Kostunica Party Hit by Membership Row

Members of President Kostunica's party have become seriously concerned about some of its new recruits

Kostunica Party Hit by Membership Row

Members of President Kostunica's party have become seriously concerned about some of its new recruits

Activists from Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, are protesting over the recruitment of senior officials from the former regime.

Party membership has increased ten-fold to 100,000 since the October 2000 elections, which led to the ousting of the former president Slobodan Milosevic. DSS secretarial staff are struggling to keep up with new applications.

The surge reflects opinion poll research indicating that Kostunica is now the most popular politician in Serbia, more popular than Milosevic at the height of his power.

But not all the would-be members are welcome. Among those eager to share in the glory of victory are former members of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, the Party of the Yugoslav Left, JUL, led by Milosevic's wife, and the Serbian Radical Party, headed by Vojislav Seselj.

These three parties formed the backbone of Milosevic's ruling coalition until it was pushed aside by the popular uprising on October 5 last year.

DSS officials say applications from former Milosevic supporters are being put to one side for now. A senior party official, who wished to remain anonymous, said, "We have decided to ask a few additional questions to those who were members of other parties. The aim is to establish how active they were in Milosevic's regime."

Although some are being allowed to participate in party activities, their memberships remain on stand-by.

The DSS was the first party from the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, alliance to open its doors to former members of the Milosevic coalition parties.

Although the DSS has been careful to steer clear of senior officials from the old regime, rich businessmen linked to it have found themselves welcome. The policy has sparked a row within the DSS.

The trouble broke out when the party's executive council refused to back the nomination of senior DSS official Dr Nada Kostic for the post of health minister. Kostunica ensured the position went instead to Obren Joksimovic, a former member of Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO.

Many DSS activists believe Joksimovic was chosen because of his links to rich former JUL members, who could bring fresh financial support to the party.

A disappointed Kostic left the DSS together with other disgruntled party officials, including Dragan Vucovic, in whose house the DSS was born nine years ago, executive council member Zoran Milicevic, and Belgrade lawyers Branka Djukanovic and Vesna Krsmanovic.

Kostic said she resigned for "ethical reasons".

"I didn't like the changes I noticed in my party," she said. "Many new people had appeared who were not members in the past. Old members have been marginalised and new ones are mostly from the SPS and JUL. After the December elections, I noticed some DSS deputies were people I had never seen before."

No sooner had the dust settled over the Kostic dispute than a new squabble emerged in the provinces. Although Milosevic-era state officials were barred from joining the DSS in Belgrade, local government officials and company directors who backed the former president have been welcomed into provincial branches of the DSS. It appears the cash-strapped party is eager to attract funds from local businessmen.

Joksimovic took the lead in his hometown, Petrovac na Mlavi. He not only let SPS and JUL members join the DSS but invited Ljubisa Zivotic, owner of the Minmark company and long-standing Milosevic loyalist, to join. The local DSS leadership protested.

"Joksimovic is building ties with people capable of bringing money into the party," said one local official who left the DSS in disgust.

Dragana Parizanin, a former colleague of Joksimovic's, said she left the DSS because of the new health minister and his tactics. "He is a man of dubious reputation and I cannot understand how President Kostunica can think of supporting him," she said.

DSS president in the town of Zagubica, Stojan Miloradovic, demanded an investigation into Joksimovic's activities. Belgrade responded by initiating disciplinary proceedings against Miloradovic.

IWPR approached Joksimovic's office, but he was unavailable for comment.

In Kragujevac, former SPS members Milenko Turanjin and Dragan Milosavljevic have defected to the DSS, while the party's leader in Backi Petrovac, Aleksandar Nogo, was formerly a prominent member of the Serbian Radical Party.

Controversy has also beset the DSS in Kikinda, Vojvodina. When Milosevic was overthrown, members of the local JUL party decided to abolish their branch. The local DSS office has since been overwhelmed by more than 100 membership applications. It subsequently decided to set up a special commission to investigate the political backgrounds of the applicants.

Aleksandar Djeric, a DSS member from Uzice, became so incensed by the fact that several powerful businessmen from the town, all former SPS and JUL officials, had joined the DSS that he wrote an open letter to Kostunica demanding the president put a stop to the defections.

Local DSS activists suspect the president hopes to create a "businessmen's club", which would provide much needed funds to pay for officials' cars, mobile phones and other accessories needed by a modern political party machine - things the party has never enjoyed before.

Those defending the DSS policy say it addressed the problem shared by all DOS parties - a shortage of experienced staff. This has forced officials in the ruling coalition to perform a multiplicity of different tasks. Within the DSS, for example, Dragan Jocic serves as acting mayor of Belgrade and a member of four committees in the Serbian parliament.

Provided the DSS survives the internal ructions brought about by the influx of former Milosevic cronies and supporters, the party looks set to become the strongest political force within DOS, in a good position to contest the next elections as an independent party.

Sinisa Stanimirovic is journalist of Belgrade daily Glas javnosti

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