Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kostunica Faces Tough Choices

If he wins the presidential election, Vojislav Kostunica will have to choose between his reformist and nationalist allies.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica may soon face a serious dilemma. Victory in the Serbian presidential ballot on September 29, which most observers anticipate, will force him to either put himself at the helm of the reform movement or yield to the demands of nationalistic supporters.


The Yugoslav president, 58, a lawyer with a reputation as a dissident dating back to the Tito era, enjoys the support of a highly diverse group of voters at the moment. While the dominant group are nationalist opponents of reforms, there are also reformist voters in his camp who view his main rival, the Serbian prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, as a corrupt dictator.


This disparate spectrum of views is visible even in the ranks of his Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, which includes radical reformists dissatisfied by the stalled pace of reforms and radical nationalists who want to forget all talk of reform and live in a world of "endangered Serbs".


To keep all of them on side in the run-up to the polls Kostunica is using the same strategy he used two years ago when he defeated Slobodan Milosevic. As he told a press conference on August 24, when announcing his candidacy, the Yugoslav president proclaimed the election a choice between him and his great rival. This time it is not Milosevic, of course, but Djindjic - the main figure behind the other front-running candidate in the Serbian presidential election, Miroljub Labus.


Kostunica describes the reformist federal deputy premier as a stalking horse for Djindjic who is too cowardly to face the electorate alone. "Djindjic is afraid of facing the people, so he found someone to represent him," he told an election rally on September 17 in Novi Sad.


But Kostunica's need to balance nationalists and reformers in his own camp means his election rhetoric is often inconsistent.


He advocates quick reforms - often criticising Djindjic for failing to make any progress on the issue - but at the same time resorts to populist talk on the economy.


For example, he proposes privatisation schemes in which shares would be given to employees, though many economists believe they would have little chance of success and would not win the support of international financial institutions. He also recently attacked members of Djindjic's cabinet who were recruited from abroad two years ago to help with reforms. In Uzice on September 8, Kostunica said such outsiders had "no sense of what the state is" and had "only the sense of their own pockets and nothing besides".


The Yugoslav president has openly mobilised xenophobic sentiments and radical nationalists by backing the union of Serbia with the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska, RS, which runs directly counter to international policy.


As the campaign heats up, Kostunica's contradictions have become all the more apparent. An advocate of Serbian inclusion in the European integration process, he at the same time caused the biggest diplomatic incident between Belgrade and Sarajevo since Milosevic lost power.


In spite of the fact that the West insists on the inviolability of the border between Bosnia and Yugoslavia, Kostunica told a rally in the border town of Mali Zvornik on September 7 that the Bosnian Serb entity was only "temporarily separated" from the Serbian homeland. When his words provoked a furious reaction from Bosnia and abroad, he backed down, claiming he was misunderstood.


Kostunica has had a history of using double-edged rhetoric since he took power two years ago. It was highly successful at the start, winning him the backing of some 80 per cent of the population, a figure Milosevic could not have have dreamed of.


The need to keep his poll ratings high among such diverse groups led him to back good relations with the United States and at the same time to oppose Milosevic's extradition to The Hague, which Washington was insisting on.


Perhaps the secret of his popularity is that he exemplifies exactly those qualities that Milosevic's propaganda machinery attributed to their boss, namely modesty, patriotism, balance, solidity and incorruptability. When people finally stopped believing he possessed those virtues, Kostunica filled the void. In one sense, then, Milosevic's propaganda has worked retroactively for him.


Of course, Kostunica could not be expected to maintian his early sky-high ratings. But he still enjoys the support of some 39 per cent of the people, which is fairly high, as opposed to 37 per cent for his opponent Labus.


An August poll suggested Kostunica would win 27 per cent in the first round and Labus 26 per cent, while 12 per cent would go to the ultra-nationalist Radical Party leader, Vojislav Seselj, who is also standing.


However, both Labus and Kostunica are unlikely to achieve a clear majority and there will almost certainly be a second round of voting. This would leave Kostunica the clear favourite against Labus, when he can expect about 53 per cent of votes as opposed to 32 per cent for Labus.


The difference will result from the fact that up to 81 per cent of Seselj supporters will then switch to Kostunica, while many who did not vote in the first round are expected to take part in the second - on Kostunica's side.


A victorious Kostunica will almost certainly try to break up the fragile coalition making up the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, coalition gathered around Djindjic, forcing early parliamentary elections in the republic in which his party might emerge the main force.


He has several reasons for believing he might successfully break up the coalition. Three smaller parties that once supported Djindjic have already supported Kostunica against Labus - Dragoljub Micunovic's Democratic Center, DC, Nebojsa Covic's Democratic Alternative, DA, and Mile Isakov's Vojvodina Reformists, RV.


A Kostunica win will not imply that most Serbs hanker for the Milosevic era. It will just show they have no strong opinions about the need for reforms. Djindjic's government contributed to this by failing to tackle the worst legacy of the Milosevic regime - crime. Kostunica alluded to this on September 18, saying people who had gained fame from appearing in the columns of the crime pages of the newspapers "are now appearing as respected businessmen".


After his expected victory, Kostunica will face stark choices. He will either have to proceed with harsh reforms, or give them up and drag the nation into economic despair.


Many believe Kostunica will in the end have to sacrifice his nationalists under the pressure of the international community, because he is not prepared to sacrifice financial aid to the country.


So far, Kostunica has been able to evade responsibility for cooperation with The Hague, as this role was conveniently played by Djindjic. He managed to profit politically from the situation, winning political points for his "patriotism" over his rival. It will not be possible to score such easy points when the decisions on extradition rest with Kostunica himself.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is editor-in-chief of the Belgrade weekly Blic News.


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