Serbia: Apathy Rules

Three years on from the departure of Slobodan Milosevic as president of Yugoslavia, his Serb heartland is beset by corruption, crime and painful economic transition. If anything, the political situation is worse: three attempts to elect a president have failed. Now voters must choose a new parliament.

The World Today Updated 18 June 2020 Published 1 January 2004 4 minute READ

The elections on December 28 follow the disintegration of the once broad-based governing coalition; and come hard on the heels of a resurgence in support for ultra-nationalists. There is growing concern among Serbia’s western partners as to whether Belgrade’s reform-minded parties will be able to put a viable coalition in place to take over from the dysfunctional government that has fallen apart.

Serbia marked the third anniversary of President Milosevic’s fall in October with a prolonged government crisis and then a constitutional vacuum. Attempts to preserve the increasingly fractious coalition failed and parliament was dissolved in November. Without a parliament, Serbia also lost its president. For nearly a year that post had been filled in an acting capacity by assembly speaker Natasa Micic.

Micic acquired her second job after two abortive efforts to elect a president in 2002. Each failed because the turnout was under the required fifty percent of the electorate. The third attempt last November produced a similar fiasco.

Bickering and corruption

The widespread electoral apathy is a result of several factors, most notably constant bickering among the political parties, corruption at all levels of the administration and the painful process of economic transition. These developments highlighted the widening gap between reform rhetoric and reality.

The governing coalition, still incongruously known by its Milosevic-era name as the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), tried to portray Serbia as moving towards prosperity through engagement with the European Union (EU). But progress was agonisingly slow, mainly because the political parties and factions spent too much time squabbling.

That infighting led to the collapse of the DOS and early elections. What is surprising, though, is not that polling is being held a year ahead of schedule, but that the coalition should have survived so long. The DOS was an alliance of eighteen heterogeneous parties. Its sole uniting principle was to get Milosevic out of power and thereby bring an end to Serbia’s semi-pariah status.

Last chance

Almost as soon as the DOS government got down to business, differences over the pace and extent of reform began to emerge. Arguments over policy were exacerbated by personality clashes. The governing coalition started to fray and then gradually tore itself apart.

Perhaps the last opportunity the rump DOS had to reshape as a viable political force was in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic last March. The murder, allegedly the work of Milosevic-era security agents and gangland bosses, prompted the authorities to launch a robust crackdown on organised crime.

The government’s assertiveness and unity proved immensely popular. Opinion polls showed a surge of support. But it missed its chance to inspire and test public backing either through a new programme or fresh elections. Thereafter, the malfunctioning engine of the political system began to run out of steam. The result was the exceptionally low turnout of just under 39 percent in November’s abortive presidential election.

The failure of that and the earlier two presidential ballots was not just the indirect result of politicians’ behaviour or the poor state of the economy. As active participants in a campaign to ‘stir up apathy’, the politicians have also themselves to blame – or, in some cases, congratulate.

In 2002 it was the DOS coalition that helped engineer the low turnout. Knowing that Vojislav Kostunica, who had beaten Milosevic in the Yugoslav presidential election of 2000, was the hot favourite, the governing parties did not put up their own candidate to run against Kostunica, whose conservative Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) had by then left the DOS administration.

With most DOS supporters staying away, Kostunica’s victory counted for nothing as the low turnout rendered the vote invalid. Instead, Micic, as parliament’s speaker, automatically became Serbia’s acting president at the beginning of last year. A few weeks later Kostunica lost his post as Yugoslavia’s head of state as it disappeared from the political map, to be succeeded by the loosely knit union of Serbia and Montenegro.

Forward to the past

This year it was Kostunica’s turn to repay his former allies in kind. By boycotting the November presidential polls he ensured a historically low turnout. The humiliation was even greater for the beleaguered DOS coalition when the highest number of votes went to Tomislav Nikolic, the candidate of the ultra-nationalist Radical party.

