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Serbia: New Regime Faces Instability From Start

The government expected to emerge from last month’s election looks doomed – and it hasn’t even been formed yet.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

The new Serbian coalition government that is likely to be formed by pro-democracy parties is destined to be unstable and short-lived, analysts say.


The parties which combined to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 are expected to form a coalition to block the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, led by Vojislav Seselj, who has been indicted for war crimes at The Hague. But they are divided over policies and riven by personal jealousies.


This is likely to mean a further period of instability in which a cabinet weakened by factionalism could fail to push through much-needed reforms. In addition, continued disunity in government could contribute to increasing grassroots support for the Radicals.


To the dismay of many Serbs and commentators around the world, the Radicals became the largest single party in parliament when they won 82 seats at the December 28 election. This still leaves them short of a majority in the 250 seat parliament, even if they were able to strike a deal with Milosevic’s Socialist Party, who won 22 seats and are the only group which would consider joining a party with such extreme nationalist views.


The “democratic bloc” parties - headed by Vojislav Kostunica’s right-of-centre Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, with 53 seats - could muster a total of 146 seats.


Since the election, politicians have been manoeuvring frantically to build a coalition. The key figure has been Kostunica, a former Yugoslav president. To form a coalition he will need the support of his former ally, Boris Tadic, of the left-of-centre Democratic Party, DS, which has 37 seats. While Kostunica said initially that he would not align himself with the DS – with which his DSS has had a worsening relationship – he will almost certainly be forced into some kind of relationship with it, either in coalition or in a more informal deal where the DS pledges its support in getting legislation through parliament.


It is also thought that Kostunica is working towards a deal with Miroljub Labus, who leads the reform-minded G17 Plus party. This would see Labus become prime minister in return for backing Kostunica’s bid to become president.


The fourth likely partner is the Serbian Renewal Movement, which in alliance with New Serbia won 22 seats.


But analysts predict the coalition will face huge problems in ensuring policy coherence, which could lead to its collapse. The deep rifts between the expected partners will probably replicate the flaws that weakened and eventually brought down the previous government.


One respected commentator, Srbobran Brankovic, told IWPR that the parties "will be burdened by huge differences in their respective political platforms and programmes".


"Some see Serbia as an independent state, while others want to preserve the state union with Montenegro,” explained Brankovic. “Some believe that it should be a monarchy, while others say that it should remain a republic. Some are reformists for whom relations with the West, and especially the Hague tribunal, should take precedence over other issues, while others see this matter from a totally different perspective.”


Other analysts worry that personal differences between the party leaders could play a damaging role. Vladimir Goati, for example, believes that the parties could compromise over major policy differences such as future relations with Montenegro, but fears that “it is more difficult to resolve animosities and bitterness in the relationships between the parties' leaderships”.


In the final months of the outgoing government, the DSS and DS were in conflict, G17 Plus campaigned to expose corruption in the DS-led cabinet, while New Serbia leader Velimir Ilic waged a propaganda war against both the DS and G17 Plus.


Another factor worrying analysts is the influence of powerful businessmen who made fortunes during the Milosevic era and have continued to prosper. According to Brankovic, these oligarchs may seek to undermine the new government for fear that stable governance could hinder their business interests.


As evidence, he points to the insidious role they played under the old government, with which they had many links. “Their primary objective was to provoke serious rifts, bickering and infighting within the ruling coalition, thus effectively weakening its political will to impose rule of law, which would apply to everyone and reduce corruption,” he said.


A majority coalition may be the most likely option , but it is not the only one being discussed. Kostunica has proposed creating a cabinet that would include all parties, including the extreme nationalists. The purpose would be to achieve the two-thirds majority needed for parliament to pass Serbia’s new constitution, which is a priority for the DSS. Once that was done, fresh elections would be held. But virtually all other parties, from reformers to the Radicals, have dismissed the idea.


Another possibility, the Radicals' proposal to forge an alliance with the DSS, seems even less likely. Finally, there is the idea that the DS would stay out of Kostunica’s cabinet but help it survive by supporting in votes.


If Kostunica is able to a form a new government that leaves Seselj supporters out in the cold, he cannot afford to be too hostile to them because he will need their support to achieve the two-thirds majority he needs.


It is feared that excluding the Radicals from political life would only enhance their electoral support, because they could then argue that they were not to blame for the government’s failings.


Western diplomats have been prodding the “democratic bloc” parties to unite so as to stave off further gains by the ultra-nationalists. But Ognjen Pribicevic, a Belgrade analyst, believes the international community will need to lend the expected coalition government more support than it gave the previous one.


“Failing this we will face new elections in which the Radicals will get even better results," he warned.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor in Belgrade.


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