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Balkan Report: November 21, 2003

21 November 2003, Volume 7, Number 38

The next issue of "RFE/RL Balkan Report" will appear on 5 December.

DOES SERBIA FACE A CRISIS? A surprisingly strong showing by a far-right candidate in a failed Serbian presidential poll has raised concerns about a possible return to power by ultranationalists in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Such fears are unlikely to materialize, but Serbia remains a far cry from a stable democracy.

Just under 40 percent of the 6.5 million registered voters cast ballots in the Serbian presidential elections on 16 November, which required at least a 50 percent turnout to be valid. A total of five candidates appeared on the ballot to fill the post that has been vacant since the beginning of 2003, when former President Milan Milutinovic left office and surrendered voluntarily to the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, which had indicted him. Two attempts in 2002 to elect a successor prior to Milutinovic's departure failed. Parliament speaker Natasa Micic has filled the largely ceremonial post since shortly after Milutinovic left office.

Of those who voted in the latest poll, about 46 percent chose Tomislav Nikolic of Vojislav Seselj's ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), while approximately 35 percent opted for Dragoljub Micunovic of the governing Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) coalition.

The election had been widely expected to fail for two reasons. The first is widespread voter apathy, because many Serbs are angry and despondent over the government's failure to solve the central problems of poverty, crime, and corruption. Investigations following the 12 March assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic led to revelations of links between the underworld and leading political circles, including virtually all parties and coalitions. Unproven charges of criminal wrongdoing have been made against many leading politicians or their close advisers.

The second reason that the presidential election was considered a non-starter was a boycott by the two largest opposition political groupings, former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and the G-17 Plus political party. The two charged that the presidential vote was simply a delaying tactic by the DOS to avoid calling early parliamentary elections.

In fact, many observers have suggested that the DOS deliberately intended the successive presidential elections to fail in order to put off making difficult political decisions, including the holding of new parliamentary elections. If the DOS had wanted a presidential vote to succeed, it could have changed the relevant legislation at any time by removing the 50 percent requirement, as was recently done in Montenegro. But this question became moot recently when the DOS lost its legislative majority and was forced to call new parliamentary elections for 28 December.

It is unclear when a new round of presidential voting will take place, or who is legally entitled to call a new election. In any event, the Serbian presidency became largely ceremonial under Milutinovic. Because he was an indicted war criminal and hence not in a position to travel abroad or receive foreign guests, the post has not been effectively filled for several years -- and Serbia has not fared the worse for it.

But this did not prevent many commentators from describing the outcome of the 16 November vote as a "crisis" on account of the unexpectedly strong showing by Nikolic. Some observers compared his performance to that of far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of French presidential voting in 2002.

Observers noted that the Western governments that did much to support the fractious leaders of the DOS, DSS, and G-17 Plus in recent years are likely to urge the politicians in those three "democratic forces" to sink their differences and ensure that the SRS and its allies do not make a strong showing in the parliamentary elections, which are expected to reshape the political landscape. Most analysts feel that a "democratic" candidate could have handily defeated Nikolic had the DSS and G-17 Plus not called for a boycott.

Nikolic's strong showing and the political antics that led to the DOS's loss of its parliamentary majority suggest, however, that the future for Serbian democracy is not necessarily bright. One way of giving a fresh impetus to democratic currents and reducing voter apathy would be for the "democratic" politicians to address the voters' real concerns. This means spending less time playing on nationalist sentiments by criticizing the Hague-based war crimes tribunal or promoting false hopes of regaining Kosova and more time outlining concrete programs for eliminating poverty, crime, and corruption. (Patrick Moore)

MACEDONIA TO APPLY FOR EU MEMBERSHIP. In late October, Deputy Prime Minister Radmila Sekerinska told RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters that the government is planning to apply for EU membership as soon as the mandate of the EU military mission to Macedonia ends on 15 December. Sekerinska's announcement prompted a public discussion as to whether the country is ready for such a move and whether the EU is ready to accept the application. Despite the criticisms, the government seems set to proceed with its preparations for this important move (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 October and 18 November 2003).

About one week after Sekerinska's announcement, Foreign Minister Ilinka Mitreva spent two days in Brussels meeting with high-ranking EU officials. After her talks with European Commission President Romano Prodi, EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana, and EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten, Mitreva said she hopes her country's application will give the government's reform efforts new momentum. According to Macedonian journalists quoting unnamed EU diplomats, the Macedonian plans received a cool reception. Neither Patten, Solana, nor Prodi encouraged Macedonia to apply as soon as possible (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 October 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 June 2003).

However, the question of whether to apply at all seems to have been answered by Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski. During an official visit to Romania, he said in Bucharest on 13 November that the application will be filed in Brussels by the end of February at the latest, adding that his government will take into account the Romanian experience with the application procedure (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 November 2003).

At home, Sekerinska defended the government's plans. In an interview with "Dnevnik" of 15 November, she explained why the time has come to file an application. Sekerinska argued that relations between Macedonia and the EU are constantly improving. This process of rapprochement is mirrored by a series of bilateral agreements such as the Stabilization and Association Agreement that was signed on 9 April 2001, she said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 April 2001).

Although she admitted that an early application might run the risk of being rebuffed by the EU, Sekerinska noted that the application is a logical consequence of the cooperation between Brussels and Skopje on a number of reform-related issues. "We do not have a choice," Sekerinska said. "Even without an application, Macedonia must carry out political, economic, and judicial reforms. The application must support reform-orientated policies in a suitable manner."

However, in the same issue of "Dnevnik," a number of politicians and journalists criticized the government's initiative as "premature."

Former Deputy Prime Minister Zoran Krstevski of the opposition Liberal Party charged that the application does not make sense as long as Macedonia has not carried out necessary reforms, such as the decentralization of the state administration or the redrawing of the administrative borders. He added that some diplomats in Brussels might ask why Macedonia is applying for full membership when its Stabilization and Association Agreement has not yet been ratified by all EU members.

Krstevski also noted that the EU does not believe that the security situation in Macedonia is fully under control, because the EU military mission will be replaced by a EU police mission rather than be dissolved entirely.

Mersel Bilali, a former legislator of the opposition ethnic Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD), argued that Brussels might say after receiving the application that it is very happy with it but would have been happier without it. Apart from the necessary political and legal reforms, Bilali believes that his countrymen must change their outlook, too: "What is most important is that we free ourselves as soon as possible from our various prejudices and stereotypes that dominate our minds."

For Todor Pendarov, a foreign-policy analyst, the government plan is premature for a number of reasons. He feels that the security situation is not as stable as the government wants Brussels to believe. After all, Pendarov writes, the first days of the no-questions-asked operation to disarm the civilian population, which started on 1 November, were not very successful. According to government sources, only some 300 of the estimated 110,000 illegally possessed weapons were handed in (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 October and 3 and 12 November and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 29 August 2003).

The other reason Pendarov mentions is that applying for EU membership cannot be decided one day and carried out the next because preparation involves much work. He pointed out that the application filed with the EU by Croatia earlier this year was a 4,000-page document (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2003). Anybody who has ever had to deal with the state administration in Skopje might believe Pendarov when he doubts that such a document could be drafted before the end of February. (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz,

DEFENDING SLOVENIAN IDENTITY IN THE EU. A number of years ago, a joke questioning the authenticity of Macedonian identity made the rounds of former Yugoslavia: "What do you get when you wash a Macedonian? Dirty water and a Bulgarian." Perhaps the Slovenes laughed too loudly at the joke, because the Macedonians countered with: "What do you get when you wash a Slovene? Dirty water and dirty water."

The implication that Slovenes are neither truly Slavs nor Germans still strikes a raw nerve today. An offended Slovenian acquaintance recently tried to explain matters to me: "The first joke was funny. The second one is not."

In truth, Slovenian identity is a complex matter. Geographically situated at the intersection of Slavic, Germanic, Italian, and Hungarian cultures, Slovenia today reflects all of them. As the territory inhabited by Slovenes passed under the influence of neighboring powers, local people borrowed elements now enshrined as regional specialties -- from the "bograc" (goulash) of the east and "struklji" (strudel-like dumplings) of the north, to the "prsut" (prosciutto) of the west. Adaptation and fusion of such influences with native traditions created a unique cultural blend.

Within Yugoslavia, Slovenia's German heritage was suppressed -- sometimes violently, as with the postwar expulsion of ethnic Germans, other times bureaucratically, with the respelling of overly Germanic names. Vinko Horvath, the caretaker at the regional museum in the northern border town of Libelice, still recalls how the communists took away the final "h" in his name, which he regained only after 1991.

