Serbia: Presidential Ballot Seen As Choice Between East And West, Past And Future
Serbian Radical Party supporters hold a banner reading: 'Russia Help Us!'
Serbs vote on January 20 in an election that Balkan-watchers view as crucial to the country's future direction. Incumbent President Boris Tadic is trying to persuade Serbs to embrace EU integration and join Europe's mainstream. His main rival, Radical Party candidate Tomislav Nikolic, says Serbia should withdraw from the West and strike a Slavic partnership with Moscow.
There are nine total candidates participating in the race, but polls indicate the ballot comes down to a contest between Tadic and Nikolic.
Neither man is likely to garner the 50 percent needed to secure a first-round win. Many observers are already looking ahead to a probable runoff on February 3.
The two candidates are dramatically different. Incumbent Tadic is seen as the heir to Zoran Djindjic, the dynamic, reformist prime minister, assassinated in 2003, who set Serbia on a new pro-Western course after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic.
Enticement Of Europe
Some polls indicate as many as 70 percent of Serbs favor EU integration. In an interview with RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service, Tadic says he is confident the country will remain on its Western course despite efforts by his election rivals to paint the EU in a negative light.
"I'm convinced that the presidential campaign won't reverse the political process in Serbia -- in other words, Serbia is not going to stray from the European path, because we don't have an alternative," Tadic says.
Nikolic, who heads the Serbian Radical Party, favors closer ties with Russia, and says that, if elected, he will offer Moscow the use of military bases on Serbian territory. He has also pledged to make Radical Party founder Vojislav Seselj, currently on trial for war crimes at the UN tribunal in The Hague, his prime minister.
"[Kosovo is] a hugely emotional issue, for historical, traditional, and cultural reasons -- because of ancestry and orthodoxy, and also because of the sacrifices the Serbian people have made for Kosovo. I can't even explain to myself what attaches me to Kosovo and what it would mean to me if Kosovo would break from Serbia." -- Tomislav Milenkovic, economist in Belgrade
At the same time, Nikolic has acknowledged Serbia's EU inclinations and says he too would back greater integration -- were it not for Brussels' position on the critical issue of Kosovo, the Albanian-majority province that is set to declare independence from Serbia in a few weeks' time. "There are lines," he says, "that no self-respecting state or nation can cross."
"Nobody has asked Serbian citizens if they want to enter the EU if the EU takes Kosovo away from them. Everyone surveyed is in favor of EU membership. I'm also in favor of EU membership," Nikolic explains. "But there are conditions that we can't satisfy. One is giving away our territory. Citizens should be informed about this."
Nikolic laments that "nobody has told [voters] openly and clearly -- we can enter the EU, but we have to give Kosovo away to do it," adding that Tadic avoids the issue "because the citizens of Serbia are not willing to accept it."
Claiming he is the only candidate willing to make a stand, Nikolic says, "I am for the EU, but the EU should accept that Kosovo will remain in Serbia. I will admire those who sign that kind of an agreement."
Who Loses Kosovo?
The issue of Kosovo's anticipated independence declaration looms large over the Serbian elections. Of the nine presidential candidates, only one -- Cedomir Jovanovic of the Liberal Democrats -- supports independence for Kosovo.
Tadic has his eyes on European integration (AFP)
Although Kosovo independence is widely accepted as inevitable outside the Balkans, inside Serbia, officials continue to present the issue as far from resolved -- adding to worries that the ultimate winner will be burdened with the legacy of "the leader who lost Kosovo."
Kosovo, which has functioned as a UN protectorate since NATO's 1999 bombing campaign to force the withdrawal of Serbian forces from the territory, is a deeply emotional issue for some Serbs, who see the province as an inseparable part of their country.
"Serbs are emotional people, we follow our heart," Sasa Budimovic, a shipper, tells RFE/RL in Belgrade. "Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia. We were born in a country where Kosovo was an integral part. Kosovo is a part of us; it can't be cut off so easily."
"The majority of our politicians have used the media and their public speeches to exaggerate the importance of the Kosovo issue for the Serbs. These are all myths, but people become emotionally attached to such myths." -- Tanja Matic, NGO activist in Belgrade
Others, such as Danijela Varsakovic, a hairdresser in Belgrade, "don't have a problem with it."
