Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and the coalition government requested that President Boris Tadic dissolve the parliament and call early elections for May 11, when municipal elections are scheduled, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported.
The agreement came after Kostunica announced on March 8 that the shaky coalition government had collapsed over the issue of Serbia's future ties to the EU. All coalition parties refuse to recognize the independence of Kosovo, which most EU member states have recognized. Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and the smaller New Serbia party will not hold any talks with the EU unless Brussels accepts that Kosovo is part of Serbia, which it is not likely to do. Kostunica's position is thus widely seen as tantamount to breaking off the negotiating process with the EU.
Tadic's Democratic Party and the G17 Plus group, which was founded by liberal economists, argue that Serbia must continue to work toward European integration regardless of the Kosovo question. That stance places those parties on the pro-Western, progressive side of the Serbian divide, along with Cedomir Jovanovic's small Liberal Democrats, which is the only Serbian party that argues that Serbia lost Kosovo for good in 1999 and should face up to that fact.
By contrast, the forces of Serbia's past are usually seen as including the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) of Tomislav Nikolic, who narrowly lost the presidency to Tadic, and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) of the late President Slobodan Milosevic.
The DSS and New Serbia have defied easy categorization, largely because they are as nationalistic as the SRS, but were active in bringing down Milosevic, and hence are often tagged as "reformist."
The coalition survived for years because the most likely alternative would have been a government led and dominated by the SRS, which is easily the largest party in Serbia. The EU and the United States made it clear ever since the fall of Milosevic in October 2000 that they will provide political, economic, and security support to Serbia only if it seeks Euro-Atlantic integration and pursues democratic and economic reforms. These requirements exclude by definition a government that includes the SRS or the SPS.
Kostunica stayed with the coalition so long not only because he could appreciate the benefits of close ties to Europe, but also because he could demand and claim the premiership from Tadic and G17 Plus as his price for cooperation. It is widely believed that the main reason he has not formed a coalition with the SRS is that he could not demand the prime minister's post from the much more powerful Radicals.
Kostunica's current showing in the polls is about 10 percent of the vote. By contrast, the SRS would take about 40 percent, while the Democratic Party and G17 Plus would win about 37.5 percent. Even with the support of smaller parties, neither group would have more than 45 percent. In theory, at least, this would open the way for Kostunica to play king-maker again.
It is not altogether clear how he might go about this after May 11. Would the Radicals be so eager to gain power that they would share it with someone who won far fewer votes than they did and who has a proven record of being a difficult coalition partner? Would Kostunica and Tadic somehow sink their differences -- as they often did in the past -- in the interest of keeping the SRS out of office? If such a renewed coalition is indeed a possibility, then why bother bringing down the current government to begin with? Do some leading politicians think that an early vote will strengthen their hands in future coalition talks by giving them fresh legitimacy from the voters or by slightly increasing their representation in the parliament? If the various parties and leaders are indeed ready to take such a gamble, it is clear that there will be losers as well as winners.
On March 10, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country holds the rotating EU Presidency, said in Brussels that "to be quite frank, I don't think that there is any other possibility for our Serbian friends than the European Union. Where else should they go?" Kostunica and Nikolic may be preparing an answer of their own to that question.