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Western Press Review: Milosevic And Seselj 'Not Yet History'

  • Don Hill

Prague, 30 Dec 30 (RFE/RL) -- The results of Sunday's (28 December) parliamentary elections in Serbia captures the attention of a number of Western newspapers today.


Vanora Bennett, writing in Britain's "The Times," summarizes the issue in five short words: "They are not history yet."

She is referring to former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and fellow war crimes indictee Vojislav Seselj. Bennett writes: "Yesterday, Serbia's two scariest bogymen signaled their return from the political dead. Even though [Milosevic and Seselj] are on trial at The Hague war crimes tribunal, they will have been rejoicing to see their extremist followers win nearly one-third of the votes in the parliamentary election back home in Serbia. That result gives the pair a ghostly future in domestic politics. Until Mr. Milosevic and Mr. Seselj are found guilty, they can become [deputies] in the Belgrade parliament, if their followers so choose, and reassert their influence on external events, at least from a distance."

The commentary concludes: "Convicted criminals cannot hold seats in parliament. Although tribunal officials are determined to stop Mr. Milosevic and Mr. Seselj [from] exercising long-distance power from their cells, it would be better still to complete the trials of all the suspected war criminals. That means speeding up the remaining arrests and handovers to The Hague -- something Serbia's democratic rulers have been squeamish about, fearing they might provoke an ultranationalist backlash.

"There is no time left for such squeamishness. If Serbia's reformers want to move forward, they must deal with their demons and confront this issue. If some combination of reformers manages to form another government, the last war crimes suspects must be bundled off at once to The Hague. The forces of darkness still threaten the Balkans; it is time to banish them for good."


Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" places the Serbian results in the context of what the newspaper calls a "swing to the nationalists in former Yugoslavia." It continues, "It began in Bosnia and Herzegovina in October 2002 and continued last month in Croatia."

The editorial concludes: "Blame for the swing to the right also lies with the [Serbian] pro-reform camp, which was seen as corrupt and fell apart after the assassination of its leader, Zoran Djindjic, the prime minister, last March. Those failings and the hopeless nostalgia of the extreme nationalists are pushing Serbia towards sullen isolation fueled by an apparently limitless capacity for self-pity. This is a bleak climax to the string of sobering election results over the past 14 months."


Britain's "The Guardian" says that the election results, looked at clearly, show that Serbia's reformers have, in the words of an editorial, "survived a scare." The newspaper urges the fragmented election "victors" to bury their differences and work for the country.

The editorial says: "State socialism held on longer and with much greater ruthlessness in Serbia than in any other European country. It did so by throwing in its lot with the militant nationalism that has never been far from the dark heart of Serbian politics. So it is hardly surprising that this dangerous but charismatic alliance has emerged as the big winner from an election caused by the collapse of the riven and failed coalition of reformists that replaced Slobodan Milosevic three years ago.

"Sunday's Serbian elections should not, however, be seen as a defiant popular endorsement of the corrupt ex-dictator's politics in the face of his continuing trial for war crimes in The Hague. The tribunal process may not please the majority of Serbs, but this did not translate into a re-embrace of the country's former strong man. Mr. Milosevic's Socialist Party obtained just 8 percent of the seats in the new parliament in Belgrade, coming sixth of the six main parties in the election. That is not comeback stuff."


"The Independent" takes a contrary tack. "The reformist parties," it editorializes, "have been warned."

The British newspaper says: "The key to the depressing turn of events in Serbia [seems to be] the failure of the post-Milosevic reformers to deliver economic progress. Gangsterism and assassination are emblems of political and economic weakness. Serbs simply became fed up with waiting for their depressed living standards to rise. Serbia has the potential to be a prosperous nation. Its people know that, and find it frustrating that, on top of the perceived national humiliations over Bosnia and Kosovo, they see so little sign of the material improvement now coming about in much of Eastern Europe.

"In such circumstances it was sadly inevitable that the rabble-rousers would make gains. There is no reason to dispute, for example, the explanation for his party's success proffered by the Radical Party's deputy leader, Tomislav Nikolic, that the citizens of Serbia wanted 'jobs, peace and security.' It is nonetheless unfortunate, and disquieting, that they turned to ultranationalists in order to make their protest. The reformist parties, a coalition of which will continue to try to govern Serbia, have been warned."


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" refers to the Serbian election results as "Slobo's moral victory." In an editorial, the paper says: "Serbia's violent nationalists owe the UN's war crimes tribunal at The Hague a debt of gratitude for their resurgence in Sunday's parliamentary elections. For the rest of the world, the election outcome illustrates that among the other shortcomings of the United Nations, it is not very effective at meting out justice. We say that with sadness, because we had hoped that The Hague tribunal would quickly punish the Serbs most responsible for the 'ethnic cleansing' in Bosnia and Kosovo.

"Instead, the leisurely pace of Hague tribunal procedures has given its prisoners, including former [Serbian] leader Slobodan Milosevic, a platform for preaching to followers back home that they are victims of an international hate-Serbia cabal. They are, after all, being tried in a Dutch courtroom before a Jamaican judge by a Swiss prosecutor, in full sight of [Serbian] TV viewers. In the eyes of ardent Serbian nationalists, these once-disgraced hoodlums have become martyrs."

