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Serbia: Political Crisis May Force New Elections

Urgent compromise needed if republic’s two biggest democratic parties are to work together in government.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Serbia's main pro-democracy parties are trying to find a way around a political stalemate that has left the republic without a government and could yet force new elections.


The state has been leaderless since the December 28 parliamentary elections, which saw the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, gain a surprisingly large share of the vote - but not enough to form a government.


After no other party was willing to join the hard-liners in a ruling coalition, it fell to the more democratic parties to come to an arrangement - but all discussions to date have ended in a deadlock.


Observers are now holding out hope for a compromise after the Democratic Party, DS, on January 22 appeared to open up the possibility of renewed dialogue by saying it would consider it a goodwill gesture if it was promised the coveted role of parliamentary speaker in the new Serbian assembly.


The situation looked to be deteriorating just a day before, when DS leader Boris Tadic told a press conference that he refused to support a minority government - comprising the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, the reformist G17 Plus party and a coalition of the Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO, and New Serbia, NS – and instead proposed the formation of a majority one, which would include the aforementioned parties and his own.


This was categorically rejected by Dragan Marsicanin, DSS deputy leader, who accused Tadic's party of making an irresponsible political move and blamed them for the current impasse.


A new parliament is to begin sitting on January 27, but the row between the two principal pro-democracy parties - which worked together to oust Slobodan Milosevic from power in October 2000 and were the main groups in the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, coalition that succeeded him - puts in doubt the formation of a government and could bring about elections.


Stojan Cerovic, a politicial commentator with Vreme weekly, told TV B92 that compromise was still possible.


"I think that there will be more negotiations," he said. "If [the DSS and DS] can't form a government together, then elections would not help, as no democratic bloc party could win a majority. The situation would be the same as it is now - so the problem should be solved now."


Time is now of the essence, as the threat of new elections is growing while the main parties dither. If a new ballot was to be called, analysts fear that the electorate will punish the democratic parties for their indecision and infighting by backing the Radicals.


Political analyst Ljiljana Bacevic noted, "All parties in negotiations and their elites have to be aware of the fact that their only real opponent is the Radical party."


The squabbling and bad feeling between the pro-democracy parties began a number of years ago.


The DSS was first to quit the DS-dominated coalition that came to power after Milosevic fell, accusing its rival of corruption, cooperation with criminal gangs and violation of democratic procedures. Two years later, G17 Plus followed suit.


During the election campaign, DSS leader and former federal president Vojislav Kostunica repeatedly stated that he was not prepared to enter government with the unpopular DS. Faced with the choice between a majority and a minority government, he opted for the latter, effectively excluding Tadic's party.


Analyst Djordje Vukadinovic told IWPR that all democratic bloc parties - in common with the Radicals - won votes by criticising the DS and would lose credibility if they then formed a government with the party.


Until recently Tadic, whom the DSS sees as a possible ally, supported the idea of a minority government. However, many analysts say he was unable to retain this flexible position because of the pressure exerted on him by the party which insisted on being a member of any ruling coalition.


A final decision on whether the DS should support a minority government is due at the party's main board meeting which is scheduled for January 25, although it is difficult to see how it will back such an administration.


One senior DS official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR that a power struggle within the party is hindering negotiations on the new government.


Tadic and the outgoing Serbian premier Zoran Zivkovic are currently manoeuvring to be named as successor to the assassinated former prime minister and party leader Zoran Djindjic.


"This situation will last at least until February 21, when the DS elects Djindjic's successor, though we cannot rule out the possibility of this chaos escalating following the electoral assembly," said the official.


Bacevic believes a government will be formed only once the DS resolves conflicts within the party, and suspects that its stance on a minority government could yet change.


Kostunica stubbornly maintains that he will not allow the DS into government until it severs all ties with the heads of the unpopular outgoing administration he accuses of corruption, crime and non-democratic behaviour.


If this happens, Tadic may be asked to join the government at a later date, if he wins the party leadership and gets rid of the so-called compromised people.


However, the DS's hand may be forced long before this. IWPR sources suggest that the international community may soon insist that the party supports a coalition agreement signed by the DSS, G17 Plus and the SPO/NS bloc on January 20, as the platform - which agrees a stance on The Hague tribunal, a new constitution and further reforms - mirrors that of the DS almost exactly.


An anonymous source in the party confirmed to IWPR that this pressure is expected to begin at any time.


So far, the international community has stayed neutral on the subject. Analysts believe most options would be acceptable to Washington and Brussels - apart from a government comprising former Milosevic parties and the Radicals.


A western official, speaking on conditions of anonymity, said, "The international community would like to see all democratic forces in this country overcome their disputes as soon as possible and reach an agreement."


European Union foreign policy spokesman Javier Solana has so far refrained from naming a preferred option, but has called for the democratic bloc to reach an agreement on forming a government as soon as possible.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor in Belgrade.


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