Djindjic Ahead in Belgrade Power Struggle

Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic has been strengthened by Milosevic's extradition to The Hague.

Djindjic Ahead in Belgrade Power Struggle

Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic has been strengthened by Milosevic's extradition to The Hague.

The extradition of Slobodan Milosevic has dealt a severe political blow to Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica. The move, masterminded by the Serbian government in defiance of the federal authorities, has weakened Kostunica and strengthened the prime minister of Serbia Zoran Djindjic.

Ever since the overthrow of Milosevic, Djindjic has been largely overshadowed and out-punched by the more popular Kostunica, but the former's decisive and risky move to extradite the one-time Yugoslav head of state has turned the tables.

The authority of the federal presidency, already weakened by the would-be secessionist government in Montenegro, has been further undermined as a result of the move, carried out in defiance of the Yugoslav constitutional court. Kostunica described Djindjic's action as a "limited coup" in the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

Djindjic, meanwhile, says he had to take responsibility for Serbia's destiny. Opposition to the proposed federal law on cooperation with The Hague tribunal jeopardised the international donors' conference in Brussels on June 29 and, with it, Serbia's last chance of financial salvation. Within hours of Milosevic arriving at The Hague, the West pledged 1.3 billion US dollars in aid to Belgrade..

Weakened as federal president, Kostunica tried to test Djindjic's influence in the Serbian government. The president's Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, left the Serbian parliament, cutting the ruling DOS coalition from 176 to 131 deputies.

There are 250 seats in the Serbian assembly and Kostunica could in theory bring down the government should he chose to form an alliance with Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia and Vojislav Seselj's nationalist Radical Party - though such a move would be tantamount to political suicide for the president.

Instead, Kostunica has demanded a reshuffle within the Serbian government. He wants interior minister Vladen Batic and justice minister Dusan Mihajlovic, both Djindjic loyalists and key players in the Milosevic extradition, replaced with his own appointees. But this may prove difficult to achieve.

"If president Kostunica would like me to leave, no problem," said Mihajlovic, clearly eager to avoid a confrontation with the still popular federal head of state. Batic, however, has no intention of going. He even announced the administration would be altered to include several new ministers without portfolio and some representatives from the Muslim and Albanian communities. The introduction of minority representatives, expected in September, would strengthen Djindjic's hand, as they have little sympathy for Kostunica and his nationalism.

In the wake of the Milosevic extradition, Djindjic has successfully countered Kostunica by winning over the majority of the parties from the ruling coalition. Only Kostunica, Velja Ilic, the leader of New Serbia, and Momcilo Perisic, leader of the Movement for Democratic Serbia, and former Yugoslav army chief, have spoken out against the Serbian premier. Djindjic has also established strong control over the police and much of the media.

The authority of the federal president was further undermined when senior Serbian government official Nebojsa Covic was named head of the coordination team for Kosovo. Until now, the province has been under Yugoslav jurisdiction. Marko Jaksic, DSS vice president, strongly criticised the appointment. "The Serbian government's decision is yet another mini coup," said Jaksic.

The battle between Kostunica and Djindjic is increasingly one between those who support the survival of the Yugoslav federation above all else and those who do not see that as a priority.

As a first step in his efforts to save the federation, Kostunica must rebuild the Yugoslav government as quickly as possible. Federal prime minister Zoran Zizic, from the Montenegrin Socialist People's Party, SNP, resigned in protest at Milosevic's extradition. In exchange for rejoining a new administration, however, the SNP are asking for half its ministries, including control over the economy and federal finances.

But Kostunica may find it hard to offer them what they want. Until the collapse of the Yugoslav government, the economy and finance portfolios were in the hands of pro-Djindjic ministers, headed by the renowned economist Miroljub Labus, viewed in international circles as a symbol of Yugoslav economic reform, much in the same way as Djindjic is seen as a political reformer.

Moreover, Kostunica's attempts to adopt a new federal constitution to regulate relations between Serbia and Montenegro are likely to be stymied, as the latter's pro-independence president Milo Djukanovic favours direct negotiations between the Serbian and Montenegrin governments.

Although Djindjic says he supports the federation, he is not so concerned about its survival. He welcomed Djukanovic's call for a referendum on independence. Those close to Kostunica claim the Serbian premier has agreed to the dissolution of Yugoslavia with Djukanovic at two secret meetings this summer. Djindjic and Djukanovic deny having met.

But one thing is clear, Djindjic reflects a new trend in Serbian politics, one which believes it is not necessary to keep the federation alive at any price. An isolated Kostunica now finds himself facing final defeat - the Mikhail Gorbachev of Yugoslav politics.

His only remaining trump card is his popularity. Fresh elections in Serbia and Yugoslavia may be the only way to tip the balance of power back in his favour. But Djindjic - who is very much aware of this - argues that a fresh poll would put a stop to the reforms his government is seeking to implement, a view shared by the international community.

The final clash between Djindjic and Kostunica is unlikely before negotiations begin between Belgrade and Podgorica on the future of a common state. If Kostunica succeeds in saving the federation, it will be his triumph. If the federation dissolves, then like Gorbachev, he will find himself president of a non-existent entity.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular contributor for Sarajevo daily Dani

Serbia, Kosovo
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