The editorial says: "Serbian nationalism wasn't born at The Hague, of course. The popularity of extremist parties reflects the failure of the current crop of leaders to address the legacies of the Milosevic era, poverty and corruption. But all the people now demanding that Saddam Hussein face an international or UN court ought to visit Belgrade to see why domestic trials are, whenever possible, preferable."


The "Financial Times" lines up with those commentators who urge Serbia's moderate parties to minimize their differences and maximize unity. The newspaper editorializes: "The democratic parties' immediate challenge is to overcome their deep divides. Vojislav Kostunica, the conservative head of the Democratic Party of Serbia, is emerging as a possible prime minister. But to form a government he must cut deals with the Democratic Party, the grouping of Zoran Djindjic, the assassinated former prime minister. With support from smaller parties, a Kostunica-led coalition could secure a parliamentary majority."

The editorial continues: "Having wasted three years on useless squabbling, Serbia's democrats must now pull together. The West must give them strong support. Three years ago, the United States and the [European Union] contributed to Serbia's problems by backing the pragmatic Mr. Djindjic and cold-shouldering Mr. Kostunica, who prevaricated over cooperating with the war crimes tribunal. In retrospect, the West should have put a higher priority on stabilizing Serbia."

The "Financial Times" concludes: "Now the EU and the United States must accept that, while Mr. Kostunica may not be an ideal partner, he has the best chance of creating a workable government. He deserves aid plus a chance to negotiate an EU stabilization agreement, a first step towards membership."


Marcus Tanner is the author of "Croatia -- A Nation Forged in War." "The Independent" publishes his commentary under the headline, "Serbia Might Once Again Cause Balkan Strife."

Tanner comments pessimistically on calls for reformers to take control of Serbia. Tanner writes: "The electoral triumph of Serbia's ultranationalists led by Vojislav Seselj leaves Western strategy in the Balkans in ruins. Bang go any hopes of integrating the former Yugoslav republics into the European Union. Ditto The Hague tribunal's hopes of getting hold of the two most-wanted war criminals of the 1990s, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic."

The writer says: "We can now expect the chancelleries of Europe to press the smaller parties into forming a coalition to keep Seselj out. Even if they succeed, this will be a government composed of many whose instincts are closer to Seselj than to his opponents. From his Hague cell, Seselj will use his control over votes in parliament to block every useful reform, ensuring that Serbia staggers into a fresh election within months in a worse state.

"By then the reformists will be even more discredited, Seselj's Radicals may win outright and the Balkans could be in for turbulence. A Seselj-run Serbia could find plenty to occupy itself in Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia. The Hague tribunal could forget about extraditing Messrs Mladic and Karadzic in such an eventuality."

Tanner concludes: "Western leaders may wonder if time and the prospect of power have not moderated Seselj's hatred, but there is no evidence that Serbia's military debacle in 1995 fazed him; on the contrary it gave him a new cause -- revenge. 'France waited 47 years to recover Alsace-Lorraine,' he boasted to the Belgrade weekly magazine 'Vreme' in 1996, 'but history is getting faster and faster. We won't wait as long as the French did.'"


The "International Herald Tribune" publishes today two editorials from "The New York Times" on political developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Under the headline "Toward a New Afghanistan," the first editorial says: "Despite a dismal backdrop of scattered violence and postwar poverty, Afghans are trying to build a new democracy. It is a monumental struggle for this nation where the old warlords and the hard-line Taliban leaders have been regaining strength, and where Osama bin Laden may still be hiding along with other remnants of Al-Qaeda. But a convention, or Loya Jirga, meeting behind a wall of guards in Kabul is now debating a new constitution that could give hope to this Muslim country."

It says: "For many Afghans, the most immediate issue is security. Their main concerns are making it alive down a dangerous road or surviving a warlord's whims. That reality should not cloud the hopes for a better future. In the last weeks of the Loya Jirga, the 502 delegates should take care to produce a constitution that assures more room for debate, more latitude for women and minorities, and some promise of checks and balances in any strongly centralized government."

The second editorial considers what the headline calls, "The Musharraf Mysteries." Considering two assassination attempts in two weeks, it says: "A succession of startling developments in Pakistan has left analysts from Islamabad to Washington guessing. At the center of the puzzle is Pakistan's military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, who is either losing or tightening his grip on power and either democratizing his rule or moving closer to hard-line Islamic radicals."

The editorial continues: "Even at their most transparent, Pakistani politics are difficult to decode. The shifting alliances made by its leaders do not always turn out to be what they seem. Right now, things are even murkier than usual. Large numbers of radical Islamists, military officers and secular democrats are furious with Musharraf."

The editorial says: "Musharraf's public break with the Taliban and recent conciliatory statements over Kashmir might have alienated military supporters. Some Pakistanis say that the Rawalpindi attackers could never have breached security without army help."

It also says that no clear explanation has emerged for his recent promise to resign as army chief by next December.