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

Serbia: Reforms Under Threat

Reforms threatened as long-running political battle between rival leaders comes to a head.
By Daniel Sunter

Posing a clear risk to the reform process in his devastated country, the Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica, is demanding early elections in Serbia to settle accounts with his bitter rival, Serbia's prime minister Zoran Djindjic.


The strategy will probably fail. The international community, including the EU and the US, strongly oppose a new poll, as it may undermine the country's stability.


The French president Jacques Chirac made this point on his visit to Belgrade earlier this month. Disclaiming any intention to meddle in Serbia's affairs, he pointedly stressed the hope that all democratic and reform-minded parties in the country would come together for the common good.


In any case, Serbia's president Milan Milutinovic, the only man constitutionally empowered to call a poll in Serbia, is in Djindjic's pocket. Milutinovic is a political anomaly. A left-over from the regime of Yugoslavia's disgraced former head of state, Slobodan Milosevic, he is also a war crimes suspect. As such, he must avoid confrontation with Djindjic, who might arrest and extradite him to The Hague - as he did with Milosevic.


However, crisis is still in the air. President Kostunica's party, the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, may block the passage of vital reforms in parliament if Djindjic prevents a poll.


The latest clash in the ranks of the ruling Democratic Opposiiton of Serbia, DOS, began when Djindjic supporters in his Democratic Party, DS, engineered the sacking of Dragan Mariscanin, speaker of the Serbian parliament and a top Kostunica party official.


Mariscanin had accused his DS partners of rigging a parliamentary vote on an employment law by using the voting card of a DS member who was abroad at the time. Video footage backed up his charge.


Djindjic's colleagues were outraged, however, accusing Kostunica's supporters of acting as an opposition force inside the DOS. Mariscanin's dismissal followed, after which Kostunica publicly demanded his reinstatement. The Yugoslav president reminded DOS that the coalition terms entitled the DSS to hold the speaker's post while the job of Serbian premier went to the DS.


Djindjic and other DOS leaders rejected the "DSS ultimatum", however, and warned the party that they could defend a parliamentary majority without them. Whether they can achieve this in practice is far from clear, owing to the confusing distribution of seats in the assembly between several parties.


Even at full strength, the DOS holds only 176 of the assembly 250 seats, while the DS and DSS run neck-and-neck with 46 seats each.


Milosevic's Socialists control 37 seats, the extreme nationalist Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj has 23, while the Party of Serbian Unity, founded by late mafia warlord Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan, holds 14.


Conflicts in the ruling coalition date back to when the new government took over from Milosevic early this year, with each side trading accusations of corruption, and even of plotting coups d'etat.


In the unlikely event of an early election, polls confirm Kostunica would get more votes than his rival. The DSS is expected to win 21 per cent of the vote compared to 18 per cent for Djindjic's DS and 11 per cent for Milosevic's Socialists. The two small nationalist parties would get 6 per cent each.


Miroslav Labus, Yugoslavia's deputy premier and an economic expert, said a possible solution might lie in a new compromise between Djindjic and Kostunica, under which Djindjic would offer DSS ministries in the Serbian government.


International pressure has also had some effect. After President Chirac's visit to Belgrade, Djindjic's men toned down their rhetoric. Threats by Cedomir Jovanovic, head of the DOS parliamentary group, to exclude the DSS from the coalition, gave way to vaguer pronouncements from other DOS officials, which Djindjic endorsed.


In the meantime, much needed reforms are on hold, jeopardising vital foreign investment. The country faces a multitude of unsolved economic problems over privatisation and the huge foreign debt, compounded by thorny political squabbles over cooperation with The Hague tribunal and Serbia's relations with Montenegro, the smaller of the two partners in the Yugoslav federation.


Labus warned on December 7 that political stability was "a prerequisite" for pushing ahead with economic reforms, adding that he trusted the DOS parties would "redefine the coalition agreement and give at least another year to the current government". It remains to be seen what Kostunica's party will do now. Regardless of the outcome of the conflict within DOS, the main losers are Serbia's citizens.


Daniel Sunter is IWPR Assistant Editor in Belgrade.


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