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

Serbia: Deadly Rivals Call a Truce

Agreement to end infighting that’s paralysed the country could soon start to unravel.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Yugoslavia's two bitter rivals for power have agreed to end the destructive political logjam in the country but few observers believe the deal has any prospect of long-term success.


Serbia's premier Zoran Djindjic and Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica signed an accord on November 4, according to which deputies belonging to the latter’s Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, will regain the parliamentary seats they were deprived of this summer in exchange for backing the former’s reform programme.


The conflict between the two men drew international criticism after bringing most Serbian institutions to a standstill.


The row escalated after Djindjic expelled Kostunica's 45 deputies from the Serbian assembly with the help of other parties in Serbia's ruling coalition, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS.


The premier insisted his action was legal. Angered by DSS obstruction of his planned reforms, he maintained the original coalition agreement stipulated that the alliance, not its individual parties, held the parliamentary mandates.


But the harsh action alienated several of Djindjic's erstwhile allies and failed to end the chaos in the assembly. The institutional crisis worsened after the second round of Serbia's presidential election on October 13 when a low turnout - less than 50 per cent of the electorate voted in the second round - led to the poll being annulled.


With the presidency and parliament virtually paralysed, much-needed reforms were put on ice. The only obvious beneficiary was the ultra-nationalist Vojislav Seselj who took a third of the votes in the first round of the presidential ballot and appeared to be gaining popularity.


Amid growing international concern, the European Union and the United States exerted strong pressure on Djindjic and Kostunica to resolve the crisis.


IWPR sources in the Serbian government said US ambassador William Montgomery urged Djindjic to return Kostunica's deputies their seats. At the same time, Kostunica was asked to support reforms that Djindjic wanted to push through the Serbian parliament and refrain from trying to topple his government.


The accord duly pledged the two rivals to work for "a more efficient functioning of the Serbian parliament" and harmonise their "political priorities".


The "priorities" listed in the deal were election legislation, a fresh presidential ballot and the drafting of a new constitution, to be followed by parliamentary elections.


Both men praised the agreement, Djindjic telling state television on November 5 that it had ended the parliamentary logjam. Kostunica, meanwhile, said it meant Serbia had overcome a "serious parliamentary crisis".


However, even if the two deadly rivals really want to bury the hachet, the political situation in which they find themselves may not let them do so easily.


Although the Serbian parliament promptly amended the disputed election legislation to abolish the 50 per cent threshold in the second round of a presidential ballot, it retained the threshold in the first round.


The DOS coalition, controlled by Djindjic, then announced it might not even contest a new Serbian presidential poll on December 8. With no obvious candidate, it cannot expect to beat the more popular Kostunica.


But if DOS does not field a candidate, the coalition's supporters are not likely to turn out at all to vote for a conservative nationalist like Kostunica. This means that once more fewer than 50 per cent of the voters may cast ballots, again invalidating the result.


Such an outcome would undercut last week’s agreement and release Kostunica from his own obligation to support the government.


Kostunica supporters are already claiming that the DOS announcement that it may not nominate a candidate is tantamount to an election boycott.


DSS deputy leader Dragan Marsicanin accused the coalition in an interview with Radio B92 on November 6 of "showing its real intention, that it wants the elections to fail".


Because of this, Kostunica has still not decided whether to run again for the presidency. The situation may become yet more absurd if Djindjic decides to support Kostunica, as he has already suggested.


Such support is more of a threat than a help, as Kostunica's previous election campaign was based on trenchant criticism of the government - criticism that has helped him to become the most popular politician in Serbia. Without Djindjic as the enemy, Kostunica will have little to campaign about.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is the editor-in-chief of the Belgrade magazine Blic News.