Serbia: Djindjic Misjudgment Plays into Rival's hands

A bid by the Serbian premier to weaken his main rival's grip on power could rebound on him.

Serbia: Djindjic Misjudgment Plays into Rival's hands

A bid by the Serbian premier to weaken his main rival's grip on power could rebound on him.

The long-running power struggle between Zoran Djindjic and Vojislav Kostunica took a new twist this week when the Serbian premier's attempts to loosen the Yugoslav president's parliamentary influence raised the possibility of early elections.

Djindjic's ruling coalition, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, said on May 24 that it planned to dismiss 50 of its deputies - including 23 from Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS - from the Serbian parliament.

DOS claimed that the deputies had blocked reform by failing to attend parliamentary sessions over the last few months and had rarely voted with their coalition partners.

This decision followed an assembly session last week when Djindjic had hoped to pass a law on ministries - which would give him the authority to reshuffle his government - but was frustrated by the DSS and pro-Milosevic opposition, which boycotted the session.

Although a quorum was later secured, the prime minister resolved to punish Kostunica's DSS by replacing the disloyal deputies with ones he felt that he could rely on.

Kostunica's party deputy, Dragan Marsicanin, branded the move as "political and legal violence".

"These methods were typical of Slobodan Milosevic and are also typical of Zoran Djindjic," he told Belgrade's Radio B92.

Those loyal to the premier say the legal basis for his decision lies in a two-year-old DOS coalition agreement. Fearing former president Milosevic could break up the alliance after the elections, its eighteen parties agreed that each of their deputies would owe allegiance to DOS and not its individual members.

However, most legal and political experts say the move rests on shaky foundations.

"DOS is not a formal coalition and is not registered as such with the justice ministry," Marko Blagojevic, a member of the influential Centre for Free Elections and Democracy, CESID, told Radio B92.

Djindjic denied claims that his move was political. "A certain number of deputies who have been chosen from the DOS list are not meeting the obligations for which they are paid," he told Voice of America on May 28.

He said deputies' salaries are as high as 500 euros, which is a considerable amount of money in Serbia. He claimed their conduct called the moral integrity of DOS into question.

If the coalition's move is approved by the parliament's administrative council, Djindjic will be in an unassailable position, as all his potential opponents will have been removed. This would see a return to the days of Milosevic's Serbia - absolute power without an effective opposition.

However, Kostunica will not sit idly and wait for Djindjic to become more powerful.

The Yugoslav president has long been calling for early elections - which the Serbian premier is keen to avoid - and did so again after Djindjic announced his intention to dismiss the deputies.

At the same time, Kostunica pulled 24 members of his party from key posts in several state-run companies, while the DSS threatened to withdraw from parliament altogether.

The DSS is the strongest individual party in Serbia and if it finds itself outside the assembly, Kostunica could also move the political battle into the media. He could gain widespread support for this by exploiting current social protests.

Djindjic, who is concerned that he will not fare well in an early election, seems to have realised just how dangerous his plan to dismiss Kostunica's deputies has been.

Indeed, there are already signs of a possible u-turn. Cedomir Jovanovic, a senior official in Djindjic's party, gave the 50 deputies a chance to explain their absences and keep their seats in parliament, despite insisting three days earlier that the DOS decision was "final".

The DSS, however, can smell blood and has demanded that the Serbian premier abandons his proposal before it will consider any kind of compromise.

The premier is now considering his options. If he sticks to his guns, Kostunica is certain to withdraw his deputies from parliament. Already, the DOS party Nova Serbia, with nine seats in the assembly, has announced its departure and the opposition parties are expected to follow.

As a result, it seems increasingly likely that Serbia will face the early elections that many see as a hindrance to reform.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is editor in chief of the Belgrade weekly Blic News

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