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Balkan Report: April 2, 2005

2 April 2005, Volume 9, Number 10

ASHDOWN OUSTS COVIC FROM THE BOSNIAN PRESIDENCY. Paddy Ashdown, who is the international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, announced on 29 March the removal of Dragan Covic as the Croatian member of the Bosnian Presidency. Ashdown's move once again raises fundamental questions about the future and role of the international community's protectorate in Bosnia.

In making his announcement, Ashdown stressed that Covic has been a "good president" since assuming office in 2002 but must be replaced to spare Bosnia embarrassment while he stands trial on corruption charges dating from his time as finance minister of the Croat-Muslim Federation in 1998-2001. Ashdown argued that "anyone who is indicted for criminal offences, while holding high executive authority, [must] stand down from their post in order to defend themselves as a private citizen, so as not to damage the public office they hold," his website reported (see

Western diplomats have sought unsuccessfully in recent weeks to persuade Covic to resign voluntarily (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 June 2003, and 11, 21, and 24 March 2005). Since assuming office in 2002, Ashdown has repeatedly used his sweeping powers to sack Bosnian officials, mainly Bosnian Serbs, whom he believes are holding up reforms or providing clandestine support to fugitive war crimes indictees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 11 February, 1 July, and 20 and 30 December 2004).

Covic responded to his ouster by calling Ashdown's decision unconstitutional. In recent weeks, Covic was supported in his determination to remain in office not only by his own Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) party but also by Boris Paravac, who is Covic's Serbian colleague on the Presidency. Paravac has argued that Covic remains innocent until proven guilty. Sulejman Tihic, who is the Muslim member of the Presidency, has said that it will be difficult for Covic to carry out his duties while on trial.

Covic has argued in his own defense that the corruption charges against him are part of an unspecified campaign to "put pressure on the Croats of Bosnia-Herzegovina." He was due to assume the chair of the Presidency in June. Ashdown has banned him from all state functions but not from political activity, thereby leaving open the possibility that Covic might become head of the HDZ in order to maintain a high profile.

Upon assuming office on 28 October 2002, Covic said that the Presidency's priority is to tackle economic questions. Born in 1956 in Mostar, he is a machine engineer by profession and worked from 1979 to 1990 at the former Yugoslav People's Army's (JNA) Soko factory in his hometown. From 1998 to 2001 he served as finance minister and deputy prime minister of the Muslim-Croat Federation. On 26 June 2003, he testified in the Mostar Canton Court about his possible wrongdoing in the privatization of the Cronet mobile telephone company during his tenure as finance minister. The Federation's Interior Ministry and Finance Police brought the charges against him.

Now Covic again finds himself in court. One day after Ashdown's announcement sacking him from the Presidency, the trial opened in Sarajevo of Covic and five other men allegedly involved in corruption for the benefit of a Herzegovinian company in what is known as "the Lijanovic affair." Among the accused is Mato Tadic, who heads Bosnia's Constitutional Court and remains in office despite being on trial for accepting a bribe in the Lijanovic case. Under Bosnian law, judges may only be dismissed from the bench before the end of their term if actually convicted of a crime.

Ashdown's sacking of a member of the Bosnian Presidency has raised questions about the future of his office and of the political order in Bosnia. Many observers had expected the post of high representative to be phased out after Ashdown leaves later in 2005, but the "Financial Times" quoted an unnamed "senior U.S. diplomat" as saying that "Bosnia's leaders cannot go suddenly from having such an assertive high representative to swimming on their own, even if the European Union steps [in] with a strong role, as everyone expects" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 March and 16 July 2004).

Furthermore, many observers note that Ashdown's repeated sackings of elected and other officials underscore a central dilemma faced by the international community in administering what is in effect a protectorate in Bosnia. The issue is whether it is possible to promote Western democratic values by intervening by fiat to overrule the wishes of the electorate clearly expressed at the ballot box, including when the voters have elected nationalist officials, as is the case in Bosnia (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 2 May and 5 September 2003, 22 October 2004, and 25 March 2005).

