Will the Real Serbia Please Stand Up?
Europe Briefing N°49
23 Apr 2008
Kosovo’s independence declaration on 17 February 2008 sent shock waves through Serbia’s politics and society, polarising the former in a manner not seen since the Milosevic era. Rioting led to attacks on nine Western embassies, destruction of foreign property and massive looting. The government fell on 10 March, split over whether to pursue a nationalist or pro-Western path. Belgrade’s efforts to create a de facto partitioning of the north of Kosovo threaten the new state’s territorial integrity and challenge deployment of European Union (EU) missions there, and Serbian parliamentary and local elections on 11 May are unlikely to change the basic policy towards the new state, even in the unlikely event a pro-Western government comes to power. They may, however, well give Serbia’s nationalist parties new leverage.
The election campaign is heated. Verbal attacks have increased against opposition parties, independent media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that disagree with the hardline nationalist policy on Kosovo. After the polls, one of two main scenarios is likely, since no party will win enough votes to form a government alone. Nationalists from the Serb Radical Party (SRS) could form a coalition with the “People’s Bloc” led by Premier Vojislav Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and the late dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s old Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS).
If nationalist forces win, Euro-Atlantic integration will come to a halt, and Serbia will enhance its ties with Russia. They will support a more belligerent response in Kosovo, and Kosovo Serbs’ use of low-level violence. They may encourage Republika Srpska to leave Bosnia-Herzegovina and meddle in Macedonian internal affairs. A backlash against pro-Western parties and their supporters and an increased climate of media repression can be expected. Uncertainty will lead to a fall in foreign direct investment and economic growth.
Alternatively, pro-Western forces might form a weak government, but only with the support of nationalists, such as the DSS or SPS. Serbia could then anticipate the same kind of domestic instability it experienced under the outgoing government. If the more pro-Western Democratic Party (DS) tried to chart an openly pro-EU course, it would face the type of obstruction and opposition that led to Premier Zoran Djindjic’s assassination in 2003.
At best, the EU and U.S. will have limited influence for many months, until a new government is formed, which may not be until September or later. Meanwhile, the public anger over Western support for Kosovo’s independence is such that any attempt to pressure or even induce Belgrade into more cooperation risks strengthening the nationalist vote. Brussels and Washington would be well served to lower levels of rhetorical support for the more pro-Western Democratic Party (DS) of President Boris Tadic, G17+ and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and end interference in the campaign via promises of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA).
More specifically, in this pre-election period the EU and the U.S. should:
stop intervening directly in support of one or another political force;
not sign an SAA unless Serbia gives full cooperation to the International
Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY); and
offer increased support to civil society.
Belgrade/Pristina/Brussels, 23 April 2008