Serbia: Close presidential election threatens government collapse

Stalled EU deal… status of Kosovo…crisis grows

By a narrow margin of just 51% of votes cast, Boris Tadic, Serbia’s pro-Western president, won re-election, beating his nationalist opponent, Tomislav Nikolic, a ‘pro-Russia’ candidate, who got 47%, in a run-off on 4 February. Just over 100,000 votes separated the two candidates, on a nearly 70% voter turnout. The EU and the US breathed a collective sigh of relief at the result and quickly congratulated their ally Tadic. But very soon the Western powers faced a setback, when Serbian Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, blocked plans to sign a political and economic deal with Brussels. Kostunica claimed signing the agreement, while the EU prepared to take over ‘administration’ of the southern breakaway Kosovo/Kosova, was tantamount to Serbia giving the go ahead for the majority ethnic-Albanian province’s independence. “The EU’s proposals to sign a political agreement with Serbia while at the same time sending a mission to break apart our state is a deception aimed at getting Serbia effectively to sign its agreement to Kosovo independence”, Kostunica remarked (International Herald Tribune (7/02/08).

While in public vehemently opposed to the “loss” of Kosovo, re-elected President Tadic calls for closer ties with the Western powers and backed the EU deal, which would “expand trade, ease visa restrictions and improve student exchanges between Serbia and the Union”. During the election campaign, Tadic said he was not prepared to “sacrifice” Serbia’s “European future”.

People angry at “rich with political connections”

Tadic’s Serbian Radical Party opponent, Boris Nikolic, used the election campaign to argue that Serbia must “punish” the West for its support for an independent Kosovo and for the country to turn to China and Russia for increased trade and economic ties.

By losing the race for president by only a small margin, Nikolic forced Prime Minister Kostunica to reflect more nationalist concerns amongst the population.

There are also underlying class reasons for the election outcome, albeit expressed in a confused way through the rise in support for the reactionary nationalist Radical Party. As the Economist magazine points out, “The election marked a big shift in Serbian politics. In the past support for the Radicals has been broadly steady. But by giving them a lot more votes this time, many Serbs…were opting for change, in part because they are so angry at the way in which people with political connections have become rich” (Economist, 9/02/08).

Although Kostunica was one of the opposition leaders who put himself at the fore of a mass protest movement that forced the removal of the former authoritarian, nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic from office in 2000, the current prime minister does not want to go down in history as the Serb leader who “lost Kosovo”. The issue is particularly sensitive in Serbia, at the moment, as many commentators expect Kosovan leaders to declare “independence” this month, with EU and US backing. Serb nationalists consider Kosovo the historic heartland of their culture and religion. Serbs are also concerned at the treatment the remaining Serb minority may get in an ‘independent’ majority Albanian Kosovo, given that large numbers of Kosovo Serbs were driven out of Kosovo by ethnic Albanian paramilitary forces after 1999.

On 4 February, the EU announced it was ready to deploy a “huge mission in Kosovo” as soon as foreign ministers give the formal go-ahead, which will be probably be on 18 February. As a sop to Serb politicians, the EU stated that Serbia is not required to recognize the new Kosovo state immediately. “But if they are seen to be working to undermine it at every stage, and thus jeopardizing the success of the EU mission, retribution is sure to follow” (Economist, 09/02/08)

While there is no real mood amongst Serb people for any more disastrous local wars, events can spiral out of control, leading to the danger of renewed conflict over Kosovo, perhaps involving clashes between Serbs living in northern Kosovo and Southern Serbia and ethnic Albanian forces.

Not all EU member states are enthusiastic about Kosovo formally announcing it will breakaway, including Spain, which worries about the example it will give to their own minorities, but only Cyprus formerly opposed the EU takeover from the UN, citing its fears that the move would give ammunition to the North Cypriot administration in its demand for recognition.

Since 1999, the territory has been under UN control, following an aerial bombing campaign by NATO against Serb military forces and indiscriminately against Serb civilians in Belgrade and other areas. The conflict had nothing to do with Western powers’ concerns for the plight of ethnic Albanians, who were discriminated against for decades under the former Yugoslavia and particularly brutally under the oppressive rule of Milosevic. While the West was worried that the Kosovo conflict could spiral out of control, re-igniting wider Balkan wars, the imperialist powers also regarded disputed Kosovo as a pretext to intervene to gain a vital military foothold. This put the Western powers in a better position to oppose Milosevic, who would not acquiesce enough to Western capitalism to their liking. It also provided Western multinationals with a vantage point to exploit the peoples and natural resources of the region, following the collapse of the former Yugoslavia regime. As Russian economic power has grown over the last decade, the region assumed greater geo-strategic importance.

“Obstruction” and “blocking”

By now, Serbia was meant to have signed a ‘stablisation and association agreement’ with the EU, as a first step towards membership. Late in January, however, the Dutch foreign minister vetoed the agreement, stating Serbia was not doing enough to bring ‘war crimes’ fugitives to the Hague Tribunal. Serbia was offered the alternative of an ‘interim agreement’.