There is no clear answer to the dilemma, which stems from the provisions of the 1995 Dayton peace agreements. There are four basic models under public discussion to deal with the problem, the differences between them depending on what one considers to be the root of the matter. The first model calls for strengthening the Office of the High Representative (OHR) on the grounds that this is the only way to effect change and break the power of the nationalists. The second model seeks to empower voters by first reducing and then eliminating the role of the OHR. The third model calls for scrapping the Dayton system and calling a new constitutional convention to map a fresh start. And a fourth model calls for writing off the whole post-1995 constitutional experiment and partitioning Bosnia along ethnic lines.

There are at least a few flaws in each of these models, which has prompted some observers to argue the present system is better than any of the proposed alternatives. But a move like Ashdown's ouster of Covic can only serve once again to raise the question whether an appointed foreign governor can indeed promote democracy by sacking an elected Bosnian official. (Patrick Moore)

MIXED RESULTS IN MACEDONIA'S SECOND-ROUND LOCAL ELECTIONS. Macedonia's voters went to the polls on 28 March in a second round of voting for local authorities in those administrative districts where no winner emerged on 13 March. The latest vote also involved repeat elections in districts where serious irregularities took place in the first round. On the balance, the results were mixed in this total of 57 districts.

The March ballots were the first mayoral elections under the government's decentralization program that greatly enhances the powers of local authorities in the 84 administrative districts plus the capital Skopje. The plan is considered the final step in implementing the 2001 Ohrid peace agreement which, among other things, promised the 23 percent ethnic Albanian majority more control over its own affairs. Critics say that the decentralization program amounts to a step toward an ethnically based partition of the country.

On 28 March, Macedonia's State Election Commission announced that the governing Social Democratic Union (SDSM) and its allies won the mayoral elections in 25 districts, the MIA news agency reported. The opposition coalition led by the conservative Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) won in 17 districts; the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) in seven; the VMRO splinter party VMRO-NP in three; and the opposition Albanian coalition of the Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH) and the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD) in one. Independent candidates were elected mayor in three districts.

The results indicate that the VMRO-DPMNE-led opposition coalition proved stronger in the larger cities -- including Skopje, Bitola, and Prilep -- while the SDSM won in smaller towns and rural districts. The BDI confirmed its position as the strongest ethnic Albanian party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14, 15, 23, and 25 March 2005, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline, 18 March 2005).

The OSCE-led international election observation mission stated in a press release on 28 March that voting in the second round in some areas failed to meet key OSCE and Council of Europe standards ( The irregularities included the theft of ballot papers, ballot-box stuffing, intimidation, multiple voting, and group voting, in which the oldest male casts ballots for all family members.

The OSCE observers criticized the government, noting that these were precisely the problems that should have been addressed after the first round on 13 March. "The continuing lack of more decisive intervention by the relevant authorities against intimidation of voters and election board members has led to a culture of impunity in some municipalities, undermining confidence in the rule of law and the ability of election bodies to protect the legality of the process," the statement said.

In the first round, the irregularities took place in only about 35-40 polling stations of the country's roughly 3,000 polling stations. But those irregularities not only overshadowed the otherwise democratic character of the elections, they also put a big question mark over Macedonia's ambitions to join NATO in 2006 and to be granted the status of a candidate for EU membership later this year.

That is why representatives of the international community expressed their disappointment after the first round. Michael Sahlin, the EU's special envoy to Macedonia, told RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters on 20 March that that the elections were possibly the ones with the best security record in recent years. But at the same time, he observed that in those polling stations where the irregularities occurred, the situation was much worse than in previous years. Sahlin said the people responsible for the irregularities in the districts of Lipkovo and Suto Orizari (where irregularities were registered in previous elections, too) apparently failed to understand that the elections are as important to Brussels as they are to the respective districts. In Macedonia, such statements were registered, but their impact on the election process was marginal.

The mutual accusations after the first round certainly contributed to the low voter turnout on 28 March. Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski of the SDSM thus warned two of his coalition partners -- the BDI and the United Roma Party -- "to behave more democratically during the vote." At the same time, he urged the opposition to avoid what he called "destructive and counterproductive" steps (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2005).

Buckovski's appeal did not have the desired effect. Instead, the opposition ethnic Albanian PDSH and PPD decided to boycott the 27 March round because the parliament failed to pass their draft bill calling for invalidating the first round of the vote to be invalidated in the western Macedonian districts with an Albanian majority (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 25 March 2005).

