SERBIA: Pro-Western Reformist Becomes Serbian President
Vladimir Beron «View Bio

July 15, 2004

On July 11, Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party (DS) was inaugurated as Serbia"s president after winning the June 27 run-off with nearly 54 percent of the vote over the candidate of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), Tomislav Nikolic, who gained 46 percent. Some 48 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots, in what is widely seen as a bell weather election indicating the political mood of the electorate for the near future.

Although largely ceremonial, the post of the presidency is of major importance in terms of boosting people"s moral in the embattled Balkan country and strengthening Serbia"s international standing. After three previous attempts at electing a president failed due to voter turnout of less than the required 50 percent, Tadic"s victory brings a much needed sense of normalization. Serbia has been plagued by more than a decade of regional conflicts, international sanctions, and internal upheaval surrounding the transition from authoritarian rule. The election of Tadic is also important for Serbia"s relationship with the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, upon which much of the country"s relations with the European Union (EU) and the US are dependent.

On the domestic front, Tadic"s election is very significant in light of the strong showing by the SRS"s Nikolic, who also had a clear lead in the last unsuccessful attempt to elect a president in November. The SRS is staunchly nationalistic and against any developments with regard to finalizing the legal status of the UN administered province of Kosovo, which is formally still part of Serbia. In fact, Nikolic won some 70 percent of the vote in Kosovo and trailed Tadic with around than 10 percent margins elsewhere in the country, with the exception of Belgrade. SRS parliamentary deputies formed the largest single party block after the December general elections, and control of the presidency would have given nationalists a hold over much of the domestic and foreign policy agenda.

The SRS is also firmly opposed to any cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, hence, the country faced deeper international isolation in the event of a Nikolic victory. In contrast, Tadic enjoys the backing of the EU and has important contacts within the international community, all of which is likely to propel Serbia in its quest to join the Euro-Atlantic institutions. Tadic has pledged cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, and continuation of the reformist policies of the late premier Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated on March 28, 2003, in Belgrade. Djindjic was instrumental in surrendering former strongman Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague tribunal, still a widely controversial decision in Serbia.

In order for Tadic to fulfill his promises for a more outward looking political platform, he will need the cooperation of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), whose leader, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, heads a minority government hanging on the support of Milosevic"s Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS). Kostunica has long been suspicious of the Hague Tribunal, but has lately given indications that he may be willing to consider some cooperation with respect to war-crimes suspects. The Tribunal is growing impenitent with the government"s failure to turn over four wanted Serbian generals, and Kostunica may be seeking Tadic"s backing for a deal that would allow for the prosecution of the latter in Serbia in exchange for Belgrade"s help in the capturing and extradition of General Zlatko Mladic, a top suspect along with Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

Kostunica is also likely to be courting Tadic"s support for amending the constitution and calling early elections, as he seeks to free his party from the dependency on the SPS. Meanwhile, Tadic"s Democrats, who are currently in opposition, are also likely to be looking forward to early parliamentary elections in hopes of capitalizing on their success in the presidential ballot. It remains unclear whether the DS and the DSS will be able to reach a deal, given that they failed to do so in January in coalition talks despite pressure from the EU, which did not wanted to see the SPS back in the halls of power. For their part, the nationalists are certain to favor new parliamentary elections, and Nikolic vowed to win an early parliamentary ballot in comments after the defeat in his presidential bid.

In retrospect, last month"s presidential elections showed that the electorate is increasingly apathetic towards ideologically laden rhetoric by the political class. The majority of Serbs are currently most interested in election platforms that have better prospects of winning international recognition and foreign investment, which are vital for economic revival. Nonetheless, Tadic and his fellow reformers should see this victory as a small window of opportunity, which can close rapidly should they fail to win international concessions that will contribute to a notable improvement of living conditions and restore some dignity for a proud people that have long felt that the West has turned its back on them. The fact that the nationalists succeeded in keeping the elections close is indicative of the widespread skepticism regarding the reformers" ability to improve the nation"s fortunes by courting European and American good will and surrendering Serbs widely seen as war heroes.

Vladimir Beron is an International Risk Analyst with the risk management group Sentingence.