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

Kostunica Rescues Bosnian Serb Nationalists

Bosnian Serb nationalists believe they owe their survival to Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica has done more for Republika Srpska and the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, in six short weeks than his predecessor Slobodan Milosevic achieved in ten years.


That's the view of many members of the SDS - the party founded by The Hague war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic during the Bosnian war - which narrowly escaped being banned on the eve of the republic's recent elections.


The party along with nationalists from Bosnia's two other ethnic groups went on to score victories in the ballot. Only in Bosniak areas was the nationalist vote less convincing.


Plans to ban the SDS - denounced by United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, as a "chauvinist and criminal organisation" - were drawn up in Washington last year at a time when Milosevic looked unassailable.


But Kostunica's election victory and the emergence of a fragile democracy in Serbia prompted the international community to pull back from drastic and provocative moves against Bosnian Serb nationalists.


Kostunica, a popular man in Republika Srpska, meanwhile helped the SDS a great deal.


In the run up to the poll, he discreetly supported Mirko Sarovic for the Bosnian Serb presidency, while refusing to meet his challenger Milorad Dodik, the champion of the international community.


Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, was less discrete. Its representatives, albeit low level officials, appeared at SDS election rallies. The crowds would often cheer Kostunica more loudly than Sarovic, singing songs from the Belgrade anti-Milosevic protests.


Kostunica and the DSS stopped short of publicly endorsing the SDS, but after the party's victory in the Bosnian elections a spokesman for the president said, "This is proof that citizens have confidence in the national and state policy of the SDS."


The Yugoslav president has always opposed Milosevic's form of nationalism and isolationism. But he also objects to the international community's heavy involvement in Bosnia, which he believes stifles democracy.


Kostunica hopes a reformed SDS can steer a middle course between the two extremes.


Bosniak politician Haris Silajdzic, a radical advocate of a ban on the SDS and the abolition of Republika Srpska, believes the West is being too accommodating towards Bosnian Serb nationalism.


"Radical moves are being sidelined in order to protect Kostunica's position," said Silajdzic. "We who want a unified Bosnia present an obstacle. It seems it would be simpler if we didn't exist."


After the Bosnian election, Kostunica has become increasingly open in his support of the SDS. On December 1 he said he would use his influence to secure permission for the party to participate in the Republika Srpska's new government.


The SDS won 31 of the 83 seats in the entity's parliament. Nevertheless, international officials, especially from the United States, are pushing for a minority or coalition government comprising the pro-Western Party of Independent Social Democrats, led by Dodik, and the Party of Democratic Progress, PDP, led by Mladen Ivanic.


Bosnia's senior international official, High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch, would like to see a government which excludes not only the SDS, but also the the Bosniak nationalist Party of Democratic Action, SDA, and the pro-Milosevic Socialist Party of Republika Srpska.


Without the support of these parties, Ivanic and Dodik would be left with a fragile majority of 42, made up from ten very different parties.


"That is very, very difficult, and, I would say, almost unfeasible," said Ivanic. He supports a government with "a stable majority", which includes the SDS.


On November 30 representatives from the SDS, PDP, the Socialists and the tiny Democratic People's Alliance came to a preliminary agreement on forming a governing alliance at a secret meeting in Bijeljina, north-eastern Bosnia.


The coalition would have a stable majority of 49 but needs at least tacit agreement from the international community. Sarovic met Kostunica secretly in Belgrade last Friday to secure his backing for the proposed administration.


Kostunica's diplomatic efforts on behalf of the SDS have contributed to a serious split among the major foreign countries involved in Bosnia.


US diplomats are signalling their intention to block a government which includes the SDS. The Germans, although less outspoken, support Washington's position.


The Russians and the French beg to differ. The latter justify their policy by pointing to the popular vote and reforms undertaken within the SDS itself. But their line is more probably a favour to Kostunica, who makes no effort to conceal his Francophilia and admiration of former President Charles de Gaulle.


What is conspicuous by its absence is any protest at Kostunica's influence over the SDS. It seems the international community is reverting to form - hoping Belgrade can be used to pressure Bosnian Serb political leaders - a strategy tried with Milosevic during the Bosnian crisis.


Kostunica, meanwhile, faces two factions within the SDS - the old school nationalists and reformers.


The former believe the international community's present "soft" policy towards Kostunica opens up opportunities for them to obstruct the Dayton Peace Accords and to further their ambitions to secede from Bosnia.


The latter, led by RS Vice President Dragan Cavic and backed by Sarovic, want to use Kostunica's international credibility to help to improve the poor economic and political position of the entity within Bosnia.


Kostunica needs to be wary of these factions and to avoid becoming hostage to the nationalist faction. Should he rely on the reformers within the SDS, he could enhance his authority and contribute to genuine reform of the party, and with it the democratisation of Republika Srpska.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor.