Serbia: Tough Coalition Negotiations Lie AheadJanuary 22, 2007 -- As expected, the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party appears to have won Serbia's parliamentary elections. Partial unofficial results show Tomislav Nikolic’s Radicals leading with about 28 percent of the vote. But that will not be enough for them to govern alone. The current reformist coalition seems more likely to remain in power. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten discusses the likely post-election scenarios with RFE/RL Balkans analyst Patrick Moore.
RFE/RL: The Serbian Radical Party appears to have received a plurality of the votes, but many predict that pro-Western reformers will retain the upper hand. How does the electoral math add up?
Patrick Moore: We have here a parliament with 250 seats, of which [Serbian Radical Party deputy leader Tomislav] Nikolic has 81. And with 28 percent of the votes, he didn't do quite as well as some of the polls had predicted. They were putting him more at 30 percent or even higher. Now, as to the possible reform coalition, if you put together [Serbian President Boris] Tadic's Democratic Party and [Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav] Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia and the liberal reformers in the G17 Plus group, you get 132 seats out of 250, which is a clear majority. And you could possibly add to that 14 seats from the ultra-reforming Liberal Democrats and seven seats that are held by ethnic minorities -- so that would be a very comfortable majority, if it could be put together.
Kostunica, for all of his shortcomings, is wise enough to realize that unless Serbia wants to go into some weird partnership with Russia, its only real future as a country that is geographically part of Europe is within the EU and that the only way he's going to achieve this is by going into some sort of partnership with more democratic parties.
RFE/RL: What’s the likelihood that the reformist parties will be able to agree on a government?
Moore: My prediction is that there will be very tough negotiations, with very much pressure coming from Washington and Brussels and they will form a coalition, with the condition that Mr. Kostunica will keep the [premiership].
RFE/RL: You say negotiations will be tough. What are the major issues that divide the parties in the reformist camp?
Moore: The main thing, frankly -- as has generally been the case in modern Balkan politics -- is personalities. The parties' names often change and their platforms may change, but basically they are coalesced around a strong personality. And it's essentially that both Mr. Kostunica and Mr. Tadic want to be the leading politician of Serbia. Now this is an oversimplification, of course, and there are some serious political differences. Tadic is much more open -- rhetorically, at least -- to Serbia becoming more involved in Western institutions and abiding by Western norms, whereas Kostunica has not broken with the traditional Serbian nationalism that really came to the forefront during the Milosevic years.
RFE/RL: If Kostunica’s sympathies lie more with the nationalists, why is he counted among the reformists? Couldn’t he ally himself with Nikolic’s Radicals?
Moore: There's a good argument for what you say. The thing is that Kostunica, for all of his shortcomings, is wise enough to realize that unless Serbia wants to go into some weird partnership with Russia, its only real future as a country that is geographically part of Europe is within the EU and that the only way he's going to achieve this is by going into some sort of partnership with more democratic parties. He knows that if he goes into partnership with Nikolic, it's going to be a cold shoulder from the Western countries, as long as that coalition is in power.
RFE/RL: The January 21 vote comes days before a UN envoy is due to unveil his plan for the future of Serbia's mainly ethnic-Albanian province of Kosovo. How large did Kosovo’s shadow loom in the elections?
Moore: It's always a cheap crowd pleaser to use in Serbia, because the politicians can talk all they want about Kosovo but there's relatively little they can do about it. Serbia's writ hasn't run there since June of 1999. What the real issues are, as far as ordinary people in the street are concerned, what their priority is -- whether they may have strong feelings about Kosovo or not - the real issues are bread-and-butter issues. It's jobs and also one issue whose importance we shouldn't discount, which is returning to a regimen of visa-free travel, particularly to West European countries -- something that they had in socialist days but have not had now for some years.
RFE/RL: Russia, which has veto power on the UN Security Council, says it will only agree to a solution for Kosovo that is supported in Belgrade. Do you expect Moscow to block independence for the province or will it be more flexible?
Moore: It's very difficult to say because Russia has ulterior motives in dealing with the Kosovo issue. First, their real concern in Serbia is not supporting Serbia on the Kosovo question. Their interest in Serbia is buying up Serbian firms and Serbian natural resources. And so they will want to be on good terms with whomever is in power in Belgrade. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was on the phone with Kostunica a couple of weeks ago and besides discussing Kosovo, they were discussing business matters. The second thing is Russia has always used -- in the Soviet Union before it and in tsarist Russia before that -- the Balkans as a sort of a cat's-paw for its interests elsewhere. So they've switched their allegiances in the Balkans, now to Belgrade, now to Sofia. They've played games with it. So I think that they will make noise about Kosovo as long as it serves their interests.
Bosnia-Herzegovina: The Threat From Islamic Fundamentalism
Merdan is 26 and has a degree in Arabic language and literature from a university in Jordan. There he became acquainted with the Saudi form of fundamentalism widely, if not always accurately, known as Wahhabism or Salafism. The term Wahhabism itself has become somewhat pejorative in many postcommunist countries and in Russia has become a decidedly pejorative term.
The young writer and his colleague, Adnan Mesanovic, recently translated and annotated a book entitled "Wahhabism Or Salafism: Ideological Background And Historical Roots." Merdan is also the founder of the Sarajevo-based NGO Center for the Prevention of Terrorism, or Zapret. He has further publicized his ideas in interviews with non-nationalist publications in both the Croat-Muslim Federation and the Republika Srpska.
A Long Tradition Of Moderation
Bosnian Islam has its roots in the Ottoman Empire and is a relatively tolerant borderland faith, quite distinct in spirit and practice from that of the Arabian heartland. The elected leader of Bosnia's Islamic Community, Reisu-l-ulema Mustafa Ceric, has pointed this out repeatedly.
What is known as Wahhabism was introduced into Bosnia during and after the 1992-95 conflict by aid workers, mujahedin fighters, and others from the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Their behavior was often regarded as heavy-handed, and they frequently alienated local Muslims. But the foreigners provided a source of inspiration and financial support for others whom the war left traumatized or disillusioned.
The most visible evidence of these influences is in the wearing of Islamic dress by women in urban centers, where such clothing would have been a fairly rare sight in the last decades of socialist Yugoslavia, particularly on younger women. Another testimony to the Arabian influence is the appearance of Saudi-designed and funded mosques, whose style of architecture is noticeably different from Bosnia's Ottoman-inspired structures. It is difficult to say whether Wahhabism has put down firm roots, particularly among the young women who have embraced Islamic fashion, but its presence is undeniable.
Fertile Soil For Extremism
Merdan told RFE/RL that Wahhabi-inspired terrorism is a danger because it only requires "a couple of people" to be effective. He notes that Bosnian society has been through extensive upheavals since 1992 and that this has provided a fertile breeding ground for terrorist ideology. The result is a problem that must be dealt with, he stresses. Merdan believes it is "catastrophic" when the media use the term "Islamic terrorism," and he has noted in other interviews that "not all Wahhabis are terrorists, but all terrorists are Wahhabis."
The second aspect of what he calls the Wahhabi "threat" to Bosnia comes from its opposition to the tolerance characteristic of traditional local Islamic ways. Merdan believes that this tolerance is precisely "what Muslims can offer the [wider] world today." He argues that it is a great blessing that Bosnians today live in a democratic society where problems and issues can be discussed openly and not be swept under the rug. Merdan stresses that "we cannot discriminate against people who follow [fundamentalist] ideology because there are good people among them." At the same time, however, he believes that "there are individuals who are potentially...[open to] terrorism."
Merdan notes that the official Islamic Community preferred to ignore the problem until fairly recently, when a lively discussion on Wahhabism was launched in the media. He called on the community to appreciate the scale of the threat, become more active in combating fundamentalism, and join forces with his NGO.
He points out that polls show that only about 3 percent of the Bosnian population subscribes to Wahhabist beliefs. But Merdan believes that their ideas must be openly confronted before the number grows to 10 or even 20 percent and society is faced with a major problem. He said that he himself has received threats from fundamentalists, including some living in Western Europe.