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

Serbia: January Election Likely

Prime minister's refusal to sack of controversial police minister makes early election almost inevitable.
By Daniel Sunter

This week’s calls for the dismissal of Serbian interior minister Dusan Mihajlovic is likely to be a death blow to the current government, which is expected to announce early elections in a matter of days.


On November 5, the Social Democratic Party, SDP – which exerts critical influence in the governing coalition despite its small size – warned that unless Mihajlovic was removed it would vote against the government in a vote of confidence which is expected within three weeks.


The warning followed allegations that Mihajlovic had awarded a contract to a firm of which he was part-owner, to supply electronics to the interior ministry in 2001. He denies any involvement, saying he had sold his shares in the firm beforehand.


In a last-ditch attempt to save the government, the prime minister offered the SDP a compromise by sacking traffic minister Marija Raseta-Vukosavljevic, who has also been accused of a conflict of interest. Raseta-Vukosavljevic denies the charges. But the SDP – while welcoming her dismissal - said it was not enough, and that Mihajlovic still had to go.


Although the SDP only has nine seats in the 250-member parliament, the margin is so close that it could tip the scales in any ballot. The government has been struggling to secure a parliamentary majority, and now faces a stark choice – either to dismiss Mihajlovic, or to call an election and preempt an embarrassing defeat in the confidence vote.


It looks like the choice has already been made. Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic told journalists that he was not considering dismissing his interior minister. This was interpreted as a sign that he was ready to call the election.


IWPR sources close to the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, the main coalition member, say that the prime minister cannot afford to dismiss a man whose police became the most potent force in the country following the murder of Zoran Djindjic.


Political analyst Djordje Vukadinovic agrees, saying “there are just a few ministers whose fall the government could not survive” and that Mihajlovic is one of them.


The government is already considering the best timing for an election, with indications that the date could be as soon as January 18.


There are several theories why Zivkovic is so reluctant to sack his minister. A DOS source told IWPR that the reason is the “concentration of power” in the latter’s hands. The source claims that some of this power is derived from Mihajlovic’s ties with a group of influential businessmen who survived the fall of Slobodan Milosevic.


Another factor that makes Mihajlovic difficult to dislodge is the starring role his police have played in the last six months. Some analysts say that during the operation that followed Djindjic’s murder, up to 10,000 people were put behind bars. While this was done at the government’s behest, it inadvertently boosted the interior ministry’s clout at a political level.


One practical - and important - reason for keeping Mihajlovic is that his own party, the Serbian Liberals, might turn against the government. Although they have a mere four seats in the legislature, the government cannot afford to lose a single vote at the moment.


But Mihajlovic himself dismissed the idea, telling IWPR that the Liberals would stay loyal to DOS.


One of the most frequently discussed - but hardest to prove - reasons why Mihajlovic is untouchable is that as police chief he may be privy to information that could be damaging to senior government officials. He has repeatedly denied this. “I have never collected any compromising facts, and I have never engaged in blackmailing or compromising any of my political allies or opponents,” he told IWPR in a written statement this week.


Mihajlovic worked for the state security service when Josip Broz Tito was in power, and later served as deputy prime minister under Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.


Public opinion polls indicate that he is the least popular of all the current ministers. In recent weeks, he has taken a few knocks, including the Hague tribunal’s announcement of war crimes charges against his close ally and deputy minister General Sreten Lukic.


Mihajlovic said he would rather resign than extradite the police general – whom he called the hero of the post-Djindjic sweep.


In recent weeks Mihajlovic has come under attack over a contract his ministry awarded to the Arius firm in 2001. The opposition party G17 Plus claimed on October 28 that he approved the 2.4 million euro contract at a time when he held shares in the company.


He says this is untrue, and that he sold his shares several months before the tender was held, and three months after he was appointed minister. In his written statement to IWPR, he said, “My conduct in avoiding conflict of interest was more scrupulous than most current legislation, either here or abroad.”


Although the interior minister now is beleaguered on all sides, the betting is that he will stay in the cabinet to the end. But that is looking increasingly close at hand.


Daniel Sunter is IWPR’s project coordinator in Serbia and Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular contributor.


Interior Minister Mihajlovic’s written answers to questions put by IWPR is available in full (in Serbian)