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

Waiting for the Winner

The people of Serbia may have overthrown a dictatorship, but change still seems a long way off.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

"We've ousted Milosevic, but you can't eat freedom," complains Milan Andrejevic, a 44-year-old factory worker from Belgrade. "Nor can you eat the squabbling between Djindjic and Kostunica."


Andrejevic's bitter words are typical of reactions to the escalating political tensions in Serbia. On August 17, Vojislav Kostunica, Yugoslav president and leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia, withdrew two of his party's ministers from the Serbian government headed by Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.


The crisis, which has rumbled on for months, erupted as a result of a feud over control of the police. The dispute has been accompanied by spiralling accusations of corruption and malfeasance.


Kostunica's removal of the two ministers carries no immediate consequences, as Djindjic still holds a large enough majority in the Serbian parliament to remain as premier. But, as labourers like Andrejevic recognise, the continued squabbling will only further delay reforms essential to get the Serbian economy moving again.


"This is really selfish. I cannot afford to buy schoolbooks for my children and they are fighting," said a disillusioned shop assistant in a Belgrade supermarket. "This makes me very depressed. I am not cheering for anyone."


Most people seem to recognise the political calculations behind Kostunica's move. The president does not have the strength to overthrow Djindjic's government or even to force major change - to do so would require the president to make an alliance with Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party, Vojislav Seselj's Radicals as well as with the Party of Serbian Unity, founded by the late gangster and former paramilitary leader Zeljko ("Arkan") Raznatovic. This is something Kostunica would not contemplate.


Instead, the president is seeking to procure more places in Djindjic's cabinet for his party. If Djindjic does not accept, Kostunica would press for fresh elections, and seek to tar his rival's administration as corrupt and a failure.


Reform is essential in a country still bearing the heavy burden of Milosevic's legacy. A decade of isolation, wars, fiscal mismanagement and, finally, the NATO bombing, left the country's economy in shambles. But vital foreign aid and investment is being delayed by the instability of the political stand-off.


Most aid received so far has gone to social programmes, while nothing has been allocated to the economy. No one is eager to invest in a country burdened with such an unstable government.


Sources close to the influential G17 group of Yugoslav economic experts say 60 per cent of donations received have been used to pay for last winter's electricity. There is no talk at present of investment.


Referring to the Kostunica-Djindjic struggle, a senior figure in the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia told IWPR, "Those close to the government in Belgrade are unanimous in their opinion that help has not yet arrived because the West is waiting to see who's the winner".


Aleksandar Djordjevic, press officer of the European Union office in Belgrade, told B-92 radio on August 21 that the crisis would not jeopardise the donation of 230 million euros Brussels has granted to Yugoslavia.


But other donations and foreign investments are at risk.


The same day Djindjic told Serbian state television that several European prime ministers had expressed confidence in his government despite the on-going crisis, but warned that their support might not last.


On Monday, Nebojsa Medojevic, a Podgorica-based associate of G17, said on Voice of America that "international investors are not going to invest so easily in a country with such an unstable political and legal system".


Medojevic outlined the dilemma: Djindjic is more of a modern, pro-European politician than Kostunica, but he "has lots of connections with the figures from the underworld and crime".


The Yugoslav president, on the other hand, "prefer[s] nationalistic ideologies while supporting a legal state and legality". The world is waiting, Medojevic concluded, to see whether the "Kosovo myth" (Kostunica) or "Colombia myth" (Djindjic) comes out on top.


Meanwhile most Serbs are worse off now than during the Milosevic era. The economy is virtually dormant, waiting for foreign investments.


Unemployment, currently at 850,000, could soon reach 1 million in a country of only 10 million people. The government has warned it may have to sack workers from state-owned giants such as the Zastava car factory in Kragujevac.


In the eleven months since Milosevic's fall, average prices have risen by 130 per cent. Average salaries meanwhile have gone up from 80 to 180 German marks. Bread, the cornerstone of the Serbian diet, has gone up by five times, while the cost of electricity has doubled.


The general impression is that the new government, consumed with internal rivalries, has done little to push through change. The Milosevic apparatus has yet to be demolished.


Medojevic believes the government made a mistake by not moving immediately to dismantle the Milosevic regime. "During the first six months, the government was more interested in self-advertising," he says.


Ambitious announcements outlining reforms have failed to produce results. The police, for example, have yet to make headway in solving the numerous political assassinations carried out during Milosevic's time - and killings have continued.


Some Milosevic cronies, whose criminal activity ran parallel to their political closeness with the former leader, have been arrested. But so-called "apolitical" criminals roam free.


Otpor ("resistance"), the movement behind the famous "He's Finished" sticker popular during Milosevic's last months in power, have come up with a new version dedicated to the feuding Djindjic and Kostunica. It reads: "They're Finished Too".


But for Djindjic and Kostunica to be "finished" Serbian voters need a viable alternative and none has yet appeared.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is a journalist with the Sarajevo-based weekly Dani.