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Balkan Report: December 13, 2002


13 December 2002, Volume 6, Number 46

POLITICAL CRISIS LOOMS IN SERBIA. For the third time in as many months, Serbian voters cast their ballots for a successor to President Milan Milutinovic, whose term runs out on 5 January. For the third time, the results proved inconclusive or, in this case, invalid. Where Serbia goes from here is anybody's guess.

The presidential election held on 8 December was invalid since only 45.17 percent the 6,525,760 registered voters turned out to cast their ballots, which is fewer than the required 50 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2002, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 11 and 18 October 2002).

The contenders were moderate traditional nationalist Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, opposition far-right Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, and champion kickboxer Borislav Pelevic of the opposition Party of Serbian Unity, which was founded by the late Zeljko Raznatovic "Arkan." Both Seselj and Pelevic have paramilitary backgrounds.

A fresh snowfall kept some voters at home, but most observers agree that apathy was the main reason for the poor turnout. Months of public feuding by politicians grouped in the governing Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) -- which ousted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000 -- have served to alienate many citizens from politics.

Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) now functions independently of the DOS. He and Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic of the Democratic Party (DS) barely conceal their contempt for each other, even though they reached a surprise deal in early November that made the latest election possible.

In addition, the fact that Serbia seems to have done quite well without an active president for two years has not been lost on many voters. Milutinovic is an indicted war criminal who has stayed in the background since Milosevic's fall. Milutinovic has made himself useful to the post-Milosevic authorities, who have not sought to extradite him to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Many observers expect, however, that he will go to The Hague voluntarily once his term runs out.

Finally, another reason for the low turnout is a politically inspired boycott. It is widely believed that Djindjic and his allies wanted their supporters to stay home to ensure that Kostunica will be out of a job when the current Yugoslav state ceases to exist in the near future. For his part, Kostunica openly accused Djindjic of trying to sabotage the elections by encouraging a boycott.

Furthermore, many liberals and non-nationalists saw no reason to vote in a contest that included only three right-of-center nationalists. The ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia's Presevo Valley in particular seem to have felt that they had no stake in such a race and stayed home.

The Republican Election Commission (RIK) announced on 10 December that Kostunica won 1,699,098 votes, or 57.66 percent. Seselj received 1,063,296 votes, or 36.08 percent, followed by Pelevic with 103,926 votes, or 3.53 percent. A total of 80,396 ballots were invalid.

Kostunica said on 9 December that he will fight through domestic and international legal channels to have the ballot declared valid. The president added: "We will file all kinds of complaints. We will fight, we will not give up," Reuters reported.

Kostunica blamed padded voters lists -- including ones containing up to 450,000 "dead souls" and emigrants -- and various other irregularities for the 45.17 percent figure, which he said is based on artificially high numbers of total registered voters. But the Serbian Supreme Court ruled on 10 December that the commission had compiled the election lists correctly on the basis of information supplied to it by local government bodies. It is not clear why Kostunica did not make a bigger issue of the voters lists in the run-up to the election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5, 6,14, and 18 November 2002). And observers note that even if one subtracts the 450,000 figure from the RIK's electoral rolls, the turnout of 2,947,748 voters still falls short of the 50 percent requirement for the vote to be valid.

Where matters go from here is unclear. Parliamentary speaker Natasa Micic, who is an ally of Djindjic, will most likely become acting president when Milutinovic's mandate runs out. Some politicians have begun talking about a fresh presidential election, but there does not appear to be a legal time frame for one to be called.

Other speculation centers on the more immediate future. Kostunica and the DSS recently broke with the DOS in a budget-related parliamentary vote in what was widely seen as a warning to the government. Some observers suggest that the DSS will now try to bring down the government in an upcoming vote and thereby force new parliamentary elections.

Polls have long suggested that Kostunica and the DSS can expect to do well in an early legislative ballot, which is why he has been calling for such a vote for months. The broadly based DOS, moreover, seems likely to split sooner rather than later, with some parties staying with Djindjic, others going with Kostunica, and perhaps a third group going off on its own.

Other scenarios for the immediate future center on the drafting of new electoral legislation or a new Serbian constitution. Either or both of these developments would most likely be followed by new parliamentary and/or presidential elections.

