It’ll be Serbia’s choice when the sulking stops

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — The rhetoric before the Serbian parliamentary election May 11 was ugly enough, but it has gotten worse since. President Boris Tadic spun the outcome as a victory for the pro-European Union forces when only half the votes were counted, which served his purposes as he is also the leader of the main pro-EU party, the Democratic Party.

But when all the votes were counted it turned out that 48 percent of Serbs had voted anti-EU, and only 44 percent pro-EU. (The rest voted for various small ethnic-minority parties.)

This doesn’t mean that the anti-EU, pro-Moscow forces will actually form the next government, because 30 parties ran in the elections and many different coalitions are theoretically possible.

Negotiations between the parties are getting quite complicated, which is why President Tadic complained about “sickening postelection mathematics (that) betray the will of the citizens and dramatically change the strategic course of the country.”

In other words, he fears that his side may not form the winning coalition.

The swing party whose choice will ultimately decide the shape of the next government is the Socialist Party, once the political vehicle of strongman Slobodan Milosevic, whose pan-Serbian ambitions plunged former Yugoslavia into a decade of war.

Since Milosevic died — while on trial for war crimes before the United Nations tribunal at The Hague — the Socialists have been trying to reposition their party, but their deepest instincts are certainly anti-EU. For the moment, the Socialists are talking about a coalition with the ultra-nationalist Radical Party (whose leader, Vojislav Seselj, is currently on trial at The Hague on war crimes charges) and the rightwing Serbian Democrats.

All three parties dislike the EU, admire Russia, refuse to accept the independence of Kosovo and will not surrender war criminals to the Hague tribunal. So you’d think it would be an easy deal to strike, but it’s not.

As Tadic put it, a socialist-nationalist coalition would probably be “a short trip on the Titanic.” A country with a stagnant economy and 18 percent unemployment really needs the influx of aid and investment that the EU can provide and Russia cannot.

Moreover, some of the Socialists, whose 20 seats in Parliament are indispensable to any coalition, want to remake their party as a modern, moderate leftwing party that would not be out of place in any EU member country.

That ambition would incline them toward a coalition deal with Tadic’s Democratic Party, which is why the Radical Party leader recently warned Tadic to keep his party’s “Mafioso, thieving, criminal” hands off the talks between the extreme nationalist parties and the Socialists.

It really isn’t possible to predict how long the horse-trading will last, or what kind of Serbian government will emerge from these negotiations. The only safe prediction is that the next government will indulge in much wishful thinking (or just plain hypocrisy) about Kosovo.

Kosovo province was the cradle of Serbian nationhood in early medieval times, but now 90 percent of its 2 million people are Muslim Albanians who would rather die than live under Serbian rule. Serbia lost Kosovo nine years ago, after Milosevic’s savage repression there caused NATO and the EU to wage a brief war to force Serbian troops out, and its formal independence early this year was inevitable (although illegal under international law).

It’s over: Kosovo is not coming back. But no Serbian politician can publicly admit this and survive, so even Tadic, who wants Serbia to join the EU, must pretend that getting Kosovo back is a condition of membership. Serbia’s wound is admittedly fresher, but it’s as if Mexican elections were dominated by the question of how to get California back, or German elections by the lost provinces of Silesia and East Prussia.

The EU really wants Serbia to join, not because it has any great economic or strategic value but because if the nationalist fever struck there again it could still destabilize the whole Balkans. Just before the election Brussels signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement (the first step toward EU membership) with the caretaker government in Belgrade to show Serbian voters that they really were welcome in Europe. But the EU will not yield on its demand that Serbia hand the war criminals over, which may queer the whole deal.

Many Serbs believe that their alternative is a close relationship with Moscow, which is outraged by the West’s disregard for international law. Russians do have a genuine emotional attachment to Serbia, so the word “friendship” is not entirely out of place.

But great powers do not have friends; they have interests — and Russia’s interests do not include getting into a major confrontation with the West over Serbia. It will be sympathetic to Serbia, but not very helpful.

So there is no crisis. Serbia will get a pro-EU government that gets on with negotiating the country’s membership, or it will get a socialist-nationalist coalition that takes “a short trip on the Titanic.” But even the Serbs are not ready for another war, so it will be a purely Serbian shipwreck — and then there will be another election (the ninth since 2000) and they will try to get the right answer again.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.