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

Milosevic Party Ponders Reform

A battle is going on for the soul of the party led by Serbia’s fallen strongman.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

When Serbs woke up on Sunday to read that Slobodan Milosevic was about to join the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, it seemed another sign of the yawning gulf between Milosevic and the Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, he has led since its foundation.


Citing internal party sources, lawyer Svetozar Vujacic told the Novi Sad Dnevnik he believed Milosevic would publicly announce his defection from the SPS on March 12, after a three-month ban on communicating with the outside world from The Hague detention unit is lifted.


While SPS officials and Milosevic's lawyers rubbished the report the next day - and acting party leader Ivica Dacic insisted there was "no truth in it" - they no longer try to hush up the looming clash between Milosevic and his party lieutenants.


The newspaper report was only one of several recent signs that a battle is going on for the soul of the SPS. In another surprising move, the party recently offered to support a new minority government formed by the same parties that contributed to their leader’s overthrow in October 2000.


An about-turn by the SPS, in which it dumped its authoritarian nationalist past and embraced western-style social democracy, would mark a political milestone in Serbia.


After it was formed in 1989 out of the ruins of the old Yugoslav League of Communists, the SPS went on to rule Serbia with an iron fist throughout the 1990s. During its rule, the republic became isolated from the international community as it got involved in a series of armed conflicts in the region.


While signs of a political divorce look genuine, many political analysts in Serbia doubt the country’s most notorious party is ready to make a crucial U-turn.


They see the SPS’s cautious efforts to distance itself from Milosevic as a pragmatic move, intended to gloss over the party’s controversial track record.


“If [Vojislav] Kostunica's minority government presses ahead with reforms and a pro-European policy with SPS support, the Socialists will be able to request 'absolution for their sins' from the public at home and abroad,” said political analyst Slobodan Antonic.


Antonic believes the SPS is far from a real change of heart.


But the party's recent steps do suggest that reform remains possible, even if the process is slow.


An irreversible split between the SPS and Milosevic would mark a major step towards reform, deepening divisions and creating more factions within the SPS. At the same time, a radical change in policy would necessitate finding new supporters in the electorate.


Support for Kostunica's government may help usher in reform. The fact that it has more conservative nationalist instincts than the last administration would ease the transformation process. Milosevic's own choice of party's officials could inadvertently help in this regard. As a politician devoid of ideological scruples, he tended to attract followers who were pragmatists and skilful political manipulators.


This pragmatic element became evident after early parliamentary elections last December, when Milosevic’s SPS comrades turned a deaf ear to his request for members of Sloboda - the association set up for his defence and the most radically pro-Milosevic faction in the party - to be included on the list of deputies.


Milosevic's efforts from the Hague to appoint loyalists to the SPS leadership, like Bogoljub Bjelica, chairman of Sloboda, also collapsed.


Several months ago, Milosevic failed to have Milorad Vucelic, leader of a more moderate pro-Milosevic faction, elected chairman of the party's main board, which runs the SPS in his absence.


Ivica Dacic was appointed to the post, in spite of the fact that Milosevic considers Dacic, Milomir Minic and Zoran Andjelkovic, two other senior officials, his adversaries.


Although Milosevic recently listed Andjelkovic, Dacic and Minic as officials responsible for what he called negative trends in the party, Dacic rejects the allegation. "This is not the Slobodan Milosevic party. This is the Socialist Party of Serbia,” he told IWPR this week.


Zeljko Obradovic, an SPS official belonging to the reformist faction, told IWPR that the party did not need Milosevic to survive. It had been functioning for three years without him and was still on the political scene. "Even if Milosevic did defect to the Radical Party, the Socialists would still hold on to their voters," he said.


But the SPS is unlikely to formally renounce the link with Milosevic, as it fears losing most of the voters who enabled the party to take 22 seats in the 250-member parliament last December.


Close analysis of election trends has revealed a downward trend in public confidence in what was Serbia’s most powerful political party, while staunch Milosevic supporters comprise the bulk of the SPS core vote.


“Without Milosevic we would not win any seats in parliament and no one would seek support from us,” Milorad Vucelic told IWPR.


SPS sources close to Dacic claim that Milosevic is more likely to distance himself from the party than the other way round.


They suspect the Hague indictee may engineer a showdown within the party, pitting Sloboda, Vucelic and another influential party official Milutin Mrkonjic against Dacic and the reformists.


A victory by the reformist faction in such a showdown would slash Milosevic's influence in the party as well as expediting the departure of many pro-Milosevic loyalists.


It would also leave the party some time before the next elections to position itself as a classic left-wing party, defending the rights of workers, unions and deprived social groups.


In the meantime, the prospect of losing its old voters before it has attracted new ones leaves the SPS keen to avoid new elections. Hence, analysts believe their support for the new government will be almost unconditional.


“The Socialists fear new elections,” said analyst Djordje Vukadinovic, “and this is the main reason for their willingness to cooperate and support Kostunica's government.”


Antonic says the Socialists will be ready to back Kostunica's proposal for a new constitution, thus pragmatically putting a distance between themselves and their own political legacy.


According to Antonic, the SPS will then be “granted admission to the club of 'democratic' political parties” in Serbia.


“With this forgiveness of their old political sins, they may also count on fully participating in the next government after the next elections,” he said.


The fact that Milosevic appears to be backing his ardent loyalists – people lacking in any pragmatic approach - in the power struggle, may finally tip the scales in the favour of the reformist camp.


Uncertain though the outcome of the battle remains, the SPS seems closer than ever before to taking the road to reform. With that, they may find a new identity - if they do not perish from the political scene altogether beforehand.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is an editor of weekly Evropa.