Today, recollection of the Austro-Hungarian past evokes relatively positive memories of inclusion in Central Europe, and reproductions of vintage postcards bearing German town names alongside their Slovenian counterparts are common. In popular culture, some musical groups such as the Frajkinclari take outright pleasure in singing in local dialects with a free and easy admixture of German words all but incomprehensible to outsiders.

In a small state, small changes can more easily challenge the status quo than in larger entities, and the Slovenes are anticipating significant changes following their entry into the EU in just over five months' time. Euroskeptics are warning that Slovenian identity could be drowned in a European sea.

A foreign policy declaration of 17 December 1999 (available at is indicative of the exaggerated concern placed on identity. In just a few short paragraphs, the document mentions national identity four times, stressing that it must be "maintained," "preserved," "guaranteed," and "developed" as a key foreign-policy goal.

As Slovenia now prepares for EU entry, renewed emphasis is being placed on securing Slovenian identity within a united Europe. At its party congress on 15 November, the Slovenian People's Party (SLS) not only elected a new president -- Janez Podobnik will replace outgoing head France But -- but also adopted a document entitled "Slovenia in Europe." The document emphasizes that one of the basic policy goals of the SLS is to safeguard traditional Slovenian values as the country enters the EU.

A similar motivation prompted the convention on the future of Slovenia hosted by President Janez Drnovsek in October. The first session, with 50 invitees and five hours of discussion, concluded with calls for Slovenia to assert itself in the world with its own ideas and vision of the future.

This concern with identity also lies behind the perennial proposals for reform of Slovenia's state symbols (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 25 January and 22 November 2002). In the latest incarnation of this issue, in June the National Assembly announced a contest to select a new Slovenian flag and coat of arms.

The winning entry was announced on 28 October, but was widely derided in the press (see Zmago Jelincic of the far-right Slovenian National Party (SNS) characterized the red, white, and blue striped pattern as more appropriate for a sardine can or a candy-bar wrapper than for a state symbol. Others charged that design was a cheap knockoff of the U.S. flag.

Slovenes remain dissatisfied with their state symbols -- some say they were selected in haste when the country became independent, and others blame the generic white-blue-red flag that resembles several others in the region for Slovenia's low profile. However, the majority also feels that changing the current symbols would be costly and pointless. Although the contest results were nonbinding, a petition was immediately circulated that the symbols not be changed.

Even so, a constitutional commission is now slated to meet on 9 December to prepare for the removal of the provision on state symbols from the constitution. Parliamentary speaker Borut Pahor of the United List of Social Democrats (ZLSD) reassured the public that the commission will not be selecting new symbols, and he characterized the recent competition as merely an opportunity for experts and the public to assess their feelings about Slovenia's symbols.

Entry into the EU will undoubtedly bring changes to Slovenia, its people, and their culture. Ultimately, the challenge for Slovenes is to decide how to best profit from the opportunities that these changes will offer them. (Donald F. Reindl,

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "In Macedonia, there is no place where the police may not go." -- Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski. Quoted by the private Serbian Beta news agency in Skopje on 13 November.

"The fact is that democracy is up and running and functioning in Serbia, anyway, and we'll leave it to them to decide how to deal with the situation." -- U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, quoted by Reuters in Washington on 17 November.

"The United States wants a unified Europe, an expanded Europe, a Europe that plays a full role on the world stage. Our [U.S.-European] security is bound together in NATO, even as the European Union expands its capabilities, and we support all the initiatives that are underway to expand the capabilities of the European Union in the security field." -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, quoted by RFE/RL in Brussels on 18 November.

"The issue is no longer narrowly Iraq, or [Chancellor Gerhard] Schroeder's rejection of the Bush administration's line on the war or its aftermath. Rather it is Germany's ambiguity about France's vision of Europe as a counterweight or a rival to the United States -- a concept that top French officials have advanced publicly in Moscow and Beijing.

"In recent weeks, strong voices in Germany have told Schroeder he made a serious mistake in allowing the perception to develop that he had turned the country into France's junior partner. Their concern is not primarily the United States, but Germany's place in an expanded European Union -- where most members place their security loyalties with the Americans. These countries powerfully resent Germany and France for asserting their unelected leadership role in Europe." -- John Vinocur in the "International Herald Tribune" of 17 November.

"Poland on [18 November] raised the stakes in the fight over the new European Union constitution, claiming that proposed new voting rules risked turning the EU into a 'unipolar' club dominated by France and Germany. Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, the foreign minister, said it was essential for Europe's balance of power that countries like Poland and Spain did not lose their influence." -- George Parker in the "Financial Times" of 19 November.