Serbia: Joint State Deals Blow to Djindjic

The new Serbian-Montenegrin state will strengthen the hand of Vojislav Kostunica in his battle with Zoran Djindjic.

Serbia: Joint State Deals Blow to Djindjic

The new Serbian-Montenegrin state will strengthen the hand of Vojislav Kostunica in his battle with Zoran Djindjic.

President of Yugoslavia Vojislav Kostunica is likely to triumph over his long-standing political rival Prime Minister of Serbia Zoran Djindjic, following the creation of a Serbian-Montenegrin state.

The establishment of the new state will lead to a federal poll, in all likelihood fracturing the already highly divided ruling DOS coalition. Since the alliance also forms the government in Serbia, early elections there are expected to follow.

At present, Djindjic leads the 18-party DOS coalition, but his cooperation with The Hague tribunal is showing signs of alienating many members of the alliance who would probably contest a ballot on their own, club together with Kostunica, or form a new political grouping.

This will all play into the Yugoslav president's hands, as whichever option DOS members choose, Djindjic's grip on power in Serbia will be severely weakened.

The premier currently controls all but Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, in the DOS coalition in the Serbian parliament. This translates into 131 of its 250 deputies. With such a small majority, only one party needs to defect for the government to be forced into early elections.

If the coalition does founder, the war crimes tribunal is likely to be the cause. The trial of Milosevic in The Hague is deeply unpopular.

American has set a deadline for Serbia to establish full cooperation with the tribunal by March 31 or face blocks on US financial aid and political support. Djindjic, who handed over Milosevic to The Hague, believes it is crucial to retain Washington's support. But in public eyes he is widely stigmatised as traitor, while Kostunica's anti-Hague stance is seen as patriotic.

The Serbian prime minister has further weakened his own position by dithering over the surrender of other war crimes indictees to the tribunal. By delaying action, he now finds public opinion more hostile to the court than at any other time over the past year.

The first signs of a DOS parties beginning to distance themselves from Djindjic are already emerging. The most significant indication has been an open confrontation between the premier and one of his former allies, the Serbian interior minister and New Democracy party leader, Dusan Mihajlovic.

While the dispute seems to have been brewing for months, the two men openly clashed on a joint tour through Serbia last Friday. In Jagodina, central Serbia, Djindjic said he was dissatisfied with the police crackdown on the mafia. He said the names of mob bosses in at least 50 towns and villages were "public knowledge", suggesting his interior minister knew all about them but failed to act. Mihajlovic angrily retorted that Djindjic was the main obstacle to such a crackdown and - in what is seen as a portent of his resignation - announced he would be on holiday until March 24.

While mobsters were the apparent reason for the clash, Mihajlovic's real motive for splitting with the government would appear to be his desire not to be seen as the man responsible for extraditing alleged Serbian war criminals to The Hague. If Mihajlovic remains in charge of new handovers, his ratings - already low - could continue to fall.

A second sign of Djindjic's growing weakness was his failure to deprive the DSS of its seats in the Serbian parliament. The premier came up with the idea last week when Kostunica's party refused to attend the coalition's presidency meetings.

If Djindjic had obtained the consent of two-thirds of DOS member parties, he could have expelled the 45 DSS deputies from the assembly, marginalising the party ahead of the elections.

However, the move backfired after the Democratic Centre, led by the speaker of the federal parliament's lower house, Dragoljub Micunovic, of the Democratic Alternative, headed by Serbia's deputy prime minister Nebojsa Covic and the Civic Alliance of federal foreign minister Goran Svilanovic all came out in opposition.

Covic told the Belgrade daily Blic on March 12 that Djindjic's attack on Mihajlovic was "unfair" and that the move to deprive the DSS of its seats "would be highly reminiscent of the actions taken by former regime".

While several parties show signs of wriggling out of Djindjic's embrace, they may not necessarily drift closer to Kostunica. They might stand on their own or form another political bloc. But whichever way they turn, the Serbian prime minister is likely to lose out.

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

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