Where Next for Serbia?

For many voters and observers, there were two surprises in Sunday’s second round of presidential elections in Serbia. The first one was that the current president, Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party, won, if only by the slightest of margins. Even among his supporters, this was far from a certain result, but they welcomed it all the more enthusiastically. The second, and perhaps greater surprise was equally welcome: Tadic’s challenger, Tomislav Nikolic of the Serbian Radical Party (whose leader Vojislav Seselj is currently in The Hague being tried for war crimes committed during 1992-5 war in Bosnia) quickly accepted defeat and congratulated his victorious opponent.

With Tadic-pro-western and pro-democratic in orientation-confirmed in office for another term, all the signs should point clearly to Serbia catching up with its neighbours in the process of economic and democratic reform, as well as closer ties with the European Union, which, after all, was the central message of Tadic’s campaign: “Together we’ll conquer Europe.” Yet, Serbia’s future course is far from clear. Three predominant factors account for this continuing uncertainty:

First, the role of the president in Serbia is politically not very powerful, with most decision-making concentrated in the hands of the prime minister and his cabinet. This post, currently held by Vojislav Kostunica (who ran, and won, against Milosevic in 2000), is crucially dependent on the balance of power in the Serbian parliament. Kostunica did not support Tadic in his re-election bid, despite being in a governing coalition with his Democratic Party. Kostunica is openly anti-European, and is far more nationalistic than the rest of his coalition partners, albeit not as much as Nikolic’s Serbian Radical Party. Tadic, thus, does not have a stable power base in parliament that would allow him to push through much-needed reforms in Serbia and make some painful decisions, including the apprehension and extradition of war criminal Ratko Mladic, to conclude a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the European Union that is the first step on long and arduous road to full membership.

Second, Tadic and his closest allies are fundamentally risk-averse. Unless forced by Kostunica, they are unlikely to give up on the current coalition arrangement, however unsustainable it might be in the long run. This is unfortunate as the window on calling, and possibly winning, parliamentary elections in the wake of the presidential victory is rapidly closing. Capitalising on the momentum that Tadic now undoubtedly has, might be his only real chance to marginalise Kostunica and form a stable, pro-reform and pro-European coalition. Otherwise, the chances are that Kostunica will initially acquiesce to some of Tadic’s demands only to derail his policies later when Tadic has lost his current momentum.

Third, as long as Kosovo’s final status remains unresolved, it will be too easy and too tempting for political parties from the Socialists to the Radicals, to fight any election campaign on this issue. Pointing to ‘the West’ as the enemy who will take away Kosovo (never mind that Kosovo was lost ten years ago by Milosevic) and to style oneself as the protector of the Serbs from yet another humiliation (much like Milosevic did) remains a vote winner precisely because the feeling of humiliation and victimisation is now deeply ingrained in Serbia’s public psyche. Kosovo, in this sense, captures in one term a widespread frustration among many Serbs about their social and economic situation, the inability of any government in almost ten years after Milosevic to carry out the necessary reforms, cushion their negative consequences, and initiate sustainable economic growth, much of which is blamed on a hostile international community that is now going after Kosovo, an area of fundamental historical and cultural significance for Serbia.

What Serbia needs now is two things. It requires, and deserves, courageous and visionary political leaders that put the needs of their country above their own narrow interests. And it needs international, and especially European support to make some hard choices, but to feel, quickly, that these choices are paying off. Resolving Kosovo’s final status is one among the most important aspects to this, as it will enable Serbia’s political parties and elites to begin focusing on things that matter in people’s daily lives: employment, pensions, healthcare, education, infrastructure. If Kosovo is allowed-by the international community local elites-to dominate another parliamentary election campaign, the future for Serbia looks bleaker than its people deserve.

Date

5 February 2008