The ethnic Macedonian opposition parties, for their part, accused the governing coalition of vote rigging and organized a protest march in Skopje on 25 March. Trifun Kostovski, who ran for Skopje mayor with the support of a coalition led by the conservative opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE), took up the EU's warnings. "We have all become hostages of the party interests of a group of people who are ready to sacrifice the national interests just to remain in power.... Our efforts to become members of the EU and NATO have been endangered," he said.

VMRO-DPMNE Chairman Nikola Gruevski already announced already on 28 March that his party will file complaints with the State Election Commission. (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz,

SERBIA'S OTPOR: A STUDENT MOVEMENT HAS ITS DAY. Recent events in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have highlighted the role of student activists in bringing about political change in authoritarian postcommunist societies. It might be appropriate to recall the history of the Serbian Otpor (Resistance) student movement that played a key role in the ouster of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000. In Serbia it has since faded into the background, and a fairly stable political party landscape has emerged. But Otpor meanwhile has served as a model in Georgia and elsewhere, becoming, as one Serbian weekly put it, "one of Serbia's top export articles."

One of the consequences of the more than decade-long rule of Milosevic over Serbia was the disappearance of any effective political opposition. Elections were a farce, and potentially dangerous rivals were pushed to the margins of politics, co-opted, killed, or driven into exile. In October 1998, a group of student veterans of protests in 1996-97 decided to change things by founding Otpor with a black clenched fist as its symbol.

Its message was that nonviolent, grassroots organization could empower students in their late teens who had never known anything but Milosevic's rule, which had, among other things, destroyed the autonomy of the universities and subjugated most of the media. By remaining nonviolent, Otpor attracted attention not only within Serbian society but also abroad. And perhaps unique among Balkan political movements, it did not have a dominant charismatic leader.

Otpor's foreign links have been the greatest source of controversy surrounding it. Its friends in the Serbian NGO world arranged for the adaptation of some key Western writings on nonviolence into what became the "Otpor User Manual." Meetings in Hungary with Western political experts and practical assistance from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. Institute for Peace, the International Republican Institute, and other organizations that help promote civil societies were probably decisive in helping Otpor devise its strategy and stay on course. They also provided funding for what came to be the ubiquitous stickers and t-shirts depicting the clenched fist.

For their part, Otpor's detractors have sought to portray it as a mercenary organization funded by Serbia's enemies. Much of this talk is probably sour grapes on the part of Milosevic die-hards and ineffective opposition politicians. But in a society where conspiracy theories are often the bread-and-butter of private political discussions, rumors that "Otpor got $100,000 from Washington and [financier] George Soros to topple Milosevic" continue to make the rounds and are unlikely to go away.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Otpor appears to have grown from 4,000 members in 1999 to about 70,000 a year later, while some estimates put the figure as high as 100,000. The student organization sought in particular to appeal to the police, forswearing violence and making it clear to the men in uniform that the students regarded the police as fellow victims of an oppressive system. One Otpor veteran noted that the demonstrators argued that "some victims are in blue jeans, others are in blue uniforms." Some student chants used the phrase "plavi," or "guys in blue," an allusion also to the beloved national soccer team.

Slogans indeed helped make Otpor famous. Perhaps the most famous was "gotov je," or "he's finished," which activists applied to Milosevic after he tried to steal the 24 September elections. Their spunky behavior provided a catalyst for change in a seemingly soporific political atmosphere and helped capture popular imagination.

But the lasting force for change proved to be more conventional politicians like Zoran Djindjic and Vojislav Kostunica, who carefully fostered links to the security forces, workers, businessmen, and, many argue, even the murkier sources of power in Milosevic's Serbia, as well as to foreign governments.

Five years after Milosevic's fall, Otpor has faded into the background, its role as a midwife of change completed. Political life is dominated by three main political parties, including two that grew out of the anti-Milosevic opposition -- Serbian President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party and Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) -- together with the hard-line Serbian Radical Party (SRS) led by Tomislav Nikolic. By contrast, Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), which failed to galvanize anti-Milosevic sentiment the way Otpor did, and Milosevic's own Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) totter on the margins of political life. (Patrick Moore)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK: "Belgrade can no longer decide about Kosova because it lost that right in 1999. A new era has arrived for Kosova, a new reality." -- Kosova's President Ibrahim Rugova, quoted by the private Serbian Beta news agency in Athens on 30 March.