not had an introspective debate about the Milosevic era and the wars of Yugoslav succession. They have not formulated clear views about Serbia's new and fragile union with Montenegro and the future of Kosovo.

They say they want to be part of the European Union but are ambivalent about NATO, the U.S.-led military alliance whose three-month-long bombing campaign in 1999 forced Serb troops to withdraw from Kosovo. And yet, say the analysts, Serbia is too important to ignore, with a population of 10 million at the heart of the historically volatile Balkans.