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Balkan commentator Richard Cowper in Belgrade says Serbia has finally got its act together and formed a new government with former finance minister Mirko Cvetkovic as prime minister

West breathes an audible sigh of relief as Serbia forms new pro-EU coalition government

AFTER months of uncertainty and political bickering Serbian politicians have at last got their act together and formed a pragmatic 11-party coalition government with the clear intent of joining the European Union as quickly as possible.

President Boris Tadic, whose pro-Western Democratic Party (DS) will be in the driving seat in a surprising alliance with the country’s socialist party (SPS) and a number of independents, has secured his choice of Mirko Cvetkovic, a technocrat, as prime-minister.

Ivica Dacic, the leader of former right-wing strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s Socialist Party, will become Mr Cvetkovic's deputy as well as the new interior minister, putting the socialists in charge of the police and state security. The once staunch-nationalist party also secured the potentially lucrative infrastructure and energy ministries.

In his address to the Serbian parliament announcing his 27-member cabinet Mr Cvetkovic said his government would work towards a European future, but would not accept the independence of Kosovo, the former southern Serbian province, which unilaterally declared its independence from Belgrade on February 17 this year.

Moscow, Serbia’s ally in the dispute over Kosovo in a divided United Nations Security Council, wants to move quickly forward with an oil and gas deal held up by the election and in his speech Mr Cvetkovic said one of Belgrade’s first acts would be to ratify this strategic energy agreement, which would give majority ownership of the Serbian state-owned oil refining company to Russia’s Gazprom in return for the routing of a gas pipeline to the European Union across Serbia.

Mr Cvetkovic made it clear his other major priority would be Europe. “One of the first moves of the new government will be to submit the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) to parliament for ratification,” the prime-minister said.

The formation of a pro-EU government looking ahead to a positive future as part of Europe, came as an immense relief to western nations and other countries in the Balkans such as Kosovo and Montenegro which had feared a fresh bout of instability in the region if a three-sided right-wing coalition led by Vojislav Kostunica of the Democratic Socialist Party (DSS) had come to power.

Prime-minister in the previous two governments Mr Kostunica, had become increasingly nationalist and anti-European over the last twelve months and many feared if he was elected for a third time the country could have moved significantly closer to Moscow.

However Mr Tadic and Mr Cvetkovic still have a lot to prove - particularly in ridding the country of a corrupt political system and speeding up deep reforms to the economy – but the alternative right-wing nationalist coalition, it was feared, could have set Serbia back years.

The West will be particularly pleased at the appointment of Mr Cvetkovic as premier. He is a technocrat who has built most of his career in economic and financial institutions, in the World Bank and in Serbia. A doctor of economic science, he may find the rough and tumble of Serb politics less than easy, but his primary focus and determination to improve the country’s economic performance will leave Mr Tadic playing the clear dominant political role in the new government.

Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, quickly welcomed the new government, saying that he looked forward “to working closely with Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic and his colleagues” and he hoped Belgrade would speedily “move forward with the promised European agenda”.

“It is now up to Serbia to make the vision of its European future a practical reality. The EU will fully support Serbia in this endeavour,” Mr Solana said.

The political colour of the new government in Belgrade seemed to be touch and go for almost two months. It was only at the end of June – almost eight weeks after the country went to the polls and after constant political horsetrading - that Mr Tadic's pro-Western bloc finally secured an unlikely alliance with the tiny Socialist Party of the much-reviled Milosevic, who led his country into a series of four disastrous wars in the 1990s.

The SPS held the key to the reins of power because it had won just enough seats in the May 11 poll to tip the balance in the 250-seat parliament in favour of whomsoever it chose.

The decision of the 20-seat socialist SPS to link up with Mr Tadic’s pro-western bloc along with support from a number of independents, should enable Mr Cvetkovic to lead a viable pro-EU ruling coalition with a majority on most uncontroversial issues.

A stable coalition is however by no means a certainty. Yesterday, for example, the new government and cabinet was approved by just 127 MPs out of the 250-member parliament.

Mr Cvetkovic had announced that his government would have 24 ministries (see cabinet list in column 1), one minister without portfolio, one vice premier and three deputies – but many MPs felt this cabinet was too large, too expensive and too unwieldy. The reason for this was that Serbia's new government is essentially made up of three coalitions comprising a total of 11 parties. All of them had to be rewarded for their participation.

The largest among them, the Democrats (DS), who proposed Mr Cvetkovic for office although he is not formally a party member, took part in the May 11 elections under the name, "For a European Serbia" and along with four other parties: G17 Plus, the League of Vojvodina Social Democrats (LSV), the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) and the Sandžak Democratic Party (SDP).

The Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) had a pre-election coalition of its own, which included the Associated Pensioners Party (PUPS) and United Serbia (JS).

The ticket dubbed "Bosniak List for a European Sandžak", now part of the new ruling coalition, is made up of the Sandžak Reformists, the Bosniak Democratic Party, and the Party of Democratic Action (SDA). The liberal party is not a formal member of the coalition, but is likely to vote with it on most uncontroversial issues.

The SPS was keen to cast off its reputation as the backward-looking party of Milosevic, the right-wing nationalist, who died in disgrace in 2006 while on trial for war crimes at The Hague. The party hopes that a responsible performance in government over the next few years will help revive its fortunes.

Mr Cvetkovic and Mr Tadic, who say Serbia’s signing of the EU Stabilization and Association Agreement in May was of “historic importance, are likely to quickly attempt to move on to the next stage of the EU application process, which would probably involve Belgrade receiving candidate status.

Brussels will however expect to see greater efforts by Belgrade to co-operate with the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, in particular to help capture or track down the country’s two biggest alleged war criminals, Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military commander wanted on charges relating to the 1995 genocide in Srebenica and Radovan Karadzic, accused of having ordered the ethnic cleansing of thousands of Bosniaks.

This week Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of European Commission, was quick to urge the new Serbian premier “to build on recent positive developments by taking necessary steps to achieve full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia as rapidly as possible.”

The arrest earlier this month in Serbia of war crimes fugitive Stojan Župljanin was widely viewed as a good step in that direction, but the Netherlands in particular is adamant that the remaining suspects, must be brought to justice before the SAA is implemented.

Kosovo too could be a thorny issue. Brussels has made it clear it is determined to secure Kosovo’s full United Nations-approved independence as well as taking over the lead legal and political advisory role from the UN in the former Serb province. Belgrade’s new prime-minister, along with all Serb parties, has made it clear however that Serbia will never recognise its full independence.

Both the Democratic Party and Brussels have made conciliatory noises in the last few days. Mr Tadić said Belgrade would soon create an opportunity to begin “real talks on Kosovo’s future status that could lead to a compromise solution over its status”. Yesterday Mr Stephen Wordsworth, the UK ambassador in Belgrade, said “recognition of Kosovo’s independence was “not a condition for Serbia’s EU accession, because the EU itself was not united on the issue.

“Twenty EU members recognize Kosovo, seven do not and have no plans of doing so, at least not soon, so we cannot ask Serbia to do more than any other members are prepared to do,” Mr Wordsworth said. “Serbia will be expected, however, to find a practical way to cooperate with the EU and its mission to Kosovo,” the ambassador said, saying Serbia's stand on Kosovo had to be taken into account.

Reaching some form of true and lasting compromise on Kosovo is likely to be a difficult task, though Belgrade is expected to restore full diplomatic relations at an ambassador level soon with most of the 43 countries which have already recognised Kosovo’s independence. In the long term both sides may be forced simply to be pragmatic but accept that they will never be able to agree.

*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