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Serbia-Montenegro: The More Things Change...

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica (file photo) Controversy has emerged in Serbia over the government's apparent political deal with former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and over some remarks by a government minister against independent journalists.

The Serbian government's recent decisions to drop criminal charges against Milosevic's son Marko and lift an international arrest warrant against Milosevic's wife Mira Markovic have prompted many Serbs to wonder whether the government of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica is restoring the former dictator's legacy. The widely held assumption is that the minority government has done a deal with Milosevic and the SPS to ensure continuing SPS support for the government in the parliament.

Many of the politicians who have governed Serbia since Milosevic's ouster on 5 October 2000 claim that that date marked the beginning of a truly new era, but the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic on 12 March 2003 showed that the old structures linking the worlds of politics, business, the security forces, and organized crime remain a force to be reckoned with (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 March 2003).

In early 2004, Kostunica balked at dropping his differences with his rivals in the Democratic Party to form a broad-based reformist coalition and preferred instead to set up a minority government dependent on the legislative backing of the SPS (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 February 2004).

In June of that year, the reformist Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party beat the hard-line Serbian Radical Party's (SRS) Tomislav Nikolic for the presidency in a hotly contested runoff vote. But the Radicals' strong showing in that election and in subsequent opinion polls made it clear that a large portion of the Serbian public still supports the SRS nationalist agenda and its culture of blame and denial regarding Serbian responsibility for and involvement in the conflicts and war crimes of the 1990s (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 18 June and 2 July 2004 and 10 June and 1 July 2005).
Matic's move seems likely to keep public attention on the government's alleged abuse of its powers on behalf of Milosevic's family. Ilic said on TV that Matic and his associates are "robbers" and "anti-Serb" propagandists who have received money from U.S. and EU NGOs.

Kostunica's minority government has tottered along for a year and a half, but most observers have assumed that he will dissolve it at some point and call new elections at a politically opportune moment, perhaps still in 2005. Most politicians have accordingly begun staking out their positions for the expected campaign. Tadic, for example, who seeks to cast himself as a moderate before foreign publics, has maintained good nationalist credentials at home by paying a demonstrative and controversial visit to Serbian enclaves in Kosova on 13-14 February (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 18 February 2005). He has, furthermore, not criticized the growing political role of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), to which Kostunica has traditionally been close.

In the wake of the government's apparent deal with Milosevic and the SPS, some Serbs have expressed concern with the direction in which they sense their country is heading, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported on 16 August. Serbia and Montenegro's former Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic told AP that leading Belgrade politicians are pursuing a "new nationalism" and seeking to turn Serbia into a "regional hegemonist" at the expense of good relations with its neighbors. Veran Matic, who heads the independent broadcaster B92, argued that "the situation is even more complicated than under Milosevic. The world now views the government as democratic, but all key pillars of Milosevic's regime are being rehabilitated." Some observers also called attention to the political role of the SPC and some of its leading clerics, although they were not part of the Milosevic system.

During the week of 15 August, things began to get ugly. Serbian Minister for Capital Investments Velimir Ilic, who is no stranger to controversy over his public behavior toward journalists, emerged at the center of a new controversy regarding the Milosevic deal and his role in it, London's "Financial Times" reported from Belgrade on 18 August. Ilic acknowledged that he had spoken to Pozarevac political activist Zoran Milovanovic, who had previously charged Marko Milosevic with threatening to attack him with a chainsaw (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 August 2005). Ilic said that he told Milovanovic that it would be "human and Christian" of him to revise his testimony. As a result of Milovanovic's change of heart, a local court dropped the charges against the younger Milosevic, who has reportedly been hiding in Russia for several years to avoid arrest and trial back home.

When Ana Veljkovic, a journalist for B92 questioned Ilic on 15 August about his involvement in the deal, he called her "sick" and "in need of psychiatric help," warning her not to "get in our way." Ilic's press adviser, Petar Lazovic, then told Veljkovic that he would "kill" B92's director, Matic. Lazovic later denied making the threat, but Matic announced on 17 August that he would file criminal charges against Lazovic.

Matic's move seems likely to keep public attention centered on the government's alleged abuse of its powers on behalf of the Milosevic family for political reasons. On 16 August, Ilic made his position clear and said on television that Matic and his associates are "robbers" and "anti-Serb" propagandists who have received money from U.S. and EU nongovernmental groups and other foundations. Serbian Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic planned to raise the matter of Ilic's behavior at the 18 August cabinet meeting. The "Financial Times" noted that "if government ministers are privately furious that the B92 director has decided to file a lawsuit, they also have Ilic to blame for drawing sustained attention to the dispute."

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