Balkan Bulletin

Get ready for the Serbian election on January 21st in which 20 political parties and coalitions will contest 250 seats. Surveys suggest that only three parties are certain to pass the five percent threshold which is required to enter parliament itself.

Local polls are notoriously unreliable but most are suggesting that the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party is frontrunner, with 28-30 percent of votes (although this is thought to be falling.) The radicals have long been the strongest single party in Serbia despite the fact that their leader Vojislav Šešelj (a former deputy to Slobodan Milosevic) is currently standing trial in the Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity during the wars of the 1990s. Milosevic himself once referred to Šešelj as: “the personification of violence and primitivity,” and lets face it, such red/brown references don’t come much stronger than that now do they?

The radicals draw most of their support from the so-called “losers of transition” (those such as refugees and former industrial workers,) who lost out during the wars of the 90’s. So big a part of the party’s constituency is drawn from these groups in fact, that the radicals have recently tried to move away from their image as the “chetnik party” by running a populist campaign based around cheap bread prices and higher pension cheques. The party’s leaders however, are still in the main the same hard-right nationalists who shared power with Milosevic until 2000. They disapprove of Serbia’s increasing military co-operation with Nato and blow between lukewarm and cold on potential membership of the European Union. Nor have they lost the desire to claim large chunks of Bosnia and Croatia. Despite being the biggest party, the radicals are still unlikely to form a government because none of the parties of the so called ‘democratic bloc’ will enter into a coalition with them.

Analysts expect arch-rivals president Boris Tadić of the Democratic Party and Prime minister Vojislav Koštunica and his Democratic Party of Serbia will, (together with a smaller third party) eventually form a coalition to run the country. In recent interviews, Koštunica and Tadić have hinted that coalition-building might prove difficult (although it is perfectly possible to see this as play-acting – threatening the world with the prospect of a radical government.) One large “elephant in the room” -the proposal for Kosovo’s future status drawn up by U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari- is pending, and will possibly be released as soon as the week after the election, (although other reports suggest not until early April.) One suspects that if Serbian politicians actually think they are able to influence the release date, then the “coalition-building” may take an awfully long time indeed.

The other “elephant”, the continued unwillingness or inability to hand over war crimes suspects such as Ratko Mladic, is ongoing, with Slovenia, Spain and Italy recently trying to “soften” demands for the handover and France and the Netherlands remaining hardline on the issue.

Tomislav Nikolic, (Radical Leader whilst Šešelj is “inconvenienced”) has said Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, must never face trial at the Hague and that the death of Milosevic last year, while on a genocide trial in The Hague, was “good fortune” for Serbia.

If Milosevic had been convicted of genocide, Serbia would never have cleared itself of that,” Nikolic said. “Those who led the country … must not allow themselves to be convicted of genocide.

Not “never undertake genocide” you understand, just never allowed themselves to be convicted of it….

Koštunica has constantly taken a hardline position on Kosovo and has already visited the new U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon asking for protection for Serbia’s territorial integrity. In a new years speech he outlined the position that “the preservation of Kosovo amounts to the preservation of Serbia”. The most likely outcome: independence for Kosovo’s 90 percent ethnic Albanian population, would, according to Koštunica, be a flagrant violation of international law. Tadić, though also opposed to Kosovan independence, has been adopting a rather softer line; saying the issue is now out of Serbian hands and should be left to the international community. Tadić’s Democratic Party now includes the “young Serb activists” of OTPOR and as such is probably the best bet for Democrats outside the country to support this time around.

Koštunica’s political enemies say he differs little from the Radicals, and is possibly moving towards more nationalist policies just as Šešelj’s party tries to show they have left them behind. His support-base comes from educated middle-aged and elderly voters; although the party also now includes many who were too close to the Milosevic regime for comfort, a lot of whom would attempt to distinguish themselves from the radicals only by pointing out that they possess rather more “culture” than the refugees and football supporters who follow Šešelj.

Of the smaller parties some opinion polls seem to be suggesting that Milosevic’s former socialist party are hovering around the five percent threshold. They have usually supported Koštunica’s minority government in the recent past, although even he is unlikely to welcome them as allies, and Tadić certainly does not want them as part of the coalition. The ethnic-Albanian coalition, based mainly around the Presevo Valley on the border with Kosovo, is ending a 10-year boycott at the election and could win two seats. Unsurprisingly, the Albanian “Party for Democratic Activity,” are rather keen that any coalition does not include either the radicals or the socialists. Only Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) leader Čedomir Jovanović; has (today) straightforwardly stated that he would “sign Kosovo’s independence.”

Around 6.5 million Serbs are registered to vote, but voter apathy and an all-round general disillusion with politics (especially amongst younger voters) means only about half are likely to turn out.

We are likely to be hearing more about the Balkans in the next few months. Watch this space.