Serbia and the EU, this is the question

, by Aleksandar Jovanović

Serbia and the EU, this is the question

Since Slobodan Milošević’s regime had been overthrown on October 5th back in 2000, Serbia has been making strides on the path towards democracy and greater inclusion in an integrated European society. This path, however, has proved slippery and at times very narrow and steep.

New elections, old elections

On 11th of May 2008 Serbians had an important chance to chart a new course by electing new deputies to the National Parliament. Local and regional elections were held in tandem with those on the national scale, forming the fifth elected government since that fateful October. These election campaigns and the subsequent results were notably different from the results of previous elections, but at the same time strangely familiar. This “familiar but different” dichotomy is only possible in a country that can best be described as self-contradictory.

The major contenders on the field were very familiar: the Democratic Party, led by the current President Boris Tadić, positioned themselves as social democrats and aligned with several smaller parties on the election list. The Democratic Party of Serbia led by Vojislav Koštunica and Velimir Ilić purported to be the moderate nationalistic and people’s party. The Serbian Radical Party, traditionally led by Vojislav Šešelj, a man accused of war crimes at the Hague Tribunal and currently unable to lead the elections, was thus chaired by fellow nationalist Tomislav Nikolić. The Socialist Party of Serbia led by Ivica Dačić, tried to better embody its name but continue to embrace their former leader, Milošević. Then, finally, there is the Liberal Democratic Party led by Čedomir Jovanović occupying the role of an ultra-liberal and pro-European group.

To an outsider, this rainbow spectrum of parties in Serbia resembles those that typify many European countries. However, this observation only acknowledges half of the story about the interesting and very vivid realities of the Serbian political stage and large grey clouds shadowing the elections at this time.

The Kosovo factor

These elections come nearly three months after the unilateral decision of Kosovo to declare its independence from Serbia – a decision that was legitimized by European countries who scrambled to recognize Kosovo as a new state. The Kosovo issue has had an enormous impact on Serbia and caused a wave of anger and frustration to engulf its citizenry. Intermittent outbursts of violence in February set the tone in Belgrade and elsewhere in the country in the months preceding the May elections.

This political turmoil resulted in a split between government partners and served to polarize the views of the people. Clearly, a majority of the people in Serbia are unhappy about Kosovo’s decision and the backing it received from many EU member states. This issue and its role in shaping the election campaigns will continue to be the cause of division between the different camps in Serbia. Bridging this divide – between those who maintain that Serbia must continue on a path towards EU accession despite the events of recent months, and those who believe that Serbia cannot join the EU without Kosovo’s full and immediate reintegration as part of Serbia – will prove difficult. The problem is further exacerbated by the skillful attempt of political parties to rally their constituencies around the issue, resulting in referendum elections that essentially posed this question to the people: for or against Serbia’s eventual EU membership regardless of Kosovo’s present and future status?

New choice for Serbia

This is where most of similarities with previous election campaign end. In the minds of Serbians, this election was no longer about party agendas, but rather about patriots and traitors, a move to revisit the Serbia of the 1990s or embracing a pro-European Serbia. There were nationalists and more nationalists, believers and non believers. There were certainly no lack of accusations, harsh words, negative campaigning and below-the-belt punches. Once close partners and friends now turned into bitter enemies. It’s not all bad, though.

A very important side-effect of these elections is the now determined positions of political actors. In the past there have been many hidden and unclear positions from politicians, those of Vojislav Koštunica in particular. As prime minister for last five years his rhetoric appeared to be moving Serbia forward on the path towards European integration. However, the steps he took seemed somehow slow and tentative, his rhetoric somewhat tempered when it came to making a firm declaration of Serbia’s desire to reach the final goal of EU membership.

So, on 11th of May the people of Serbia had a choice between Tadić’s Coalition for European Serbia and the Liberal Democratic Party acting as proponents of EU membership in Serbia’s future on one side. On the other, Serbian Radical Party and Serbian Democratic Party of Vojislav Koštunica strongly standing opposed to membership in an EU that recognizes Kosovo independence and advocating for stronger ties with Russia. In this clear divide, the party that most profited now has the decisive power is the Socialist Party of Serbia, who chose to talk about other issues and leave themselves open for both options.

Election results

And so it was, the people in Serbia voted last Sunday and Tadić’s coalition won 102 out of the 250 seats up for grabs in the National Parliament. This is a great increase and top result, Liberals got 14 seats, Radical party came about same as last time at 78 seats and Koštunica’s party got 30 seats which is 6% less than a year before. Although with this it is clear that the gain in seats and support was on pro-European side the other side still holds strong parliament number.

Finally this all comes to the decision of the most eligible bride in town – Socialist party that got 20 seats that will shape the future of Serbia. The mathematical game is simple; whoever they give support will form the new coalition government of Serbia.

The question that remains unsolved, which must be cleared in the close future, is weather the Socialist Party managed to reform eight years after being swept from power. Will it chose to play a key role in Serbia focusing on social issues and European accession with Tadić, or is it still obsessed with its nationalistic past and, not managing to leave it behind, will rather join Koštunica and Nikolić in their strong national approach? Which way Serbia is going still remains a question…

Image: Serbia’s pro-European Union parties have won a “very convincing” election victory over nationalist; source: Google Images/ITN

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