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Serbia's Second Chance To Embrace The West

Serbian ultranationalists took to the streets -- but not in great numbers.
Serbian ultranationalists took to the streets -- but not in great numbers.
Last week, Serbia's radical nationalists predicted that some 300,000 people would come out onto the Belgrade streets on July 29 to demonstrate against the arrest and extradition of indicted war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic. In fact, though, just 10,000 showed up.

Could it be that Serbian nationalism has exhausted itself?

Serbia finds itself faced with a clear choice between the European Union and Russia. There is no longer any room for delaying this choice or for finding some sort of compromise that would embrace Russia and the EU. No such compromise exists that would not result in the further dismemberment of the country.

The EU played the situation correctly. Although the bloc was criticized for attempting to influence Serbia's legislative elections in May, it went ahead and offered Belgrade a carrot if the country's democratic and West-leaning parties won the polls. Serbian voters responded, giving President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party (DS) 102 mandates in the 225-seat legislature. The pro-Moscow Radical Party polled a distant second with just 77 seats.

Tadic also acted judiciously. He invited the Socialist Party (SPS), founded and once led by Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic, to form a coalition government under the slogan of "reconciliation in Serbia." This move isolated the radical nationalists. When the protests over Karadzic were called, the SPS -- which participated actively in previous demonstrations of this sort -- discouraged its followers from coming out.

Serbian media have also changed considerably since the heyday of the nationalists. Editors and moderators who fueled conflict in recent years acted completely differently this time around. The main message coming from Serbian state television since the arrest was that the government had to make the move in order to have any chance of joining the EU. The government did not want to arrest Karadzic -- the official narrative went -- but it had no choice.

Media reports about the protest were so calm and detached that one came away with the feeling that they were discussing events in some far-off country. Television has not yet gotten around to exposing the crimes committed under Karadzic during the Bosnian war. But such demythologization -- which will be essential in the months to come -- was not necessary to defuse the present tensions and ameliorate the reaction to the arrest.

Furthermore, the leaders of neighboring countries discouraged Serbs living abroad from traveling to Belgrade for the July 29 rally. Those leaders unanimously praised the new Serbian government for taking this step and have worked to minimize the negative reaction among Serbian nationalists.

Rally organizers made a mistake when they called for a protest under slogans protesting "the dictatorship of President Tadic." Clearly such calls fell flat considering that Tadic's party won the national elections so handily just two months ago and for the last few weeks has been working hard and publicly to forge a compromise coalition government.

Finally, the nationalist movement was sapped by the massive protests that came in response to Kosovo's declaration of independence in February. Those demonstrations ultimately proved ineffective and, with Kosovo gone, many nationalists have lost their motivation to demonstrate.

The radical nationalist movement is now further weakened by its reputation for violence. It attacked the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade following the February Kosovar independence declaration and one young man died in that incident. There have been videos circulating of nationalist protesters looting shops, and last week they injured a B-92 television camera operator and broke his equipment. The nationalists are now widely seen as hooligans rather than patriots. At the same time, Tadic has made a bold statement saying that violence will not be tolerated.

Serbia now has a second chance to embrace the West and move out of its present isolation. Its first chance died when nationalists assassinated reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March 2003. Now, it would seem, Tadic faces less resistance. The prospects with the EU seem more real and more near than ever before. Many in Serbia now seem ready to grab that opportunity.

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