"I have no problem accepting the secession of Kosovo," she tells RFE/RL. "I don't understand people who attach themselves to Kosovo emotionally, I really don't."
In practical terms, the powers of the presidential post are limited. The president can neither dissolve the government nor determine foreign policy. But the outcome of Sunday's vote is important in determining the composition of the future parliament.
Currently, the ruling coalition is a fragile partnership between Tadic's Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.
Kostunica takes a far more stringent line on Kosovo and the EU than Tadic. The prime minister has made clear he will back neither Tadic nor Nikolic in a first round, and has refused to commit to a candidate in a potential second round.
Expect Another Round
Should Nikolic win, a future ruling coalition would likely be made up of the Radicals and Kostunica's DSS. Such a grouping would mean a definitive step back from the West and stronger ties with Moscow.
But RFE/RL Balkans analyst Patrick Moore says the outcome of a second round is nearly impossible to predict. Despite the prominence of political issues such as Kosovo and the EU in the current race, he adds, many voters may have bread-and-butter issues in mind as they head to the polls.
"I really think it's anyone's call right now," Moore says. "There are so many variables and we should also remember that -- besides the Kosovo issue, which has been widely publicized abroad -- Serbia has a very high poverty rate, and even those who are above the poverty line often have difficulties making ends meet."
Such realities, Moore predicts, means "voters are likely to be swayed not just by Kosovo and other nationalist issues, but by their economic concerns and how they perceive Tadic and Nikolic as being able to deal with them."
(RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service contributed to this report.)
Serbia: The First Colored Revolution?
By Nenad Pejic
Otpor protesters in Belgrade
"Slobo, save Serbia," groups of youths could be heard chanting in the streets of Belgrade in September 2000. "Kill yourself!"
The chant, referring to frequent suicides in the family of President Slobodan Milosevic, came from Otpor, a group of reform-minded young people that claimed 100,000 registered members. On October 5, amid massive public protests, the dictator fell. Songs of jubilation echoed through Belgrade, sighs of relief through Brussels. The most dangerous man in Europe was gone; democracy -- in the form of Zoran Djindjic, soon to become prime minister -- had won.
In the years that followed, similar scenarios played out in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan; the Otpor model saw its tactics adopted by groups like Pora, Kmara, and KelKel. In many ways, the public protests leading to Milosevic's ouster can be considered the "first" colored revolution. Its roots, however, sprang from a different geopolitical reality, and its conclusion came too soon. If and when Serbia lives through a new revolution, the world -- and Serbia's place in it -- will be far different.
In 2000, as Otpor was gathering strength, the United States still had the time and energy to deal with global issues. Russia, by contrast, was recovering from the 1998 ruble collapse and still relatively weak. Throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, emerging democracies were turning away from the East and running at full speed toward the West, NATO, and the European Union.
Everything that's happened since -- the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. war on terror, a resurgent Russia, skyrocketing energy costs -- has changed the playing field. In March 2003, the dream of a reformist, pro-Western Serbia died along with Djindjic, slain by an unrepentant gunman with ties to the Milosevic regime. Djindjic's successor, Vojislav Kostunica, has since become the symbol of a conservative Serbia, with strong links to the Orthodox Church and chilly regard for the West.Elsewhere, Greater Success
No assassinations have cut short the democratic experiments of the other colored revolutions. But their progress raises inevitable questions about where Serbia would be now had Djindjic not been killed.
Within a year of Djindjic's death, Mikheil Saakashvili was flying high in Georgia. With 96 percent of the vote in the presidential election that followed the Rose Revolution, he quickly began vigorous reforms. Georgia was seen as a symbol of change; a vanguard in the drive to escape Moscow's orbit. Saakashvili was hailed as a political dynamo and charismatic charmer.
But if the outside world was captivated, inside, Georgians were in for a letdown. Saakashvili, dazzled by constant praise, was blind to reality at home. He saw things that didn't exist, and failed to see that which was obvious. By November 2007, however, that reality had become hard to deny: tens of thousands of protesters had gathered in central Tbilisi, demanding his resignation. His hard-line response -- tear gas, state of emergency, media blackout -- forced many outside the country to reexamine their affection for the Georgian president.
