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Comment: Backsliding in Serbia

In less than a month, the new government is showing a worrying tendency to unravel democratic reforms.
By Sonja Biserko

Under the shadow of the Kosovo crisis, Serbia's new government has begun restoring many facets of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic.


In only three weeks, the authorities have made crucial changes to the major policies that were put in place by Serbia's reformist former prime minister, Zoran Djindjic.


Reforms of the economy have been halted, important changes to the education and justice systems have been revoked, and the adoption of a key law on conflict of interest has been postponed.


At the same time, Serbia's parliament has - as a matter of urgency - pushed through a law providing assistance to war crime indictees in The Hague.


In the interior ministry, virtually all the principal figures who were in charge of Operation Sabre, the police action against organised crime launched after Djindjic's assassination, have either had their jobs downgraded or have been moved sideways under this government. At the same time, some of the individuals arrested or detained in the operation now find themselves occupying senior posts.


All these disturbing legal initiatives and personnel moves have been accompanied by a worrying change of tone. The government seems bent on promoting representatives of all the most retrograde ideologies of the past, from the Chetniks and nationalist churchmen to assorted opponents of the West and modernity in general.


The media has been homogenised and brought into line by the recent Kosovo crisis. Significantly, the government has put Milosevic's former information minister, Aleksandar Tijanic, in charge of the state broadcaster Radio Television Serbia.


Tijanic was a sworn enemy of Djindjic, waging a media campaign against him from the moment the Milosevic regime fell in October 2000 and continuing the vendetta even after Djindjic's death by attempting to discredit his associates.


The changing political climate - especially since the Kosovo riots in March - has caused a rapid deterioration in relations between Serbs and the major ethnic minorities. This is borne out by several incidents, such as the recent torching of two mosques, and countless minor ones, and the desecration of cemeteries.


Serbia's Bosniak [Muslim], Hungarian and Croat communities have all been affected, but the last-named group has been especially hard hit, with regular incidents such as attacks on Croat graves and threats to newspapers that are fast becoming a trend.


One immediate consequence of this deterioration is that ethnic Hungarians in Serbia's northern Vojvodina province are now seeking the same status that the Serbs are demanding for themselves in Kosovo.


Similar demands may well flow from the Bosniaks and ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia. But while the Serbian government is insisting on the "decentralisation" of Kosovo, the basic concept behind its own constitutional proposals suggests that Serbia itself should be highly centralised.


Slobodan Vucetic, president of Serbia's Constitutional Court, has already announced that decentralisation would be too costly and difficult to implement in Serbia, as the state has no experience of regional government.


The recent handling of the war crimes issue is especially discouraging. Trials in The Hague have had a substantial impact in Serbia, and have helped discredit the nationalist agenda.


However, many people wanted to prevent this from happening at any cost. An undisguised campaign against the Hague tribunal has been gathering force ever since Djindjic's assassination, culminating in December with the appearance of several war crimes suspects as election candidates, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's recent announcement that cooperation with the tribunal is not a priority for his government, and the passing of a law granting assistance to indictees and their families.


The Hague tribunal appears to have been left out in the cold, and no longer has a cooperative partner in Belgrade.


The direction in which Serbia is heading was amply illustrated by a recent statement by leading Socialist Party of Serbia official Dusan Bajatovic, who told a talk show on TV Pink that "all those who handed over Milosevic to The Hague will pay for it. One of them [ie. Djindjic] already has."


In the background of all these developments we may discern the figure of the army, reform of which has not even started.


The rigid reflexes of this institution were well illustrated in the recent case of Vlada Vlajkovic, author of the book Military Secret, published by the Helsinki Committee in Belgrade.


Under the internationally-brokered Belgrade agreement of 2002 that established the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, military courts should no longer even exist. Judging by their activities, they are operating exactly as they used to.


Vlajkovic's book, which shed light on the ties between army chiefs and the Milosevic regime, was confiscated by military police, while its author has been held in an army jail for several weeks without trial.


Defence minister Tadic's only public comment on the case has been to say that he has no powers over military courts.


A problem facing anyone trying to figure out who is who on the Serbian political scene is that the ruling coalition portrays itself as a democratic alternative to the ultra-nationalist Radicals, even though what it purveys is little more than a different type of radicalism.


Many are tempted to describe the current situation as even worse than it was under Milosevic, because country's the long-term prospects look bleaker than ever. The hopes that were raised after Milosevic's fall in October 2000 have been wasted.


A kind of fundamentalist nationalism is growing in strength, and fear and uncertainty are gripping many minority groups, the non-government organisations, and the media outlets that sympathise with them.


If this leads to the isolation of the country, that would suit the current ruling elite pretty well as they continue trying to manipulate the people through the homogenising force of populism.


Serbia's downward path and gloomy prospects will have an impact throughout the region, in particular on neighbouring Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia. The unresolved status of the state union's borders in reference to Kosovo and Montenegro will only radicalise attitudes both there and in Serbia itself, as the recent Kosovo crisis indicated.


When Djindjic was assassinated, Serbia lost an invaluable catalyst for change. The middle classes, on which much of his support rested, failed to assert themselves in the last election.


Far less able than his predecessor to comprehend modern trends, Kostunica will most probably end up speeding up the process of disintegration of the state union with Montenegro - and probably that of Serbia itself.


Sonja Biserko is president of the Helsinki Commitee for Human Rights in Serbia.


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