In short, Serbia's political future in the coming months appears most uncertain. What does seem clear is that yet another year of political bickering and instability will result in further voter disillusionment and frighten off many potential foreign investors. (Patrick Moore)

NOVA MAKEDONIJA PRIVATIZATION UNDER REVIEW. The Slovenian consortium Jug-Uslugi (known in Slovenian as Jug-Storitve) purchased the state-run Nova Makedonija publishing house (NIP) in late August. Jug-Uslugi pledged to take over 70 percent of the country's largest publishing house's shares, for which it was to pay $2.25 million. Jug-Uslugi was also to pay off NIP's debts ($10.3 million). The deal provided that more than 1,400 jobs within NIP were guaranteed for the next five years, even though a Jug-Uslugi representative said that NIP would function best with fewer than 600 workers.

NIP's main publications are the Macedonian-language dailies "Nova Makedonija" and "Vecer," the Albanian-language daily "Flaka," and the Turkish-language daily "Birlik," as well as a number of magazines (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 August 2002).

However, the new Social Democratic-led government announced on 2 December that it is considering annulling the deal because of alleged irregularities during the privatization process. The government acted in the wake of demands by NIP employees, who went on strike after the September parliamentary elections. Their wages had not been paid for months, and they feared that they would never receive the money. The strike committee accordingly demanded a review of the documents concerning the company's privatization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 2002).

On 7 December, the Interior Ministry announced that it has filed lawsuits against five persons involved in the Nova Makedonija privatization. They include the former director of the publishing house, 28-year-old Nikola Tasev; the administrator of Nova Makedonija Press, Gjorgji Boskov; and the former deputy director of the state Privatization Agency, Dusko Avramovski.

Investigations into the case indicate that shady financial transactions were made to conceal the fact that some $2.1 million, which the government assigned for the payment of NIP workers, in reality went into the bank accounts of Jug-Uslugi. The Slovenian consortium, in turn, allegedly used this money to pay the bill for the 70 percent stake in the company's shares.

Tasev was arrested after he surrendered to the Macedonian authorities on 10 December. The other suspects are barred from leaving the country. (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz, ub@itinerarium.de)

MANY MACEDONIANS WANT TO BECOME BULGARIAN CITIZENS. More and more Macedonian citizens are applying for Bulgarian citizenship, "Dnevnik" reported on 9 December. According to the newspaper, up to 500 Macedonians submit their applications to the Bulgarian authorities every month. A growing number of agencies and middlemen have emerged, promising to help the applicants through the procedure of gaining a second passport.

To become Bulgarian citizens, the applicants from the Republic of Macedonia must provide the relevant sections of their parents' family register (maticna kniga), a marriage certificate (vencanica), a health certificate, a photocopy of their current passport, and an identity card. They also have to prove that they are not indebted to the state. These documents have to be submitted to the Bulgarian Justice Ministry, together with a fee of about $30.

Those applicants not willing or able to submit the documents personally can go through the agencies or middlemen. The price for this service ranges from $250 to $750 for the normal procedure. A faster procedure costs up to $2,000.

The Justice Ministry decides within eight months whether an applicant has the right to become a Bulgarian citizen. For this, the Macedonian applicants have to prove that their ancestors were Bulgarian citizens. For many Macedonians, this is no problem, as the territory of what is today the Republic of Macedonia was under Bulgarian occupation during World War II.

The applicants also have to sign a declaration that they feel themselves to be members of the Bulgarian nation. The fact that many Macedonians voluntarily declare themselves Bulgarians must be a welcome treat for Bulgarian nationalists, who never recognized the existence of a Macedonian nation.

But for most applicants, this is just a piece of paper that helps them travel abroad. They simply hope to profit from the fact that the EU has lifted visa requirements for Bulgarian citizens. Macedonian citizens still have to go through the lengthy and often humiliating procedure of applying for visas at one of the EU member states' embassies in Skopje.

Aleksandar Yordanov, who is the Bulgarian ambassador to Macedonia and a moderate nationalist, told RFE/RL's broadcasters in an interview on 5 December that he does not know how many Macedonians have so far applied for Bulgarian citizenship. He added that he would like to know how many have applied for Slovenian or Greek citizenship, which would also make traveling easier. (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz, ub@itinerarium.de)

FORUM FOR SLAVIC CULTURES PROPOSED IN LJUBLJANA. For the third year running, some relief from Ljubljana's gloomy autumn weather came in the events organized by the Ministry of Culture under the title "Ta veseli dan kulture" (The Happy Day of Culture). The name derives from a 1790 comedy by Slovenian playwright Anton Tomaz Linhart (1756-1795), and is centered on the 3 December birthday of Slovenia's national poet, France Preseren (1800-1849). The number of participating cultural institutions reached 115 this year, including art galleries, theaters, and museums.