Today, he remains in office, having secured a second term with a far weaker mandate and a nascent opposition on the rise. The period of one-man reforms is over, replaced by a less certain, perhaps more democratic, political process.
What if Zoran Djindjic had lived? (epa)
It's a fate somewhat similar to that of Ukraine, which has spent the past three years trying to burnish its "orange" credentials after the heady optimism of the 2004 pro-democracy revolution went south. During the early days following the Orange Revolution protests, Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, as president and prime minister, seemed to have been handed a blank check. Foreign experts enthused that "democracy in Russia goes via Ukraine."
But once the honeymoon was over, the two Orange protagonists found the day-to-day reality of their political marriage hard to endure. Quarrels took precedence over reforms; public support began to dim. The grand villain of 2004, Viktor Yanukovych, staged a political comeback in parliamentary elections hailed as the cleanest and freest the country had seen. Now, with another legislative vote behind them, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko once again have an opportunity to advance Ukraine's democratic agenda. It remains to be seen if they can succeed in putting their personal problems aside for the sake of getting things done.
Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution in 2005 strengthened that country's parliamentary democracy and served notice to Central Asia's entrenched leaders that change was in the air. But there, as elsewhere, early enthusiasm soon gave way to political infighting.
Ak Jol, the party of Kyrgyzstan's postrevolution president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, by December 2007 had won all but 11 of 90 parliamentary seats, amid a media clampdown and claims of dirty tricks. Some blame the West for the relative failure of the Tulip events; unlike Georgia and Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan received not a single Western leader in the wake of its revolution. Russian officials, by contrast, were plentiful.Frozen In Time
In October 2000, Serbia was far ahead of Georgia and Ukraine in its progress toward Western integration. That chance has been missed; democratically, it is now the laggard. Unlike the colored-revolution countries, no single, charismatic individual has dominated Serbia's political scene since Djindjic's death. There has been no equivalent of Saakashvili or Tymoshenko with the strength to set Serbia on a definitive path.
While those countries have, with varying degrees of success, made the transition from personality- to process-based government, Serbia remains mired in contradictory political impulses. As presidential elections approach on January 20, it finds itself at a crossroads: will it head East, West, or just deeper within itself?
The three main figures -- President Boris Tadic, Prime Minister Kostunica, and Tomislav Nikolic, the head of the dominant Serbian Radical Party -- all have very different, often incompatible views of what the country should become. At least two of the three -- Kostunica and Nikolic -- would rather see Serbia in Russia's sphere of influence and consider NATO membership anathema. Tadic is clear about his wish to see Serbia in the EU, but the overwhelming political sentiment in Serbia is one of looking to the past, rather than the future.
Pro-Western reforms have been thrown out, replaced by nationalist rhetoric very much in the Milosevic mold. The former Yugoslavia has continued its disintegration, with Montenegro declaring independence and Kosovo, by all appearances, soon to follow. When the collapse of the former Yugoslavia began in 1989, Serbia's per capita GDP was $3,000 and Slovenia's was $5,000. Today, Ljubljana is in the EU and per capita GDP has shot up to $23,000. In Serbia, amazingly, the figure remains largely unchanged since 1989.
This weekend's contest will pit Tadic, Djindjic's pro-European successor as head of the Democratic Party, against Nikolic, a fervent nationalist. A second round is likely, and likely to favor Nikolic. Kostunica will support neither Tadic nor Nikolic in the first round, and has been cagey about whom he'd back in a second. For supporters of a Western future for Serbia, the prognosis at time looks dim.
It took a generation of 20-year-olds with no manifesto or leader to shake Serbia out of its lethargy the first time around. Armed only with slogans and spray paint, they dealt a fatal blow to a dictatorship. Milosevic died in a jail cell in The Hague, awaiting trial for crimes against humanity. But Serbia remains largely unchanged. His great supporter, Radical Party founder Vojislav Seselj, himself remains in a Hague cell, even as his party's candidate, Nikolic, may well win the presidential ballot.
