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9 May 2008

Serbia’s divided society

Ahead of elections in Serbia on Sunday, Eric Gordy explains that the country going to the polls is s

By Eric Gordy

The elections on Sunday will be make-or-break for Serbia’s effort to find a path toward membership in the European Union. The elections take place in the context of radicalised perspectives over the independence of Kosovo, a confusing melange of carrots and sticks coming from EU countries, and a society which continues to be about equally divided between those looking hopefully toward a European future and those looking vengefully back to the recent past.

President Boris Tadic, leader of the Democratic Party (DS), barely squeaked through to reelection against Tomislav Nikolic, leader of the ultraright Serbian Radical Party (SRS) in the presidential elections in February. His critics on the left in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) sat out the second round, and his coalition partner on the right in the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) did the same. High turnout fuelled by fear of a restoration of the Milosevic regime provided the margin that put him over the top.

But he has little popular mandate to speak of. He presides over a divided society, governed by a coalition that has fallen apart and a parliament so fractious it is unable to function. He will need a strong majority in parliament to find a way past Serbia’s political crisis and move forward on his project for quick accession of Serbia to the European Union. Although there is some chance that the pro-European coalition might squeak through once more, from today’s perspective it does not look probable that he will get what he needs.

What has changed since the February presidential election?

In the first place, the declaration of independence by Kosovo has sharpened Serbia’s already severely polarised political environment. The violent riots that followed the declaration were the work of a small group of hooligans, but the police passivity that allowed the violence to turn into looting, vandalism and arson was a matter of policy. And the sentiments that the hooligans exploited are widespread.

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In the second place, the question of prime minister Vojislav Kostunica’s political identity has been resolved. Ever since he emerged as major political player under the sponsorship of the late Zoran Djindjic in 2000, as a candidate from outside the Milosevic regime but far enough to the right to be palatable to Milosevic supporters, it was never entirely clear whether Mr Kostunica’s basic sentiments lay with the “democratic bloc” or with the nationalist right. The lack of clarity held benefits for Mr Kostunica: he has been forming coalitions with the democrats but flirting with the right for years. But the independence of Kosovo has spurred him to consummate the relationship. The most reasonable expectation is that his small party will try to form a coalition with Mr Nikolic’s Radicals, and that Kostunica will carry on as the figurehead prime minister of an ultraright government.

Public opinion surveys ahead of the election show Mr Tadic’s European bloc and the Radicals running about even. This means that the balance of power will be in the hands of smaller parties. Mr Kostunica needs a good enough showing to make possible a coalition between his party and the Radicals. But he is not the only player: both the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led by Djindjic loyalists, and Mr Milosevic’s old Socialist Party (SPS) are likely to come in with strong fourth-place finishes. Whether the parties of the Hungarian, Bosnjak and Roma minorities will control enough seats to figure as players depends on turnout in the regions where they are popular.

European Union states have rather heavy-handedly indicated the outcome that they prefer. The democratic coalition may score some points from the hurried signing of a stabilisation agreement last week, and from the pointed gesture by seventeen states to ease visa restrictions this week. But the strategy comes with risks. Serbian citizens are equally probable to regard these gestures as bribery or interference, and politicians on the right have made some headway in portraying agreements with the EU as a sacrifice of national interests. Surveys show a meaningful plurality of people favouring closer ties with the EU, but there is a less measurable factor of reservation and suspicion.

Whoever comes out ahead in Sunday’s election will find themselves faced with the need to form uneasy alliances, and will confront suspicion and contempt on the part of nearly half the population. This is a moment to hope for the best, fear the worst, and expect little.

Eric Gordy is senior Lecturer and director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies of University College

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