Prague, 2 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In presenting his government today, incoming Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica pledged to continue Serbia's efforts to join the European Union.
EU membership, Kostunica told parliament, is "something that has to be done," adding that for the union state of Serbia and Montenegro, there is "no alternative."
"Mr. Kostunica probably is thinking in his dealings with the EU -- and the Americans, as well – he is probably going to portray himself as the only real alternative in Serbia to a possible return of extreme nationalists."
The road to the EU, however, looks anything but smooth -- and some of the bumps may be of Kostunica's own making.
The EU repeatedly has said that cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague is a prerequisite if Serbia is to make any progress toward possible membership. The U.S. has made some $100 million in financial aid this year contingent on Belgrade's cooperation with The Hague-based court.
Yet to govern, Kostunica's four-party minority government needs the support of Milosevic's Socialists. But with Milosevic on trial in the very same court for alleged war crimes and genocide in the Balkans during the 1990s, the Socialists will be unlikely to give their blessing to further cooperation with the UN tribunal.
Kostunica, a moderate nationalist, has himself previously said that cooperation with The Hague is "not a priority" for his government. Kostunica opposed the former leader's handover to the tribunal when he succeeded Milosevic as Yugoslav president.
Addressing parliament today, Kostunica was somewhat more conciliatory. He made no mention of the tribunal's demand that Belgrade hand over several fugitives -- but spoke about the need for cooperation to be mutual.
"The government will do everything so that this cooperation [with The Hague tribunal] finally becomes two-way,” he said. “We will also provide all the legal and material conditions, as well as the personnel needed, to speed up the transfer of war crimes trials to local courts."
Richard Eams, an analyst from the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, says that, given the unwillingness on Belgrade's part to cooperate on war crimes, tensions with both the EU and the United States may seem unavoidable. But Eams told RFE/RL that Kostunica may try to figure out a way to ease them.
"Mr. Kostunica probably is thinking in his dealings with the EU -- and the Americans, as well – he is probably going to portray himself as the only real alternative in Serbia to a possible return of extreme nationalists. So he is going to try to give himself more room for maneuver by presenting himself as a relatively moderate face and the best option available at the moment," Eams said.
Despite intense media speculation, it is unclear what went into the deal Kostunica struck with the Socialists. Eams says that, despite appearances, the deal may not put the Socialists in such a strong position. The Socialist Party has seen a dramatic decline in popularity since Milosevic's ouster in 2000. He says giving parliamentary support to Kostunica may have been the only way for the party to avoid further marginalization.
"The point about the Socialists is that although they are currently giving the government its majority, the party is afraid. It does not want another parliamentary election. [The Socialists] fear that they may do worse, [that] they may not get back into parliament, that maybe the [Serbian Radical Party] will get a bigger part of the nationalist vote," Eams said.
The West had been piling pressure on Serbia's reformist parties to form a majority government following the gains of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party in December's parliamentary elections. The Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj, another war crimes suspect on trial in The Hague, emerged as the strongest party from the poll, but was unable to form a government.
The former reformist allies who together toppled Milosevic have since become bitter foes. The Democratic Party, which led the outgoing government, initially refused to either join or support a Kostunica-led government. But newly elected Democratic Party leader Boris Tadic has recently been more conciliatory, leading most analysts to agree that his party in the end may lend the new government its support.
Kostunica's reformist coalition partners -- the liberal G17 party and the monarchist Serbian Renewal-New Serbia grouping -- have made it clear they will be much more comfortable with the Democrats than with the Socialists as allies.
Eams explains, "It is also difficult to see what advantages there could be for the Democratic Party if it stays in opposition, because if the government becomes unpopular or doesn't do too well, it may be that the Radicals are the main beneficiaries, not the Democratic [Party]."
A possible turning point for the government may come with the next presidential election, expected within two to three months. In the last presidential poll, the Radicals' ultra-nationalist candidate won the majority of votes -- but the election was invalidated due to low voter turnout.
Parliament late last month abolished the 50-percent voter turnout requirement. Reformist parties, if they are to beat the Radicals, may now have no other choice than to put their differences aside and field a joint candidate.