Nikolic is the Radicals’ acting leader while the party’s chairman, Vojislav Seselj, remains in custody, awaiting trial on war crimes charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

Once the most extreme nationalists in Serbia, in recent years the Radicals have toned down their rhetoric. They have added a more populist message, promising to keep prices down and increase pensions and benefits. But they have not abandoned their goal of a Greater Serbia; and have said they will not transfer any more war crimes suspects to the Tribunal.

The Radicals stand, in effect, for a policy of ‘forward to the past’ – back to Milosevic’s confrontational politics of the 1990s. That has led to concern among Serbia’s neighbours and partners – the more so because they may emerge with the largest number of votes, in the process taking support from the Socialists, whose list is headed from his cell in The Hague by a largely discredited Milosevic.

However, the three mainstream pro-reform parties – from which a new government is expected to emerge – have indicated that they will not form a coalition with the Radicals. As one centrist politician put it, the Radicals ‘are like a uranium rod which no one will want to touch.’ The strongest of these three parties is likely to be Kostunica’s DSS, a centre-right grouping with a moderate nationalist agenda which has been cautious in pursuing reforms.

The main challenge to the DSS will come from the Democratic party (DS) of the late Djindjic. The centrist DS was the largest party in the outgoing coalition, and will lead an electoral list that includes three like-minded, pro-western parties. Under Boris Tadic, now its leading figure, the DS has excluded several of its prominent officials who have become associated in the public mind with the politics of manipulation and corruption. The pragmatic DS may benefit from a sympathy vote: the trial of Djindjic’s alleged killers is due to start on the eve of the election.

The third of the once allied major pro-reform parties is the G17 Plus group of technocrats, many of whose leading figures are economists who trained or worked in the west. In terms of policies, G17 Plus has much in common with the DS. However, the two have been at loggerheads since Miroljub Labus, the G17 Plus leader and the government’s presidential candidate in last year’s election, failed to get the DS’s wholehearted support. G17 Plus left the government and became one of the most vociferous critics of corruption.

Now it is competing with the DS for support among the better educated, better off and liberal minded urbanites. That is one reason why G17 Plus is interested in allying itself with Kostunica’s more traditionalist and nationalist DSS: the two parties’ constituencies are complementary. But any future coalition could run aground on policy differences – not least over the union with Montenegro.

Marriage on the rocks

The union, as Yugoslavia’s replacement, was designed to stop Montenegro’s moves towards full independence. Kostunica, who sacrificed his post as president of Yugoslavia to salvage some kind of ongoing relationship, remains strongly attached to the arrangement. By contrast, the more hardnosed technocrats of G17 Plus have had doubts from the very beginning about the economic benefits for Serbia of a continuing link with Montenegro, which is only one-sixteenth the size. More recently the party has come out in favour of the two republics going their separate ways.

The future of the union with Montenegro has not been a key political issue in Serbia itself. The Belgrade political establishment’s self-absorption has meant that the creation of a single market and a coordinated trade policy is behind schedule. That has encouraged Montengrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and his supporters, who are looking forward to holding an independence referendum once the three-year ‘trial marriage’ with Serbia comes up for review.

The slow progress of harmonisation with Montenegro has delayed the start of talks with the EU on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement – the first step towards eventual membership. The EU has invested much time and energy in keeping Serbia and Montenegro together to halt further fragmentation of the Balkans, including the drift towards independence in Kosovo. It remains disappointed with the current level of cooperation.

Belgrade is aware that it needs to speak with one voice and act in a single-minded way to promote the reform agenda, if it is to forge closer links with the EU. Without that the prospect of economic improvement will remain a distant dream. Piecemeal reforms – however successful in some aspects – will not satisfy an increasingly disgruntled electorate.

The challenge facing politicians emerging from the ruins of the DOS alliance is how they can work together after the often bitter experiences of the past three years. Fewer small parties – several of which are not expected to pass the five percent threshold to enter parliament – will reduce the complexity of political manoeuvring. But Serbia’s democratic system can only function smoothly if at least some of the main pro-reform parties are willing to show a greater sense of compromise.