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

Kostunica in Trouble

The Yugoslav president loses his job and much of his political influence next month when the new reconstituted state comes into being.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

He is the most popular politician in Serbia, yet power continues to ebb away from Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica towards Serbian premier Zoran Djindjic.


Within Serbia, Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, has long been impotent in the face of the ruling coalition which Djindjic controls. Soon, the DSS will lose its grip on federal power, as the parliament of the new Serbian-Montenegrin state looks set to be dominated by an alliance run by Djindjic and his Montenegrin partner Milo Djukanovic.


The power struggle between Kostunica and Djindjic began almost immediately after the fall of Milosevic. As Serbian premier, Djindjic exercises control of the parliament, the police and - indirectly - the media. Kostunica has traditionally wielded influence over the Yugoslav Army, VJ, and its powerful intelligence service.


With the federal state of Yugoslavia due to be dismantled in February, Kostunica's presidential office will vanish. And his attempts to build a new power base within the reconstituted state have so far been unsuccessful.


Presidential ballots were held for Serbia in September, October and December of last year. Every time Kostuncia won the most votes, but a low turnout meant the polls were invalid. It now seems unlikely that he will be able to force a new presidential election in the first half of this year.


Natasa Micic, the pro-Djindjic speaker of the Serbian parliament, has been acting Serbian president since the end of Milan Milutinovic's term in office. She announced on January 23 that she will not be scheduling new presidential elections for Serbia until the new constitution is ready. The latter, which will redefine the office of president and specify the form of election, will not be adopted until halfway through this year.


In this way, Djindjic has bought himself six months of relatively untroubled rule, despite the fragile nature of his parliamentary majority. Commentators expect he will use the time to consolidate his influence over the institutions he already controls, while trying to extend his grip to include the VJ and new federal institutions. To that end, police sources in Belgrade reported two weeks ago that Djindjic had replaced a number of high-ranking police officials with known loyalists.


In a direct body blow for Kostunica, the new federal parliament will assume control of the Supreme Defence Council, which commands and appoints VJ personnel. Signals are emerging that a discreet but thorough purge of Kostunica loyalists is in preparation. Funds to the VJ will be controlled by the federal minister of defence, whom the Serbian and Montenegrin premiers have already named as Zoran Zivkovic, deputy leader of Djindjic's Democratic Party, DS.


For the next six months at least, Kostunica will be able to do little but watch Djindjic from the sidelines. Chosen as Time magazine statesman of the year for 2000, his star has fallen considerably since then. Two years ago he boasted 80 per cent support from the population, a higher rating than even Milosevic enjoyed at the peak of his powers. By December 2002, that had fallen to 34 per cent, in a poll by the Belgrade agency Strategic Marketing. Internationally, his openly nationalistic views have left him less popular than Djindjic.


The DSS has also played a role in Kostunica's decline. Multiplying in size as he came to power, it has remained slow, inefficient and no match for the DS party machinery, which has won on every front despite being less popular with the voters. The DSS has also been reluctant to make political alliances, missing the chance to become a refuge for smaller parties, which clashed with Djindjic within the ruling coalition. Those parties now prefer to stay in an unhappy alliance with the Serbian premier, rather than join Kostunica in an attempt to bring down the government.


Djindjic, meanwhile, is now attempting to steal Kostunica's clothes by bolstering his patriotic image. Never having been close to the Orthodox church, he has now taken a leading role in the building of the temple of Saint Sava, the largest Serbian church to be built in Belgrade for over half a century.


Djindjic has also announced that he will be initiating new negotiations over the final status of Kosovo, which he will use to fight against independence for the province - another move designed to win him the support of Serbian nationalists. With his nationalist credentials strengthened, he hopes to marginalise Kostunica and defeat him in presidential and parliamentary elections in a year's time.


Kostunica may still have a few trump cards up his sleeve, however. One is the influential G17 Plus party, made up of reformist economists. After clashes with Djindjic, it shows signs of edging towards Kostunica. Popular in the West, an alliance with G17 Plus would undoubtedly raise Kostunica's currency internationally.


Djindjic could also prove to be his own undoing. By assuming power far in excess of the electoral popularity of his party, he is carrying a heavy burden and could find himself vulnerable. "He lacks popularity and authority, yet he has more and more power. He will bear the brunt of any crisis or failure," political analyst Aleksa Djilas told Belgrade weekly Blic News last week.


So while for now, the dice appear loaded in Djindjic's favour, but the final outcome of the power struggle is far from certain.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is editor of the Belgrade weekly Blic News.