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Where Next for Serbia?

The Atlantic Review is pleased to present a guest article by Professor Stefan Wolff, from the University of Nottingham. 

Professor Wolff addresses the Serbian elections that took place over the weekend, and explains that while the pro-western candidate has won the elections, the future of Serbia is far from certain.

sss eewFor 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 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.

Stefan Wolff is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for International Crisis Management and Conflict Resolution at the University of Nottingham.  He has authored and edited several books and essays on ethnic conflict, of which you can find more information at his website

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Kyle Atwell on :

Interesting article, Stefan. In the comments section to another blog on the Serbian elections, David Dryer of Foreign Policy Watch ponders: "I wonder if the sudden rush of international media attention, combined with the explicit link between Tadic's continued presidency and the EU trade deal will enhance the posture of the presidency." http://fpwatch.blogspot.com/2008/02/serbia-first-good-news.html I think this is a great question. Kostunica is flustered by Tadic and his supporters willingness to sign an agreement to move closer to the EU this week, but seems unable to do much about it, immediately. However, I understand he is threatening to dissolve the coalition and make a more radical one... I wonder how far this will play? Washington Post wrote yesterday, "The vote was partly a referendum on how Serbia should respond to the imminent declaration of independence by the province of Kosovo." Perhaps this was an overstatement. The next couple of weeks should be very interesting. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/04/AR2008020402426.html

prabhath on :

nice blog ....

Kyle Atwell on :

According to Balkan Insight: "The European Commission has confirmed that the signing of a political agreement between Serbia and the EU has been postponed, blaming Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica for the delay. “Kostunica not so long ago asked me to keep the European process moving forward and not to make any linkage between European Union integration and Kosovo's future”, Olli Rehn, the EU's Commissioner for Enlargement, said referring to a conversation he had with Serbia's Prime Minister about a year ago."

John in Michigan, USA on :

Serbia voters should be congratulated for keeping the ultra-nationalist Nikolic out of power. For what its worth, on January 31, three prominent American diplomats representing a generally conservative view came out strongly against encouraging Kosovo to declare unilateral independence anytime soon. The essay [url=http://www.washingtontimes.com/article/20080131/COMMENTARY/288472699]"Warning light on Kosovo"[/url] was written jointly by former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, former Assistant Defense Secretary Peter Rodman and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.

Merkel-2 on :

It's a pity the Serbian's patriotic feeling was distorted by those western powers.Kosovo historically belongs to Serbia and ethnic Albanian got its preponderance in population only in late 20 century, not to mention the disgracegul ousting activity against minority serbian . When Belgrade government notice this and take counter-actions against the local Albanian . THe western powers poped up and got involved in this affair in a most inappropriate way. They deformed the Serbian as holocaust and at the same time applauded to ethnic Albanian . I know where the western powers' interests is, so I can fully understand their controverial action towards Kosovo problems. From one hand they need to play the role of moral judge,impartially treat the two parts . on the other hand they subconsciously want to give any strength which is regraded as their enemies (or latent enemies ) a blow. I are all familiar with their hegemony words "...be our firends or be our enemies". what I didn't know is they(the western powers) use such despicable means to validate their misbehaviours. Monsterizing the Serbia will not earn western powers's a good reputation. Kosovo's deteriorating situation will expose their hypocrite. They own the wolrd a explaination why they hold such a double standrads . So the description of "ultra-nationalist" is anything but a joke. When I take a look at the scenery of once suzerain lord arrogantly summon those colonial state and tell them how to achieve human rights and good governance.I can not help feeling that colonial situation ends in geo-political reality but not ends in some people's minds. When the facts that poverty and degradation comes from colonial crimes, is still deliberately repressed as a taboo by western powers mainstream press. When the appeal for compensation for western powers' once atrocity in Afric,Asia(all the other so-called barbarian place), was neglected and labeled as "ultra-nationalist's rhetorics,there will be no fair and justice in the whole world. In western powers' logic their disinformation compagn against their rivals is an psychological war ,therefore there is no legal and moral problem. What a hord of noble and despicable hypocrites they are .

Pat Patterson on :

So the fact that between 1991and 2001 Yugoslavia/Serbia fought at least six different wars where their main tactic seemed to be either running from the Slovenes or shooting their fellow citizens. And all this at the behest of the colonial powers anxious to grab all that oil from all those peaceful residents of the Balkan Peninsulla. Serbia earned its rump status with no help from the West or were those slightly used T-72s that the Slovenes used to destory a brigade of Yugoslavs marked made in the USA? Yes, unfortunately for those poor misunderstood Serbs who merely want to kill everybody but themselves, well even themselves as well, and then are called without the slightest provocation, ultra-nationalists! Especially since it was under the Communists that gave autonomy to Kosovo and then proclaimed that Muslims were a "nation" within Yugoslavia.

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