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

Serbia: DSS Stuck in the Past

Despite some attempts to come over as a reformer, election favourite the Democratic Party of Serbia remains wedded to Serbian nationalism
By Milanka Saponja

The moderate nationalist party set to win a majority in the upcoming Serbian parliamentary election has attempted to transform itself since its leader Vojislav Kostunica replaced Slobodan Milosevic as Yugoslav president in 2000. But little has changed and the party remains firmly attached to its nationalistic past.


Since the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, first gained popular support following the 2000 presidential election it has remained free of corruption, promoted the rule of law and attempted to develop a solid party structure.


But, despite a tempering of the party’s tough nationalistic platform and signals that it is ready to cooperate with the international community, the DSS remains old-fashioned and conservative and its leadership is indecisive and lacks a clear plan for economic reform.


The DSS - whose policies focus on preservation of Serbia’s union with Montenegro, European Union integration, the rule of law and decentralisation - has popular support amongst the Serbian electorate and seems likely to win the election scheduled for December 28. Analysts link this popularity to the strong public image of Kostunica, perceived by many as honest and consistent.


Kostunica and the DSS have always taken advantage of this image. When Kostunica competed with Milosevic in the 2000 presidential election, he used the slogan “Who can look you in the eye?”, and his party is currently campaigning under the banner “As good as our word”.


“The DSS is one of the few political parties whose reputation has not been marred by Milosevic’s propoganda,” analyst Bratislav Grubacic told IWPR. “This was a small party which was no serious threat to Milosevic and, in many respects, the party’s policy was even close to Milosevic’s agenda.”


As recent allegations of crime and corruption against ministers in the ruling Democratic Party, DS, have tarnished the government’s name, the positive image of the DSS has become an increasingly important factor for a public who held out much hope for the years following Milosevic’s ousting and has been largely disappointed.


DSS members have recently made an effort to garner further support by developing a solid party structure and presenting the organisation as an effective and modern political force. DSS vice-president Dragan Marsicanin told IWPR that the party currently has 164 municipal branches throughout Serbia, with around 60 thousand members. He described the DSS as a right-of-centre party and drew parallels with the European People’s Party, a union of right-wing parties in Europe.


As part of this drive to be seen as a modern, balanced and effective political force, the DSS has also sought to distance itself from its past relationship with the Orthodox church and from accusations of ultra-nationalism.


Kostunica is a religious man and in late 2000 visited the Serb monastery of Hilandar in Greece in his capacity as Yugoslav president.


But Serb Orthodox Church patriarch Pavle last week released a statement voicing his support for the restoration of the monarchy, effectively putting the weight of the church behind the pro-monarchy Serbian Renewal Movement and New Serbia parties, both rivals of the DSS.


And DSS party official Dusan Ilic recently told IWPR, “The DSS was neither a clerical nor an ultra-national party. Our constitutional draft refers to Serbia as a state of all citizens, while the rule of the church is strictly separated from that of the state.”


Dusan Illic went on to say his party would be willing to include in its post-election campaign any political parties of ethnic minorities that managed to secure seats in parliament.


The party also appears to have somewhat softened its attitudes towards the Hague tribunal.


In the past, Kostunica and his supporters maintained a tough stance on the international war crimes court. During his time as Yugoslav president, Kostunica said the tribunal “made his stomach turn” and, in a recent interview published in the Serbian press, he criticised the current government for its close ties with the court. “The national council for cooperation with the Hague tribunal acted as a branch of this court [the Hague], and not as our state body,” he said.


When prime minister Zoran Djindjic extradited Milosevic to the Hague in 2001, Kostunica distanced himself from the decision, announcing that it was illegal and claiming to have known nothing about it.


And during his pre-election campaign, Kostunica said he saw no obstacle to war crimes suspects running for election. “Until now I did not receive any warnings from the tribunal that the indictees of the international court could not be included on the electoral tickets,” he said.


Political analyst and Vreme magazine columnist Stojan Cerovic told IWPR that the attitude of the DSS to the Hague tribunal has increased hostility to the court amongst the Serbian electorate. However, although the DSS currently appears to lack any clear policy on cooperation with the institution, the party has made an effort to moderate criticism of it.


Sources close to the party told IWPR that the DSS will attempt to solve the contentious issue of cooperation with the Hague tribunal by seeking to agree a bargain with the international community. According to this deal, all those who were indicted prior to the passing of legislation on cooperation with the Hague in spring 2002 would be extradited, including former commander of the Bosnian Serb army Ratko Mladic. The remaining indictees would be tried in domestic courts.


But even this tempered stance remains tough, and observers point to a number of other signs that the DSS is struggling to shake off its past as an ineffective and outmoded nationalist force.


The party, for instance, lacks any clear, comprehensive economic programme and has only one well-known economist, Belgrade School of Economy professor Danijel Cveticanin, amongst its members.


“The DSS hasn’t got a single economist with a vision, and this is what Serbia needs at the moment,” said Biljana Stepanovic, a journalist with Radio Free Europe, going on to say the party’s strong team of lawyers would not alone be enough to successfully implement reforms.


Analysts suggest the DSS is likely to solve this problem by forging a post-election alliance with G17 Plus, a party of expert economic reformists. G17 Plus ministers might then be given ministerial posts which concern themselves with economic reform, allowing the DSS to focus its efforts on domestic justice issues and the police.


Other observers point out that, besides failings in the party’s structure and practical expertise, the DSS remains tied to an old-fashioned, nationalistic political platform.


The party is insistent on maintaining the current union between Serbia and Montenegro, something which is unlikely to prove popular in Montenegro itself. An international observer, who preferred to remain anonymous, told IWPR that the Podgorica authorities are keen to see an end to the union, due to expire by 2006. They have, he said, expressed their concern about “Serbia’s move to the right” and are keen to negotiate with a political group more flexible and sympathetic to their cause than the DSS.


Some analysts have expressed concern about traces of Serbian nationalism in the ranks of the DSS. The party has always maintained close ties with its ethnic kin in Bosnia and, according to Vreme columnist Teofil Pancic, Kostunica has never condemned Bosnian Serbs for killing Muslims. Despite a loosening of these bonds, Kostunica remains widely respected amongst the former.


The political affiliations of the DSS within Serbia itself also hark back to the party’s nationalistic past. In November 2000, a month after Milosevic was ousted, Kostunica’s party officials gave their support to the election campaign of the hard-line Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, whose former leader is war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic.


And while senior DSS officials have made it clear they would not form a future government with the extreme nationalist Serbian Radical Party or Milosevic’s own Socialist Party of Serbia – should they be elected to power - the party has also ruled out the possibility of entering into any kind of coalition with its key mainstream rival, the ruling DS party.


The DSS and DS worked together as the two leading members of the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, coalition in a government formed in 2001. But a fierce rivalry soon developed between the two groups, with the DSS placing emphasis on reform of Serbia’s domestic justice system and the DS insisting on the importance of economic reform and cooperation with the Hague tribunal.


This rivalry escalated and the DSS walked out of the government in mid-2001 and soon after left the ruling coalition. It’s leadership has been calling for early parliamentary elections ever since.


Milanka Saponja is a regular IWPR contributor and Daniel Sunter is an IWPR assistant editor in Belgrade.