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Serbia: Battle for Power Hots Up

Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica and his allies are stepping up their bid to control the Serbian authorities.

With EU pressure on the Montenegrin leadership suggesting that Podgorica will now opt to stay within the Yugoslavia, the Serbian political elite is gearing up for a new turf war. The battle, however, will not be in the federal republic, but in Serbia itself.

Whatever form of union EU negotiators hammer out with Serb and Montenegrin politicians, federal powers will continue to be mainly formal and ceremonial. As before, real power will reside at the republican level.

With this in mind, the two main rivals in Serbia - Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica, the leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, and Serbian prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, head of the Democratic Party, DS - have begun preparing a battle for supremacy.

The moment a new federal framework is established, elections for a new Yugoslav government will be scheduled. A presidential poll will follow.

But Kostunica has no intention to contest the ballot because, as he has discovered during his term in office, it gives him very little authority and almost no decision-making power, except over the Yugoslav Army, VJ. He wants to be president of Serbia - a post that would give him the influence he craves.

For some time, he has believed that as the republic's most popular political leader, at the helm of its most popular party, he should have more leverage within the governing coalition - the Democratic Opposition of Serbia DOS - currently dominated by Zoran Djindjic's DS and this "imbalance" has been a source of conflict between the two leaders.

While backing for Kostunica is high, it has fallen off markedly during his term as head of state. Not so long ago, around 85 per cent of the population supported the Yugoslav president - the figure has dropped to 53 per cent. Also alarming for the DSS is the growing popularity of the federal deputy prime minister, Miroljub Labus, the highly respected reformer, who's closely associated with the NGO G-17 Plus, credited for drawing up Serbia's economic recovery plans. Labus opinion poll ratings are now almost as high as Kostunica's.

The post of Serbian president would give Kostunica the right to dissolve parliament and call unscheduled elections. At the end of last year, the DSS mounted an attempt within the parliament to call an early ballot, believing it had a good chance of becoming the dominant force within DOS. But the bid failed because the cluster of parties around Djindjic's DS were predictably against the move.

It is no accident that the post of Serbian president is still occupied by Milan Milutinovic, a former member of Milosevic's inner circle, indicted for war crimes by The Hague tribunal. Djindjic has opposed Milutinovic's extradition precisely because his departure would trigger early presidential elections and, in all likelihood, bring down his government. Also, the hapless Milutinovic has no authority and Djindjic is well aware of the potential threat from a more assertive head of state.

Sources close to DOS are hinting the DS and allied parties will take advantage of their parliamentary majority to try and introduce a new Serbian constitution, in which the Serbian president would be stripped of his current constitutional powers, in advance of presidential elections.

Djindjic is also tightening his coalition to reduce the chances of any of his partners siding with the DSS in the future. He has already managed to win over Velimir Ilic, leader of New Serbia, NS, who was thought to be potentially close to DSS and who had severely criticised the government. Djindjic has given Ilic a deputy prime ministerial seat in the government, placed him in charge of capital investments and given the go-ahead for the construction of a long dreamed of cigarette factory in Cacak, where Ilic is mayor.

In the race for the Serbian presidency, Djindjic is hoping to promote Kostunica's only serious competition - Labus. In February, the Belgrade TV station Studio B, which is close to the DS, even introduced Labus as a man who could soon become the next Serbian president. But despite their obvious popularity, there are no indications that Labus and his G-17 group are interested in playing an active political role. For now, they remain an apolitical economic reform group.

It may be too early to make any predictions on the forthcoming political battle, but analysts in Belgrade agree on one thing - with Yugoslav government posts carrying little weight and influence, Serbian politicians are now firmly focused on their own back yard.

Danijel Sunter is IWPR coordinating editor in Belgrade.

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