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2003 & Beyond: Are The Balkans Swinging Back Toward Nationalism?

  • Julia Geshakova

Recent parliamentary elections in Croatia and a presidential election in Serbia saw nationalist parties outperform pro-reform moderates. These election results, coming as they did on the heels of last year's victory of ethnic Muslim, Croatian, and Serbian parties in parliamentary elections in Bosnia, are raising concerns about the possible resurgence of nationalism in a region deeply scarred by a nationalist-provoked bloodbath in the early 1990s. It that really the case?

Prague, 10 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- During the turbulent 1990s, Croatia was ruled by the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) of the late nationalist President Franjo Tudjman.

The party led Croatia to independence in 1991, but was also blamed for its role in war brutalities. It was ousted in 2000, one year after Tudjman's death, by a center-left coalition.

So when the HDZ won nearly half of the 152 seats in parliament in elections on 23 November, alarm bells started ringing. But the party's leader, Ivo Sanader, has taken great pains to build a new image for the HDZ as a moderate, conservative party committed to Croatia's reintegration into Europe.

"Our priority in foreign policy will certainly be joining the European Union and NATO and resolving all open questions with our neighbors. We want fast normalization of these relations. We also wish a clear European perspective for our eastern neighbors as they want it for themselves," Sanader said.

International leaders welcomed the commitment but said final judgement will depend on deeds, not words.

The HDZ victory in Croatia's parliamentary election came less than two weeks after an ultranationalist candidate in Serbia just missed being elected president. Tomislav Nikolic of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party attracted more votes by far than a moderate, pro-reform candidate -- but the vote was declared invalid due to low voter turnout.

Speaking after the poll, Nikolic said that if his ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party wins Serbia's upcoming parliamentary elections, it will sever ties with Croatia, support a Greater Serbia -- which would ostensibly include Croatia's Krajina region -- and insist on returning Serbian armed forces and police to Kosovo.

Later, he adopted a less belligerent tone, but the shock remained. "One day, when conditions in the world change, when every person in this world will be able to live on his property, maybe Serbs also will be allowed to live on their property," Nikolic said. "One day, when Serbs can live on the territory of the Republic of Serbian Krajina, they will have the right to decide for themselves in what state and with whom they want to live."

Analysts in Belgrade say the Serbian Radical Party has no chance of winning the general election but that it could emerge as the strongest party in parliament. Party leader Vojislav Seselj, who is awaiting trial in The Hague for alleged war crimes, is on the party's electoral list. A fellow prisoner, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, will likely head the list of the Serbian Socialist Party. Milosevic is on trial at the UN war crimes tribunal on charges of genocide and war crimes.

The HDZ victory in Croatia, the gains of the Serbian Radical Party in Serbia, and last year's election results in Bosnia seem to suggest a pattern. Political analysts, however, agree that, however worrisome, these election results are not necessarily evidence of a resurgence of nationalism.

Franz-Lothar Altmann is the head of the Southeastern Europe Research Unit at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. He told RFE/RL that to speak of a nationalist resurgence would be "overdone." Leaning to the right, he says, is the natural reaction of voters who are disappointed in economic and social reforms.

"I see this swing back to national, or nationalist, parties rather as a normal reaction in this pendulum development, which is obvious in all of the Central European countries. That means reformist parties which do not perform so positively as the population expects are outvoted at the next elections because the population is just disappointed. We saw it in Hungary. We saw it in [the Czech Republic]. We saw it in Poland that the reformist parties have been outvoted. The same happened now in Croatia," Altmann said.

Altmann says the results from Croatia's parliamentary and Serbia's presidential election -- and in particular the low voter turnout in Serbia -- were much more a protest against slow progress in social and economic reforms than a victory for the nationalists.

"If you have only less than 40 percent of participation of voters [as was the case in Serbia], and among those who vote are all the members of the Radical Party and the supporters go to the polls, then such an outcome is very normal. Then you have the Radicals voting -- and the nonradicals, the moderate ones, disappointed, abstained. And such an outcome then seems to be a swing back to the radicalists -- but in fact, it is not," Altmann said.

Dejan Anastasjevic, a political analyst for Serbia's independent "Vreme" weekly magazine, agrees. "I don't see a pattern in the Balkans," he said. "I know that superficially that may look like that, but when you look more closely, then you find out that in these three cases -- Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia -- we actually have very different situations in each of these countries and that also we are talking of very different kinds of nationalists in Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia."

Anastasjevic told RFE/RL that the nationalists' recent electoral gains were not a result of their strength but of the reformists' weakness.

Recent sociological surveys seem to lead to similar conclusions. A poll in Serbia earlier this year showed the majority of Serbs no longer believe in the ultranationalist idea of a Greater Serbia. The same survey, however, showed that as discontent over the social and economic situation increased, mistrust between ethnic groups has also grown.

The gains of rightist parties with a nationalist background are widely seen as potentially damaging to the countries' aspirations to join the European Union and NATO.

Janusz Bugajski, the director of the Eastern Europe Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told RFE/RL's South Slavic Service, "It is an unfortunate development, and either these parties -- if they are to be part of government -- have to dramatically reform, or the country itself simply would not move towards European Union membership or even NATO membership."

A turn to more nationalist policies would also affect the still-fragile relations among neighbors. A nationalist turn in Serbia could potentially strengthen the aspirations toward independence of Montenegro, Serbia's smaller partner in the union state that replaced what was left of the former Yugoslavia.

Bugajski says, "If, indeed, Serbia were to move in a more nationalist direction, that would give even more ground for Montenegro to claim that it does not want to go in that direction but that it wants to go towards Europe."

Serbia's parliamentary election at the end of this month is the first serious challenge for the bloc of pro-reformist democratic parties that ousted Milosevic. International observers will be watching the election returns for a clearer signal of the way the pendulum is swinging in the Balkans.