Is a new generation of 20-year-olds waiting in the wings? What will be their color of choice?(Nenad Pejic is RFE/RL associate director of broadcasting)
UN Security Council Deadlocks Again Over Kosovo's Future
By Nikola Krastev
Serbian President Boris Tadic at the UN meeting
UNITED NATIONS -- In the latest round of diplomacy over Kosovo, the Security Council heard Belgrade repeat its calls for the UN to block the breakaway province's independence, despite Pristina's insistence upon sovereignty.
Speaking at an open council session on January 16, Serbian President Boris Tadic appealed to its members to reject any unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo's ethnic-Albanian government.
"Unilateral recognition of Kosovo's independence would no doubt be a precedent," he said. "Nobody has the right to destabilize Serbia and the Balkans by hasty unilateral decisions that will have unforeseeable consequences for other regions experiencing problems of ethnic separatism as well."
Tadic said Serbia has made its "decision clear on a number of occasions: the solution must be with accordance with international law, a result of compromise acceptable to both sides, and it has to bring about long-term peace and prosperity to all citizens of my country and the region."
In a passionate speech peppered with historic allusions and examples of the dreariness of current living conditions in Kosovo for Serbian inhabitants, Tadic repeated the words of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica from the same podium four weeks ago.
"Serbia will never recognize Kosovo's independence and will preserve its territorial integrity and sovereignty by all democratic means, legal arguments, and diplomacy," Tadic said. "I therefore confirm once again, ladies and gentlemen, that Serbia will not resort to violence and war."
Hashim Thaci, the leader of the of the Kosovar Albanians' drive for independence, was also present at the Security Council session in New York. The UN does not recognize Kosovo as an official state, which prohibits authorities like Thaci from making official statements before the council.
In a closed session that followed Tadic's remarks, however, the new prime minister pledged greater cooperation with the region's non-Albanian minorities and said Kosovo was ready to "assume greater ownership" over its future.
Thaci later outlined his intentions to reporters. "Very soon we will take a decision. And we hope that very soon the international community will recognize us, Washington, Brussels and other states," he said. "Everything what Pristina will do, it will do it in close cooperation with Washington and Brussels and other states and we will work so that process to continue as soon as possible. I am sure that the decision will be taken very soon."
East Vs. West
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad said that former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari's proposal for supervised independence of Kosovo remains the best possible solution. Washington is the most vocal proponent for Kosovo's independence.
Russia's Vitaly Churkin (AFP)
"I think that Ahtisaari plan is the only game in town that's on the table," Khalilzad said. "And we believe, given the respected positions of the parties, Pristina and Belgrade, the fact that they haven't come to an agreement, that [Ahtisaari plan] is a reasonable approach and its implementation would be the right thing to do."
Trying to minimize the potential political damage for Serbia, Khalilzad emphasized that with independence or not, the main priority for both Serbia and Kosovo should remain their speedy accession to unified Europe.
Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the UN, voiced his disagreement over the U.S. position and said Russia has consistently tried to persuade the members of the Security Council that there is no legal basis for Kosovo's independence.
"Going down the way of unilateral moves, Kosovo is not going to join the ranks of fully recognized members of the international community," Churkin said. "It may get some recognition, regrettably, even though it would be a violation of [Security Council Resolution] 1244 and the UN Charter. But it's not going to come to this building as a full-fledged member of the international community. It's not going to be able to join other political international institutions."
Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999 specifically outlines that the territorial integrity of Serbia is inviolable. It was supported by all five permanent members of the council, including the United States.
However, the recommendation of special envoy Ahtisaari that Kosovo be given supervised independence of Kosovo has wide support, with proponents saying it accurately reflects the realities in the region.
Slovenia Jittery As Balkans Head EU Agenda
By Ahto Lobjakas
Slovenia is the EU's only former-Yugoslav member
LJUBLJANA -- The European Union has taken Slovenia out of the Balkans, politically speaking. But taking the Balkans out of the country's politics and politicians looks to be a different matter.
Many of Slovenia's leaders earned their political credentials in the death throes of Yugoslavia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The current prime minister, Janez Jansa, in those days was a freelance journalist, and in 1988 spent six months in a military prison. Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel was a prominent pro-democracy campaigner.
