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

Serbia: Government Crisis Deepens

Reformist parties appear determined to force early parliamentary elections.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

An autumn of political chaos seems all but inevitable after the Serbian government’s latest attempt to unite the country’s democratic forces ended in failure.

The major opposition parties - the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, led by Vojislav Kostunica, and the reformist G17 Plus of Miroljub Labus - turned down a public invitation last week to forge "a new agreement on the most vital interests of the state" which was offered by Serbian deputy prime minister Cedomir Jovanovic.

This refusal is bound to heighten tensions and could throw Serbia into political turmoil, as DSS and G17 Plus are already campaigning for early elections while the government is becoming steadily weaker.

While the dominant political party in the ruling coalition – the Democratic Party, DS – will do everything in its power to prevent an early poll, the minor parties of the 16-member DOS coalition are already weighing their options as to which side they will take.

Most analysts see the proposal put forward by Jovanovic as a sign that the government - plagued by internal squabbling, scandalous affairs and falling ratings – is weakening.

The government had enjoyed the lion’s share of public support in the aftermath of the assassination of the Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic in March this year, but this began to crumble following the escalation of the conflict between the ruling coalition’s reformist and the authoritarian factions.

This bitter infighting assumed critical proportions this summer when DOS sacked the National Bank of Serbia’s successful governor, G17 Plus vice president Mladjan Dinkic, who subsequently claimed that Jovanovic was behind his removal.

Public sympathy has largely been with Dinkic throughout, with many seeing his fight against the authorities as part of the country’s struggle against crime and corruption.

The government received yet another crushing blow last month following accusations of money-laundering levelled against senior officials Zoran Janjusevic and Nemanja Kolesar. (See BCR No. 448, The two ministers later resigned.

In early August, Tomislav Milosavljevic, who is also a G17 Plus party member close to Dinkic, stepped down as minister of health.

Last week, deputy prime minister Rodoljub Sabic also walked out of the government in protest at - as he put it – its inadequate response to the ongoing “scandalous” affairs.

Observers believe that the administration could be fatally weakened if – as speculated in the Belgrade daily newspaper Glas Javnosti on August 23 – the charismatic finance minister Bozidar Djelic quits.

While Djelic has neither confirmed nor denied the rumours, the government would lose its last shreds of reformist legitimacy in the eyes of the public if he were to resign.

All this has forced the government to propose that the country’s democratic parties support a political agreement on all contentious issues currently burdening society, with Jovanovic saying that this would entail an "uncompromising approach to solving all the scandalous affairs" weighing down the authorities.

G17 Plus, the DSS and several minor groups rejected the proposal out of hand.

In a press release issued on August 20, G17 Plus described Jovanovic's proposal as “meaningless” and "unworthy of serious attention", adding that the party was only interested in discussing "the dissolution of the discredited government and the scheduling of early elections".

DSS vice-president Dragan Jocic saw the initiative as a move by the Serbian deputy prime minister to improve his own position and that of his party.

At the same time, some minor DOS political parties – such as Nebojsa Covic’s Democratic Alternative and Mile Isakov’s Vojvodina Reformists, both of whom are deputy prime ministers - also expressed their reservations, while the Democratic Centre, led by Dragoljub Micunovic, appeared to be divided on this issue.

Observers believe that G17 Plus, which now commands around a third of reformist votes, will continue to try to undermine the government and press for early elections.

The DSS has been insisting on an early ballot since the days of its leader Vojislav Kostunica’s long-running feud with Djindjic.

However, analysts agree that the government is determined to see out its term in office.

Sources within the coalition say that Jovanovic’s failed initiative may even play into the government's hands, as the public could view the opposition’s attitude as antagonistic and destructive.

Political analyst Djordje Vukadinovic believes the authorities have at least two more trump cards up their sleeves - the Kosovo Serbs and privatisation revenue.

Concerning the issue of Kosovo, Vukadinovic thinks that the government is feigning concern over the safety of the protectorate’s Serb population, which is being increasingly intimidated by the ethnic Albanian majority.

The tactic here is to use the plight of the Kosovo Serbs to unify opposition and government parties and thus stave off the threat of an early poll.

Regarding privatisation revenue, the government currently has a large budget deficit, but it recently sold two large tobacco manufacturers for nearly 400 million euro – and this may fill the gaps and reduce the threat of industrial action, lessening the risk off the early elections.

"In this way, Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic and DOS will try to create some room for manoeuvre and remain in power until the end of 2004 when regular parliamentary elections are due," said Vukadinovic.

While the campaigning for and against early elections is gathering steam, small coalition parties within DOS are already weighing their options as to which of the three strongest reformist parties – DS, DSS and G17 Plus – they should join.

Most small parties could hardly hope to attain the two per cent of the vote needed to gain seats in parliament, and political analyst Vladimir Goati claims that they will be forced to find refuge with a major party if they are to survive on the political scene.

"I expect secret negotiations between smaller political parties and the bigger ones to take place in September,” said Goati. “The focal point of these talks would be the integration of smaller parties into major ones in exchange for seats in the parliament.”

The fact that some parties within the DOS coalition did not voice support for Jovanovic's proposal suggests that they may already be engaged in discussions with G17 Plus or DSS.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor in Belgrade

More IWPR's Global Voices