G17 Hints at Political Ambitions

A hugely influential Serbian think-tank could soon become an equally influential political player

G17 Hints at Political Ambitions

A hugely influential Serbian think-tank could soon become an equally influential political player

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

A leading, independent Belgrade think-tank could emerge as a key political player if the deepening power struggle between Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic precipitates fresh elections.

If their ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, coalition collapses under the strain of the battle, as some analysts predict, the G17 Plus organisation is widely expected to play an influential role in the resulting ballot.

The think-tank gathers together a number of Serb experts in the social sciences, most notably from the field of the economy. Its popularity stems from the Milosevic era when it organised regular deliveries of petrol, building material and asphalt to hospitals and schools in cities where the democratic opposition retained local power.

Projects were accordingly named "Asphalt for Democracy" or "Petrol for Democracy" and G17 Plus developed an extensive network of offices across Serbia. Following the overthrow of Milosevic, DOS adopted the NGO's economic programme as the basis for rebuilding Serbia. Many of the group's most prominent members took part in the DOS electoral campaign.

Since then, G17 Plus has acquired a lower profile. With the victory of the DOS coalition, NGOs no longer serve as channels of aid and information between the international community and the Serbian public. Donations decreased and its network of associates fell by two thirds.

Many of its members now hold influential posts in government, as non-party experts. Economist Miroljub Labus is deputy president of Yugoslavia and a minister for international economic ties. Another economist, Mladjan Dinkic, is well known as the author of a book detailing the co-dependence of smuggling, the black economy and Milosevic's state apparatus. Dinkic is now a governor of the Yugoslav National Bank, NBJ. Serbian finance minister Bozidar Djelic is another member. Part of the team implementing post-communist reform in Poland, he has a good reputation in Western economic circles.

Speculation that the think-tank harbours electoral aspirations is based on a statement by its political spokesman, publisher Predrag Markovic, who said in mid-August that G17 Plus did not consider itself "tied" to DOS. Its potential popularity is enhanced by polls over the past year that confirm Dinkic and Labus as two of the most respected figures on the contemporary political scene.

Further proof over their increasing political engagement are remarks by Markovic criticising the coalition over its internal crisis, arguing that it is happening just when economic reforms should be displaying their first fruits. Earlier, the NGO had hit out at the delay in extraditing Milosevic to The Hague, a move it thought had jeopardised Western economic aid to Belgrade. The criticism was clearly levelled at both Kostunica and Djindjic.

The departure of Labus and Dinkic to government office left the NGO without strong leadership. Labus had been the group's moving spirit, and Dinkic its chief tactician. Without them, the organisation seems unable to decide if its future lies in the role of a think-tank, specialising in economic and social issues, or as a nascent political force. The same indecision appears to have infected the public, which has been reluctant to take the organisation to its heart.

But Labus, Dinkic and Serbian economy minister Bozidar Djelic could emerge as influential political players if DOS is dissolved by October, as many observers now consider likely. Fresh federal and local elections will be dominated by the battle between Kostunica, an advocate of moderate nationalism and gradual reform, and Djindjic, who champions Serbia's economic integration with the international community.

The group would enjoy a unique position, being free both to influence government through its members, while acting as an impartial and informed counterweight to Djindjic and Kostunica.

The Serbian premier's stance closely matches G17 Plus's position on the economy, although his tendency to portray stable monetary policy, Western loans or any other positive economic news as his own achievement is bound to rankle.

"Djindjic is our man," said a close associate of Labus, "as long as he is capable of delivering what he needs to deliver." And what he needs to deliver now quite clearly are the political steps that will unlock the gates to increased loans, debt renegotiation and massive foreign investment.

The Serbian premier would do well to align himself with the think-tank as it understands the economic reforms he wants to introduce better than him. In addition, in the eyes of the West, the NGO is main guarantor of their successful implementation.

By contrast, Kostunica offers little appeal to G17 Plus, in spite of his sporadic flirting with the governors of the NBJ and Dinkic. The Yugoslav president's mishandling of the Milosevic extradition and the donors' conference practically hurled "federal reformists" into Djindjic's corner. On the other hand, Kostunica may attempt to solicit support from the NGO in order to improve his image in the West. But this will depend on whether the economic reforms, the group is so closely associated with, begin to bear fruit.

Tanja Jakobi is a journalist with the Belgrade weekly NIN

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