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

Serbian Reformer's Win Could Spur Progress

The election victory of Boris Tadic is likely to kick-start reforms in Serbia – if his pact with Kostunica survives.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Boris Tadic’s victory in the June 27 presidential election in Serbia will boost the country’s flagging reform programme and stabilise the political situation, according to many observers.


The pro-western leader of the Democratic Party, DS, defeated Tomislav Nikolic, deputy leader of the hard-line nationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, in the second round of the elections, taking just over 53 per cent of the vote compared with 45 per cent for Nikolic.


Nikolic conceded defeat the same evening, defusing the likelihood of SRS extremists resorting to violence to express their dissatisfaction.


The victory, welcomed by European Union representatives, has been given a euphoric welcome in Belgrade, as marking the resumption of Serbia’s stalled march towards European integration.


Despite the fact that Serbia’s road to EU membership will be long and difficult, analysts agree that Tadic’s victory has helped the country take a significant step forward.


The change, they agree, will strongly encourage the government of prime minister Vojislav Kostunica to persist with reforms.


During his campaign, Tadic made it clear he wanted to break with the conflicts which have dogged Serbia’s moderate, pro-democratic parties. He said voters yearned for stability and were tired of going to the polls – this was Serbia’s fourth attempt to elect a president in under two years.


By contrast, Nikolic used his election rallies to topple Kostunica’s government and call a new parliamentary election.


Tadic’s pledge to build consensus within the pro-democracy bloc was backed by last-minute negotiations with his rival Kostunica. In just a few days, in between the first and second rounds, an alliance was forged which resulted in Kostunica throwing his weight behind the reformer in the second round.


Sources close to Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, told IWPR there were two elements to the agreement they reached.


In return for Kostunica’s support in the election, Tadic’s Democratic Party, DS, pledged to back the DSS-led government, without actually joining it. That backing will last at least until a new constitution is in place – a draft is expected at the end of the year – after which a general election has to be called. Most Belgrade analysts expect the election to happen either in December this year or in February 2005.


Tadic’s election deal appears to go some way towards repairing the damage done by long-running internecine strife between parties that formerly belonged to the Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition which ousted Slobodan Milosevic four years ago.


The conflict was fiercest between Kostunica’s DSS and the DS, led by Zoran Djindjic until he was assassinated in March 2003. The wrangling continued after Tadic became DS leader in February 2004, mainly because of a dispute on the role the DS should play in the DSS-led government.


The main beneficiary of this disunity was the ultra-nationalist Radical Party. Marginalised as a Milosevic ally in 2000, the party bounced back in the December 2003 election to become the largest party represented in parliament.


Boris Tadic’s victory could stop the SRS in its tracks, assuming he and Kostunica sustain their policy of cooperation, analysts say.


“Tadic advocated a non-conflictive policy of collaboration, which may be why he won,” said Slobodan Antonic, a sociology professor at Belgrade University.


The other boost to the cause of reform is Tadic’s decision not to dissolve the Kostunica cabinet, which has found itself in a very difficult position after its own candidate was roundly defeated in the first round of voting.


By supporting the current government, Tadic can use his credentials to spur on reforms, analysts say. Both DS and DSS see closer ties with the European Union as a priority.


“Tadic won’t rock the government,” said Vladimir Goati, a political analyst with the Centre for Political Studies and Public Opinion Research.


The centre's director, Ljiljana Bacevic, agreed, “There is no friction between the government and the president, and that means the country will be able to concentrate on overcoming the years of constitutional crisis.”


However, Goati noted that the new era of “cohabitation” will have a decidedly “presidential aroma” to it, given Tadic’s new political strength and the weakened position of the government.


Tadic’s rise has been boosted by the international community, which regards him with favour, as someone who can fill the gap left by Djindjic’s death. All the major Western countries welcomed his election win, some of them effusively, as a sign that Serbia had opted conclusively for reform and abandoned regressive nationalism.


The moment victory was declared on Sunday, Christina Gallach, spokeswoman for the EU foreign and security policy chief Javier Solana, told the Belgrade media, “The EU is determined to very explicitly back reforms in Serbia and its association with Europe.”


The high international rating of the president-elect is widely seen as a boost to Serbia’s standing abroad, after a year in which it drifted ever further away from the EU orbit following Djindjic’s murder.


If the pact between the reformists does hold, Serbia may make major progress on key reforms by the end of the year.


One of the first steps may be the extradition of some Serb generals who have been indicted by the Hague war crimes tribunal. Sources close to the government have told IWPR that Tadic and Kostunica are planning a “Croatian scenario” – persuading key indictees to surrender voluntarily to the tribunal, sparing the government the shame and potential domestic turmoil that forcing them onto planes bound for the Netherlands would entail.


But not all analysts paint an entirely rosy picture of the future, even if the current pact between reformist forces holds good.


Slobodan Antonic warns that the narrow margin by which Tadic won is a sign that Serbian society is dividing into two almost equally-sized parts - a more successful pro-reform segment and a poorer, anti-reform constituency.


That could create a scenario where the Radicals recruit more support from the expanding pool of those defined as “transition losers”.


“Any aggravation of the situation threatens to divide society further and turn Serbia into a divided, non-prosperous society, such as Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia,” said Antonic.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor in Belgrade.