Breaking with tradition, the ministry announced the two winners of the 2003 Preseren Award in advance of the February awards ceremony (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 15 February 2002): architect Vojteh Ravnikar and actor Zlatko Sugman. The candidates for the six Preseren Fund Awards were also announced. These include two architects, a composer, a dancer, a film director, a painter, a poet, a sculptor, a singer, a theater director, a wind quintet, and a writer, "Delo" reported on 4 December.

The most prominent event, however, was a two-day meeting dedicated to the proposed nongovernmental Forum for Slavic Cultures. The meeting brought together the ministers of culture from 12 Slavic-majority lands: Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, the Republika Srpska, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia, as well as representatives from the Czech Republic and Poland. (Their counterparts from the Bosnian Croat-Muslim federation and Ukraine were unable to attend.)

The idea behind the forum was born during the June 2001 summit between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Slovenia. When Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek visited Russia in September 2002, he sounded out Russian views on the matter. Putin voiced support for a Slavic cultural center in Ljubljana, "Delo" reported on 14 September. On the same trip, Drnovsek met with Russian Patriarch Aleksii II. Although the patriarch declined to attend a proposed meeting with Pope John Paul II in Slovenia, he too supported the cultural center.

The ministers of culture met on 3 and 4 December 2002 at the castle in Brdo (which was also the venue of the 2001 Bush-Putin summit) at the invitation of Andreja Rihter, Slovenia's minister of culture. After visiting the house where Preseren was born in the village of Vrba, the participants discussed information exchanges, joint projects, educational programs, and cultural initiatives. The forum will also promote mutual awareness of the cultures of participating countries, and may aid in implementing bilateral cultural agreements.

On 4 December the representatives signed a declaration, stating that cooperation "to preserve national languages and authentic national cultures in a rapidly globalizing world is positive and welcome. Such cooperation is even more understandable, well-grounded, and reasonable between nations with similar cultures and related languages.... We support the founding of a Forum for Slavic Cultures in Ljubljana. The purpose of the forum will be the strengthening of all forms of mutual cooperation between Slavic cultures and the protection of cultural identities."

The next meeting is planned for March in Bulgaria, by which time the representatives hope to secure government support for their projects. The forum will begin work in 2003, finalize a program by the end of that year, and implement projects in 2004.

Ironically -- and as a sign of the times -- the working language was not a Slavic language. Instead, English (and occasionally French) was used. "Delo" noted on 4 December that the participants agreed that it would have been unreasonable to engage translators for so many different languages.

History is littered with various attempted unions of Slavic peoples -- both cultural and political. One of the earliest was Austroslavism, promoted by Czech historian Frantisek Palacky (1798-1876). Austroslavism maintained that both German Austria and Russia threatened the Slavic peoples, who could find protection only through political and cultural autonomy within a federal Austria-Hungary.

In June 1848, Palacky organized a Slavic Conference in Prague with the aim of bringing together the Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Ukrainians, Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs of Austria-Hungary. The last day was marked by an uprising, resulting in over a hundred casualties during six days of fighting eventually suppressed by General Alfred Windischgraetz's troops.

Austroslavism was later transformed into Panslavism -- which in turn was hijacked by Russian nationalism and used as a front for Russian and Soviet imperialism. In Southeast Europe the Illyrian movement, seeking to create a uniform South Slavic language, eventually developed into Yugoslavism, which was chiefly a Croatian project in the decades leading up to World War I (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 15 February 2002).

Today, Slovenes sharply contrast proponents of both theories with Preseren's ideals of autonomous cultural revival. The Slovenian linguist and Viennese court librarian Jernej Kopitar (1780-1844), an advocate of Austroslavism, was one of Preseren's greatest critics. The poet took revenge by heaping scorn on the unfortunate scholar in one of his sonnets. Styrian poet Stanko Vraz (1810-1851), Slovenia's strongest advocate of Illyrianism, is generally pointed to as Preseren's antithesis.

It is fitting, then, that the Ministry of Culture chose Preseren's birthday to launch a new approach to this old issue -- not one based on political confederations or linguistic and cultural assimilation, but instead on enrichment through highlighting the variety found in the Slavic world. (Donald F. Reindl, dreindl@indiana.edu)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "Maybe I'm not a very good [presidential] candidate, but there isn't a better one in Serbia today." -- Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj. Quoted by Reuters in Belgrade on 8 December.

"Just when you think you've reached the Mount Everest of Balkan deviousness, you realize you're standing on a molehill." -- Unnamed Western diplomat, commenting on the Serbian elections. Quoted by Reuters in Belgrade on 10 December.

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