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Balkan commentator Richard Cowper says the result of this Sunday’s Serbian poll is too close to call and fears that deep splits within the country and its political parties may force the nation to hold yet another general election in the Autumn. May 9th.

Deeply divided nation makes outcome of bitter Serb general election uncertain

By Richard Cowper in Belgrade*

This Sunday (May 11) Serbia goes to the polls in what has been billed as the most crucial election in the Balkan state since voters ejected the much-reviled strongman Slobodan Milosevic from power just over seven years ago.

The election matters because the outcome could well decide whether Serbia opts to take a steady path towards reforming its outdated socialist-style economy and joining the European Union or whether it is likely to remain mired in the past, obsessed with dreams of regaining lost lands and once again forced to rely on forging close links with Moscow.

The nation is deeply split, however, and the poll could well end in a dead heat between the two main parties, ushering in yet another period of political and economic uncertainty.

Some political analysts fear that even forming a governing coalition might be so difficult that a new election will have to be held, possibly in November.

Says Zoran Stanojevic of the Serbian Broadcasting Corporation and a highly-respected long-time observer of the political scene: “The country just cannot make up its mind. After two months of acrimonious campaigning the outcome is completely unclear. The two main parties are neck-and-neck and no-one has any real idea who will form the next government. There might well have to be another election in the autumn.”

This is nothing new. Since Milosevic was voted out of power in September 2000 Serbs have been plagued by uncertainty and poor governance, recording eight parliamentary and presidential elections, many either invalid or inconclusive. The country has so far been unable to adjust to the loss of its role as the leading nation in the former Yugoslavia. These divisions turned to fresh tragedy in 2003 when Zoran Djindic, their most widely acclaimed leader since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, was assassinated.

It is hardly more than twelve months since the last parliamentary election brought together a fragile ruling coalition between President Boris Tadic's pro-Western, pro-EU, Democratic Party (DS) and the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), led by prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, a once pragmatic old-style nationalist, who favours much closer ties with Russia and a less conciliatory attitude to the EU and the West.

This coalition collapsed into seemingly irreparable acrimony three months ago following the unilateral declaration of independence on February 17 by the former southern Serbian province of Kosovo and its subsequence recognition by over 30 nations, including the US and leading EU states.

The precise election outcome matters a great deal because if a governing coalition is led by Tomislav Nikolic and his ultra-right Serbian Radical Party (SRS) - projected to secure around a third of the vote - the likelihood is that Serbia will find its path to EU membership firmly blocked and its new leader will turn the country towards Russia and away from President Boris Tadic’s pro-western policies. Depending on his coalition partners, even a government led by Mr Kostunica, may find it hard to comply with Brussels’ EU entry requirements.

Brussels has made it a firm condition of Serb EU entry that it hands over Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, two alleged war criminals, to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague. But Mr Nikolic, a former overseer of cemeteries - who refers to himself as the "Undertaker" has made it clear that he will never turn either man in.

Despite a surprisingly interventionist effort by Brussels to actively focus Serbian parties and voters’ minds on its offer of fresh incentives to join the EU sometime in the next decade, the main election battleground has once again been the nightmare from the past, that was Kosovo. It was this very issue which provoked the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) to bomb Belgrade in 1999, and then occupy the region with over 16,000 Nato troops.

Kosovo’s decision on February 17 this year to unilaterally declare its independence from Belgrade after nine years of being run by a United Nations administration caused a storm of protest and heartache throughout Serbia. It deepened the split between old-style nationalists and democrats in the ruling coalition and led to the demise of the government just a few weeks later.

The emotive battle over a region, 90% of whose inhabitants are Kosovan Muslims who do not want to be part of Serbia, helped to undermine what many had hoped was a steady progress towards becoming a full member of the EU. Brussels is keen to take on a leading role in smoothing Kosovo’s path to full independent status in the United Nations, and will at the very least expect Belgrade not to embark on any dangerous adventures in its former province.

But right-wing Serbian ultra-nationalists from groups such as the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and the Serbian Socialist Party (SPS) have all jumped on the Kosovo bandwagon, projecting it as the loss of the "indisputable cultural and religious heartland" of the Serbian nation.

It was the centrepiece of caretaker prime-minister Kostunica’s slick election campaign. At a rally earlier this week in Republic square with rousing partisan songs, drums and fireworks Mr Kostunica said: “They are asking us to give up Kosovo..They are asking us to give up what we are. They say it is good for Serbia, but it is a lie. It is treason. If we lose Kosovo, we can only be a caravan of gypsies and we are not a caravan of gypsies. We are a respected nation”.

Violent and emotional rhetoric over Kosovo diverted attention in the election away from fundamental questions for Serbia’s future over how to boost jobs, increase investment, and speed up the transition from the old-style socialist economy in a nation where official joblessness is 18% and salaries are often barely enough to live on.

Just a day before a potential 6.7m Serbs vote the most recent poll shows that the result is too close to call. Calculated in percentage terms the old-style nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), led by Tomislav Nikolic, is supported by 32% of the electorate, with President Boris Tadic’s pro-European Union Democratic Party (DS) supported by 31%.

Caretaker prime-minister Vojislav Kostunica’s DSS group is forecast to win 12%, with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) gaining 5% and former president Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) coming in with 4% - not enough to cross the 5% threshold to enter parliament. Other minority parties make up the remaining 11%.

Few commentators are prepared to predict which party will actually lead Serbia’s next government or who will be the country’s next prime-minister. The CeSID survey showed Mr Tadic as the most trusted politician with 25 points, followed by Mr Nikolic with 20 and Mr Kostunica with 10 points, but who will become PM is down to which parties manage to agree to get together to form a viable coalition. Much will depend on hard-nosed horsetrading over cabinet and state company positions in the aftermath of the results due to be announced early next week.

The very real possibility of a virtual tie in votes for the two main parties means that any one of three minor groups - Mr Kostunica’s DSS, Cedomir Jovanovic’s LDP or Ivica Dacid’s Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) – may end up being able to act as kingmaker. Who, if any, this will be is as yet unclear.


*Richard Cowper is an economist and foreign policy expert, who worked for the Financial Times of London for 30 years. He can be contacted by email at