Earlier this week, after Kostunica made clear he would use his presidential powers to block the proposed EU deal, the EU leaders reacted furiously, using decidedly undiplomatic language. Olli Rehn, the commissioner responsible for EU expansion, accused the Serb president of “obstruction” and “blocking” and of putting “power games ahead of their citizens’ interests”. But for all its huffing and puffing, the EU was forced to retreat and stated it was “legally impossible” to proceed with a completion of the deal at a signing ceremony, which was planned for 7 February.

The blocking of the deal sparked governmental crisis in Serbia. Ministers from Tadic’s Democratic Party demanded that Kostunica convene a cabinet meeting, where they hold a majority that could force through acceptance of the EU deal. Kostunica refused to do so and instead the prime minister is pushing to take the issue to the parliament. He hopes to rely on support from Nikolic’s Radical Party, the country’s single largest party, to oppose the deal. The stage is set for major constitutional convulsions and opportunistic twists and turns by the main players. The government could collapse, leading to new elections or an attempt by Kostunica to form a new coalition government with the Radicals. Some commentators believe that Tadic and Nikolic might work towards a compromise, sidelining Kostunica, which would see their two parties dominate parliament, with small parties backing, but stopping short of a formal coalition.

However, whatever their differences and shifting alliances, none of the Serb political parties represents the interests of working people. President Tadic and his Democratic Party pledge to continue “free market reforms”, which means more privatizations, cuts and joblessness. Opposition figure, Tomislav Nikolic – who stands in as Radical Party leader while the official leader, Vojislav Seselj, is on trial in the Hague accused of war crimes – only offers an echo of the right wing nationalist demagogy that Milosevic whipped up in the 1990s which led to Serbia’s involvement in series of disastrous regional wars. This bloodletting saw Serb workers pay the price with many lives and a catastrophic collapse of their living standards. Nikolic’s ‘alternative’ to EU and US domination of the Serb economy – “fellow Slav” Russian capitalism – is no choice at all for Serb working people.

EU escape route?

For all his current anti-EU rhetoric, Prime Minister Kostunica has proven to be an arch political opportunist, who may yet try to do a deal with the Western powers over trade and Kosovo. The present government was formed in May 2007, as an unstable coalition between Kostunica and Tadic’s parties and two other small parties. Kostunica refused to endorse coalition partner Tadic as presidential candidate because Tadic was seen as too ready to trade EU membership for loss of Kosovo. But Kostunica stated that he does not, in principle, oppose eventual EU membership for Serbia, just the way it is carried out and the terms. Under his Kostunica’s rule, Serb working people have seen a continuation of miserable living conditions, with unemployment remaining at high levels. Given this, many Serbs hold illusions in the EU and hope that Serb membership would mean big economic investment, a rise in living standards and freedom to travel across the EU. Considering Kosvo/Kosova is one the poorest regions in Europe, many of its people also, understandably, hold illusions in membership of the European ‘Club’,

But the bitter experience of the vast majority of the peoples of Poland, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, and the host of other former Stalinist states that joined the EU, is one of mass export to Western Europe of their youth as cheap, hyper-exploited labour, and, domestically, the disastrous consequences of big business exploitation and imposition of neo-liberal policies. And this has been during a period of economic growth in most of Western Europe and ‘boom’ in the US and world economy! Now the US economy is sliding into recession, threatening to drag Europe and the world down with it. This will mean more joblessness and poverty and the EU leaders will attempt to make working people pay for the crisis of their system. Stripped to its essentials, eventual EU membership for Serbia would see further penetration of the Serbian domestic market by EU big business, as part of a Western aim to open up more of the Serb economy to the ravages of neo-liberal policies. Whatever illusions Serb and Kosovan youth and workers presently hold for the EU, as some sort of escape route, for many these desperate hopes will be dispelled over the next months and years.

Oppose all pro-market parties

The working people of Serbia and Kosovo/Kosova desperately need a class alternative to the nationalist and pro-Western parties that are all pro-market and which dominate the political scene. These parties play on national, ethnic and religious divisions to divide and rule working people, while they carry out the dictates of the for-profit market economy.

The way forward for Serbs and the people of Kosovo is to build and develop their own class organizations – independent unions and new workers’ parties with mass support. This would see real class opposition to the pro-big business parties, of whatever stripe.

A mass socialist party would call for the major parts of the economy in Serbia and the region to be brought into public ownership, under the democratic control and management of working people, to ensure the resources of the Balkans are used for the benefit of all, not just for small, corrupt elites, as is the case presently in Serbia, Kosovo and elsewhere.

A mass workers’ party would also support the right to self determination for oppressed nations, like the Albanian-majority Kosovo, while, at the same time, guaranteeing the rights of minorities, like Kosovo’s discriminated-against Serbs. A genuine socialist federation of Serbia, Kosovo and the entire Balkans, on an equal and voluntary basis, which would see a transformation of living standards, is the only way out of endless poverty, joblessness, exploitation, conflict and wars.

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February 2008