EU Relations Define Fault Line As Serbian Government Falls
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.
Early Elections Could Force Belgrade's HandThe collapse of Serbia's government and the resulting early elections signal the end of an awkward alliance between conservatives and pro-Westerners, and could force Serbs into a difficult choice over their future course.
Saying that "the government no more has a common policy regarding a most important issue -- the status of Kosovo within Serbia," Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica announced the end of the 10-month-old parliament on March 8.
Kostunica and the coalition government have formally requested that President Boris Tadic dissolve parliament and set early voting for May 11, to coincide with previously scheduled municipal elections.
Western European leaders are likely to regard the campaign ahead of the polling as a fresh opportunity to encourage Serbia's voters to swallow the bitter pill of Kosovar independence and revive their European Union aspirations. News of the impending elections led some European officials to predict that the vote would decide Serbia's course -- "toward Europe or against Europe," as Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn put it.
"Serbia is again at the crossroads, indeed," according to Gordana Knezevic, director of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service. "It is widely expected that the next election will be between choosing between Europe or Kosovo for Serbia, but we have to [keep] in mind that May 11, the day proposed for elections in Serbia, is not tomorrow, and emotions and attitudes in Serbia can still go this way or that."
The coalition's demise came after pro-European forces voted down a resolution on March 6 that would have halted Serbian efforts to join the EU until Brussels stopped supporting Kosovo's independence.
The coalition government had been an uneasy alliance from the start -- joining Kostunica's conservatives with President Tadic's more pro-Western Democratic Party.
Their rift came to a head when Tadic's ministers and those in another smaller coalition party, G17-Plus, opposed and outvoted Kostunica's ministers in the March resolution. That came just a month after the Radical Party's Tomislav Nikolic narrowly lost the presidential election to Tadic.
"What is obvious at this moment is that all political forces in Serbia felt that the moment is good for them," says Knezevic. "The Radicals believe that they can gain more votes in May elections because they feel that their firm stand on keeping Kosovo within the borders of Serbia is a kind of winning for the time being; on the other hand, pro-European forces see a chance for themselves as well, as they believe that the major emotions relating to Kosovo are actually going to cool down and that they can win the next elections."
While she says that at this point it is impossible to predict the outcome of the May poll, however, Knezevic does not discount the possibility of Serbia further isolating itself from the international community.
"It will largely depend as well on the situation in Kosovo itself," Knezevic says. "If any major incident were to happen between now and May, [that] could turn Serbian voters in the wrong direction."
Polls at this point suggest the parliamentary elections will be close, with neither Radicals nor pro-European parties winning a majority.
Nevertheless, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country holds the rotating EU Presidency, voiced his hope for a victory by pro-European parties.
"Now with the elections coming, we hope that the European forces will win -- I have seen some encouraging signs," he said. "We have seen some opinion polls, we have seen some demonstrations of students, intellectuals, younger people.... 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?"
But even President Tadic, considered a member of the "pro-European" camp, does not see eye to eye with Brussels when it comes to Kosovo.
Saying that attempts to divide Serbs on the issue would backfire, he has argued that the best way to ensure that Kosovo -- which he calls an "outlaw state" -- never gets into the European Union is to enter the EU first and block its accession efforts.
Knezevic says such an approach is unlikely to meet with acceptance in Brussels, where "Europe is trying hard to build up unity over the Kosovo issue and to persuade the remaining few members to recognize Kosovo."
But she also likens Tadic's comments to his language ahead of the presidential vote, "when he was trying to persuade people that it is possible for Serbia to have both -- to have membership in the European Union and to preserve Kosovo."
At any rate, the development leaves Serbia facing a renewed period of political uncertainty -- with the prospect of a caretaker government until May, and possibly protracted coalition talks after the elections.
EU Praises Croatia, Fears Serbia Backlash
The European Union's executive arm, the European Commission, has issued a report reviewing the progress of reforms in the western Balkan countries -- all of which are guaranteed to join the EU one day. The commission also unveiled a new initiative to tighten the region's transport links with the rest of the continent.
Ahead of a trip to Zagreb for talks with the Croatian government, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn gave his strongest hint yet that Croatia could wrap up its membership talks with the EU before the year is out.
"My intention is to send encouraging messages to Croatia as regards its EU accession negotiations because it can make this year, 2008, a decisive year -- or the decisive year -- on the conditions that the benchmarks [set by the EU] are met shortly by Croatia," Rehn said in Brussels.
The EU wants Croatia to speed up judicial and administrative reforms, rein in corruption, restructure its shipbuilding industry, and rescind its claim to a "fishing and ecological" zone in the Adriatic, which irks neighbors Italy and Slovenia, both EU member states.
Croatia is in a tight race to finalize its talks with the EU before the European Parliament elections in June 2009, so as to be able to join the bloc by 2011.
The EU's relations with Serbia, on the other hand, have nose-dived since most of the bloc's member states recognized Kosovo's independence, which it proclaimed on February 17.
Officials in Brussels have dropped dark hints about Serbia's potential to ruin much of the EU's good work in the Balkans, which the bloc subsidizes to the tune of 1 billion euros ($1.5 billion) a year -- the highest levels of per capita EU aid anywhere.
Rehn stressed on March 5 that Serbia is key to stability in the region, and called upon Belgrade to heed its people's wish to build closer ties with the EU. "I'm fully aware that a great majority of Serbian people consistently support EU membership," he said. "It should be a realistic expectation that the Serbian government listens to this silent majority."
However, Rehn went on to ruefully note that "certain recent statements from Belgrade seem to rule [this] out."
He said the Serbian government must now make its intentions clear. As things stand, this could lead to a formal severing of ties between the two sides, as Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has called on all political parties in Serbia to reject formal ties with the EU, unless it reverses its decision to work with an independent Pristina.
Rehn said the "EU is on standby" for developing closer relations with Serbia, but noted "it takes two" to conduct consultations that could lead to formal accession talks.
Reflecting deep-seated divisions among the EU's own member states over Kosovo, Rehn confined himself to a single sentence in reference to the erstwhile Serbian province, saying the EU remains committed to working toward an eventual conclusion to its status. A small but vocal minority of EU member states, led by Spain and Cyprus, does not recognize Kosovo for fear of setting a precedent for domestic separatists.
The EU is worried that Serbian resentment in the region could prompt Bosnia's Serbs to declare independence in their turn. Rehn did not address this concern directly, but said the EU remains prepared to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Bosnia-Herzegovina as soon as April.
Rehn said the region's stragglers, Albania and Montenegro, still need to "convince" the EU they are able to implement their own SAAs.
Regarding Macedonia, Rehn said the country is close to being able to "demonstrate" to the EU it is ready to launch accession talks, possibly already this year.
Rehn said the country needs to speed up reforms of the judiciary and public administration, and properly implement police reform and anticorruption laws. He warned though, that Skopje may find its progress towards EU membership blocked by Greece, which does not accept the country's right to call itself Macedonia.