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Balkan commentator Richard Cowper says the result of this Sunday’s Serbian poll seems set to result in a shock win for the pro-European Union bloc led by President Boris Tadic’s Democratic Party. May 11th.

Pro-European bloc heads for victory
after bitter Serb election


By Richard Cowper in Belgrade*

Serbian voters have reacted positively to a heavily interventionist political campaign from the European Union by voting the country’s main pro-EU Democrat Party into first place and, barring accidents, this should enable it to put together a coalition which can form the country’s next government.

The offer to make it easier and cheaper for Serbs to travel to Europe and the signing less than a week ago of an EU Stabilisation and Association agreement with ministers from the caretaker government appear to have really convinced voters that thier future was with the EU and not in a closer relationship with Russia.

Early this morning exit polls by the widely-respected Cestid polling agency showed that Mr Boris Tadic’s pro-Western, pro-EU, Democratic Party (DS), was set to get 39% of the votes (108 seats)with the old-style hardline nationalist Serbian Radical Party ( SRS), led by Tomislav Nikolic, forecast to win less than 30%, almost the complete reverse of what many analysts had expected.

Mr Tadic’s party is expected to ignore its previous partner, caretaker prime-minister Vojislav Kostunica’s DSS and opt to try and form a government with a rainbow coalition of small parties, including Cedomir Jovanovic’s Liberal Democrat Pary (LDP).The coalition requires 126 seats to win a majority in the 250-seat parliament.

“This is a shock result. A strong campaign by Brussels and leading EU countries to persuade Serbs that their future really was with Europe paid off. Many of us had feared the country was headed for a stalemate and another election or even an old-style nationalist as prime-minister,” said one long-time analyst of the Serb political scene.

Favourite for prime-minister is either former deputy Prime Minister Božidar Đelić of the DS or Mladan Dinkic, a former Minister of Finance from the minority G17 party.

The election had 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. It matters because the outcome will decide whether Serbia opts to continue reforming its outdated socialist-style economy and join the European Union or whether it is likely to remain mired in the past, obsessed with dreams of regaining lost lands and forced to rely on forging closer links with Moscow.

Despite the better than expected result by the pro-EU DS the nation remains deeply split and just how long the government will last is unclear.

"It has been a very unpleasant campaign and its not over yet," a senior western diplomat in Belgrade said yesterday. In my book the likelihood of the parties being unable to get their act together is quite high. A new election in the autumn is somewhere between possible to probable. For Serbia that would simply mean more wasted time."

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 Tadic's pro-Western, pro-EU, Democratic Party, DS, and the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, led by former 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 subsequent recognition by over 30 nations, including the US and leading EU states.

The election outcome mattered a great deal because if a governing coalition led by Tomislav Nikolic and his ultra-right Serbian Radical Party, SRS, had won Serbia might well have found find its path to EU membership firmly blocked and its new leader turning the country towards Russia.

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" always made it clear that he will never turn either man in.

The election campaign had been plagued debate over Kosovo, the former southern Serb province that provoked the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, to bomb Belgrade in 1999, and then occupy the disputed territory with over 16,000 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 territory, 90% of whose inhabitants are Kosovar Albanians 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, 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 former caretaker Prime Minister Kostunica’s slick DSS 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 threatened to diverted attention throughout the election away from fundamental questions for Serbia’s future over when to join the EU, 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.

But an aggressive campaign by EU leaders and organisations over the last month clearly tipped the balance away from right-wing radicals and nationalists who talked of sending troops to Kosovo and invited a series of Russian speakers to take part in their election drive.

Precisely which parties will form the next government in Belgrade is unclear and may not be known for several days. The incentive of securing jobs and money in the usual round of political horsetrading may bring together some strange bedfellows. Early this morning there was even talk that Ivica Dacic’s  Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, – Slobodan Milosevic’s old party – might even end up in the coalition.

*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 richard@richardcowper.com