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Another Showdown For The Two Faces Of Serbia

Serbian nationalist posters in Belgrade in May 2008 branding pro-European Serbian leaders "Enemies of the State" for having signed an agreement on closer ties with the EU.
Serbian nationalist posters in Belgrade in May 2008 branding pro-European Serbian leaders "Enemies of the State" for having signed an agreement on closer ties with the EU.
Around 11 p.m. on July 24, the editor of the Belgrade-based weekly "Vreme" (and a contributor to RFE/RL's Balkans Service) Teofil Pancic boarded city bus No. 83 for home. Two young men on the bus proceeded to beat him senseless with metal rods. They made no effort to explain why.

By the time police arrived, only Pancic was at the scene, lying bleeding on the street. The passengers and assailants had vanished, and the spooked driver had driven the bus back to the station.

It was an incident that, hopefully, will compel many in Serbia to take a good look at their country and themselves.

Two other events -- this time from two European courtrooms -- should (again, hopefully) have a similar effect. On July 22, the UN's International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence did not violate international law. And on July 27, a U.K. court rejected Serbia's request for the extradition of former Bosnian Presidency member Ejup Ganic. "This court case was politically motivated and used for political purposes," the judge declared. After five months, Ganic was able to leave London and was welcomed in Sarajevo as a hero.

An extraordinary session of the Serbian parliament was convened, at which it was decided to try to initiate a UN resolution on Kosovo. A deputy prosecutor announced that Belgrade would file an appeal with the London court over the Ganic verdict. And political leaders of all stripes condemned the attack on Pancic, while the police chief promised a thorough investigation.

But behind the scenes, questions lingered: Who was responsible for Serbia's two courtroom setbacks, and what needs to be changed?

"We have a good opportunity to raise the issue of who is responsible for this, it is now clear, mistaken policy," political analyst Vladimir Pavicevic said. Indeed, the setbacks could be seen as an opportunity; but will Serbian President Boris Tadic seize this chance?

The Challenge

In the wake of the cases, Tadic has potent arguments to step up his pro-EU policies and further weaken the position of the radical nationalists who are ultimately responsible for the country's lost wars and the courtroom defeats. "We tried with war," Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Ivica Dacic said. "We tried with sanctions. Now the only option we have is to try to work with the EU and the United States."

If Tadic takes up the challenge of using these setbacks as an opportunity to lead a final showdown between the liberal Serbia that shares the values of the EU and Western-style democracy, on the one hand, and the radical-nationalist Serbia that places ethnicity over civil society and fights with guns and metal rods, on the other, then he just might ensure himself a worthy place in history.

It is, of course, an old fight. The first round was won by former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 1988. He gathered together conservative, nationalist Serbia and began a disastrous series of lost wars.

Liberal Serbia won the second round in 2000, when Milosevic was ousted and, a few months later, Zoran Djindic became prime minister.

The third round went to the nationalists, when Djindic was gunned down in March 2003 and Serbia returned to policies of aggressive nationalism.

The liberals made a comeback in 2004, when Tadic won the presidential election on a pro-EU platform. However, he accepted a coalition with the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), which had been founded by Milosevic. Several close Milosevic associates became members of the cabinet.

Walking A Tightrope

Now, a fifth round of the fight seems to be looming. Tadic has not moved Serbia toward the EU as quickly as his supporters wanted. At the recent extraordinary session of parliament, Tadic said that he felt opening negotiations with the EU meant one step closer to the ultimate loss of Kosovo. His public statements are often quite moderate, but his actions are often just the opposite. Tadic seems to be playing at a very delicate balancing act, appealing at times to conservative Serbia and to liberal Serbia at others.

This policy might be useful for Tadic as a politician, but it is potentially disastrous for the country. If he misses the current opportunity to move decisively toward the EU, Tadic might find himself with no one standing beside him during the presidential election in 2012.

Liberal Serbia will abandon him. Just like the driver and passengers of bus No. 83 left Teofil Pancic -- one of Belgrade's most professional journalists -- lying on the side of the road in a pool of blood.

Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL