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Serbia's Transition to Democracy Deemed Problematic by Some - 2004-04-17

While neighboring Croatia readies itself for possible membership in the European Union in 2007, Serbia's three-year-old transition to democracy and a free market economy is proving more problematic. Some analysts worry that a radical nationalist party is making significant gains and could be poised to win presidential elections in June.

Media entrepreneur Veran Matic told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace that he believes the head of the Radical Party, Tomislav Nikolic, is likely to win the June 13 presidential election.

The Radicals, formerly aligned with Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, were the biggest winners in the December parliamentary elections, getting over 25 percent of the vote. But despite their impressive showing, the Radicals remain in opposition and are not part of the new coalition government of moderate reformists headed by former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica.

Political analyst Obrad Kesic agrees that Mr. Nikolic is likely to be elected president, perhaps even in the first round of voting. He says the Radicals have the support of people disillusioned with three years of fitful reform and resentful of recurrent western demands that Serbia do more to atone for the brutal wars of Yugoslav succession. Mr. Kesic does not think a Nikolic victory would be a disaster.

"I personally think that maybe we're going to see something of a schizophrenic approach in which Serbia in some sense benefits from a Nikolic victory," he said. "Because then the current government and Kostunica appear to be much more appealing to the interests of the west. Because the threat is that if this government fails then the Radicals will be able to form a government. And not only would they have a president, who is mostly symbolic, but would also be able to form a government."

Veran Matic, the Belgrade-based media entrepreneur, worries that the Kostunica government will fall apart if Mr. Nikolic is elected president.

If we had a situation where G17 [one of the government parties] leaves the government after he [Nikolic] wins, then theoretically we could have new elections," said Veran Matic. "But we would have a great opportunity then to unite all the democratic parties for those elections."

But another political analyst, Damian Krnjevic-Miskovic-the managing editor of National Interest magazine in Washington, believes the current government will hold together even if Mr. Nikolic becomes president.

"It's in the interests of all the parties who are in the government and also to the party that supports it [without being part of it] namely the Socialist Party headed by the successors to Milosevic, to maintain it," he said. "The Socialists understand that they are fast losing popularity."

Veran Matic is pessimistic about Serbia. He says the country is increasingly isolated and without any clear vision for the future. He worries about the unresolved status of the breakaway province of Kosovo and detects growing secessionist tendencies in parts of Serbia proper.