Rupel and Jansa's unique blend of experience and insight lends weight to Slovenia's bid to serve as the EU's "Balkan specialist." But Slovenia's leaders may be a little too involved in the struggles of the past for their own good. Balkan politics remain steeped in history; history is often deeply personal; and personal stakes can cloud vision.
Entertaining a group of Brussels-based journalists this week, Slovenian leaders occasionally appeared to be on less than solid diplomatic ground.
Slovenia's stated aim is to be an "honest broker" in the fraught process of Kosovo's divorce from Serbia. But this is easier said than done.
There is a lot of empathy in Ljubljana for Kosovo. Slovenia was the first republic to break out of Yugoslavia in 1991. Foreign Minister Rupel argues it would be "incomprehensible" if Kosovo -- equally a "nation," in his words -- could not follow Slovenia on that path. Old Neighbors
Slovenia's analysis of Serbia, on the other hand, remains equally colored by the past. Prime Minister Jansa notes that Slobodan Milosevic took Serbia away from "the European path" and sunk it into wars and "total propaganda," poisoning attitudes on Kosovo for a long time.
"After 15 years, you have generations living in Serbia which know only one side," Jansa said, adding that it is impossible for Serbs to change their thinking on Kosovo -- which was made the "guideline of life, the guideline of the nation" -- overnight.
Yet, moments later, Jansa says positions change fast and he sees "a quite different situation" emerging in a year's time, "maybe not in the political elites, but among the ordinary people."
He notes that "strong words" -- in this instance Belgrade's threat to make another break with Europe if the EU backs Kosovo's independence -- are a Balkan speciality.
Both Jansa and Rupel permit themselves repeated swipes at the current leadership in Belgrade. Jansa wryly gives Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica credit for having once published Yugoslavia's first-ever manual on democracy, but clearly blames him for Serbia's intransigence.
Rupel, who has a reputation for gaffes among local journalists, responds to a question about what the EU expects from Serbia's elections by simply saying, "change" -- an answer that might come as a surprise to the pro-European incumbent, Boris Tadic. Rupel then quickly tries to make amends: "Rather, not change, but continuity -- and that the democratic forces win."
Slovenia's leaders are clear that they want to see both Kosovo and Serbia in the EU. They say Kosovo's status will be resolved before July and want Serbia to be given EU candidate status by the same time. They are not clear, however, on how they plan to get there.
Asked repeatedly about Slovenia's precise plans for Kosovo, which is shortly expected to formally declare independence from Serbia, Foreign Minister Rupel at one point promises a "clearer" response -- and then proceeds to provide anything but.
"We have to see the challenge of this problem" on Kosovo's status, he says. "It's a huge challenge, and we shall move not slowly, but carefully. What I'm saying is not that we are rejecting any plans. I'm just saying that we are applying, that we are implementing our decisions in a rational and, I would say, considerate manner." The Russia Factor
The reputations of EU presidencies stand and fall by their successes -- or lack thereof. The stakes for Slovenia are higher than is usual, both because of its background and the gravity of the situation surrounding Kosovo. Looking to hedge its bets, Ljubljana is playing up hopes of a breakthrough in the EU's relations with Russia. Keeping Russia sweet could also help Slovenia manage Serbia.
Whatever the motives, Slovenia is unusually keen to make conciliatory noises vis-a-vis Moscow. Rupel goes so far as to warmly endorse a continued pivotal role for Vladimir Putin, saying Slovenia "would love" to have him participating in the EU-Russia summit in June -- even though the latter will have to step down as president following March elections, and his future functions remain unclear, even in Russia.
Slovenia hopes the EU can finally sign a new strategic partnership treaty with Moscow at the June summit, to be held in the Siberian city of Khanty-Mansiisk. In fact, such a deal would prove a major coup for Slovenia.
Perhaps it was the thought of such future glories that prevented either Rupel or Jansa from raising the question of Russia's human rights record. Instead, Rupel limited his comments on Russia to hailing as a "fresh idea" a planned joint art exhibition in Brussels. The theme? "Slavic cooperation."