Mr. Chairman, distinguished Representatives, ladies and gentlemen -- It’s a pleasure to speak with you about Serbian politics and the future of its democracy. The National Democratic Institute has worked in Serbia since 1997 with political parties, civil society, and parliament to support the country’s democratic transition process. NDI supports similar efforts in six other countries in the Balkans.
The countries of the western Balkans are at a crossroads. One path goes forward, toward democracy, economic reform and European integration. The other path loops backward, toward nationalism and ethnic conflict. Each country in the region has dedicated itself to moving down the first path and many have started. But each is struggling with the legacy of the ethnic and sectarian wars of the 1990s and related problems in their democratic development.
A dozen years after the war in Bosnia and nine years after the Kosovo conflict, one might be forgiven for thinking that the struggle to build multiethnic democracies would be overcome by now. But these struggles are politically very alive. The lure of Europe remains the most compelling political engine in the region, but at times that engine sputters. And while democratic foundations have been laid, countries in the region are struggling to make democracy work, to deliver jobs, healthcare, and education, and, at a fundamental level, to give people, regardless of ethnicity, religious confession, and gender, a sense of security, dignity and the prospect of a better life. Democracy’s particular task in the Balkans—to construct political systems that enfranchise different ethnic groups—is not yet complete.
I begin my remarks with a few words about the region because, despite the wars, Serbia and its neighbors are inextricably tied—politically, economically, culturally, ethnically and pragmatically in the shared mission of joining Europe. For it size, location and historical role, Serbia is the region’s center of political gravity. The path chosen by Serbia--forward or backward--has a direct and significant impact on its neighbors.
Which path will Serbia choose? It’s somewhat vexing, in 2008, to be asking this question. Most people in Serbia thought it had been answered in 2000 when they removed Slobodan Milosevic from power. And in an important sense it was. The people of Serbia said “yes” to Europe. They said “yes” to democracy. But seven years later the public is frustrated over lack of progress in EU integration, and the slow pace of socioeconomic reform and the development of democratic political institutions.
We’re seeing this in the May 11 elections occasioned by the collapse of the governing coalition between the Democratic Party, led by President Boris Tadic, and the Democratic Party of Serbia, led by Vojislav Kostunica. The Democratic Party and its allies have coalesced around Europe. They assert that Serbia’s aspirations for economic prosperity, political stability and recovering Kosovo are better achieved inside rather than outside the Union. This message worked just two months ago, when Mr. Tadic narrowly won re-election as president, defeating his challenger, Tomislav Nikolic, leader of the Serbian Radical Party. Fresh off that victory, with considerable international support, and pragmatically oriented toward the future, President Tadic and his allies should have considerable momentum to prevail in May’s elections.
But there are political currents that speak to the fortunes of Mr. Tadic’s opponents—Mr. Nikolic, and now Mr. Kostunica. They espouse an agenda placing Kosovo’s return to Serbia before all else, even if that means forfeiting European integration. In so doing they’re tapping into high levels of public frustration over, as mentioned, Kosovo, the pace of European integration and socioeconomic reform. This frustration is shaping the May elections.
Kosovo. Serbian sentiment over Kosovo independence is negative and, for the moment anyway, raw. We saw this last month in the violent riots that included the attack on the U.S. embassy. These riots dismayed many outside and inside Serbia and for good cause. There is no excuse for the violence perpetrated, nor for the rhetoric that fueled it. That is not to say, however, that there isn’t genuine public anguish over Kosovo and underlying anti-western sentiment in the face of pragmatic, sometimes impatient appeals by Washington and Brussels to, in effect, “get over it” and move on. Many, if not most, people in Serbia will move on, but not right now, and probably not in time for these elections.
These elections, inescapably, will focus on Kosovo. The U.S./EU underwriting of Kosovo independence, Washington’s direct military assistance to Kosovo, and today’s acquittal of Ramush Haradinaj by The Hague tribunal will put a political dent in Mr. Tadic’s pro-Europe, pro-integration message. Belgrade’s intention to hold the elections in Kosovo, in the north and in Serb enclaves, will raise political temperatures and security concerns in Pristina and keep Kosovo very much on the front pages. All of this is seen to benefit Mr. Nikolic and the Radicals.
Europe. Voters have heard the government talk a lot about joining Europe. As we know here, politicians have to “walk the talk,” and Belgrade has had a hard time of that lately. The hopes were that Serbia would sign to a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA)—a major advancement toward EU membership. The agreement has not been signed, depriving pro-Europe forces of a major political asset. Some Europeans, notably the Dutch, are resisting signing the agreement because a key condition—the apprehension and extradition of Ratko Mladic—has not been met.
Now Kosovo is encroaching on the Europe issue. The Europeans are appealing to Belgrade to work with them on Kosovo, by engaging, or at least not hindering, the new EU mission there. For Kostunica and Nikolic, Serbia will not sign any agreement until the EU has reversed itself on Kosovo independence. This is squeezing out political space for Tadic and the Democratic Party to campaign on joining Europe and “defending” Kosovo at the same time. Coming so quickly after Kosovo’s independence, this campaign may see Europe trumped by Kosovo—unless Brussels can overcome Member State differences and deliver a SAA to Belgrade before May 11. If true, this bodes well for the Radical camp and for Mr. Kostunica.
In the meantime, the Europeans are moving money into Serbia to shore up voter support for Europe in advance of the elections. This is inviting pertinent criticism from other western Balkan countries also standing in line for EU membership that perceive Serbia to be receiving undeserved preferential treatment.
Incumbency problems. Serbia has seen its fair share of political instability since 2000—some four governments in seven years—which can in part be traced to the tragic assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March 2003. The problem is mainly political. Tadic and Kostunica have formed repeated governments—with encouragement by Americans and Europeans concerned by the alternative of a Radical government—only to preside over dysfunctional coalitions unable to agree on Europe, The Hague, NATO--all of which speak to Serbia’s geopolitical orientation vis-à-vis the West. For their part, voters have wearied of voting in problematic governments that bicker instead of deliver. This too gives an opening to the Radicals, who are tacking in a populist direction and campaigning effectively on bread and butter issues.
Political Math. Tadic and Kostunica have parted political company. A return to cohabitation is virtually unthinkable (although neither has formally ruled it out). The Europe/Kosovo debate has put Kostunica in the company of the Radicals, politically if not formally. Serbia’s election fault line, which before ran to Kostunica’s right, now runs to his left, separating him and the Radicals from Tadic and his allies. This too favors the Radicals, who typically receive the most votes of any party but have not yet found a partner with whom to build a governing coalition. They may now have that partner in Kostunica, but there are several “ifs” concerning a possible Radical-Kostunica government: how strong will Kostunica show on election day?; Are his followers as gung-ho about governing with the Radicals as he might be? What will be his reward if the Radicals stake a claim to the prime minister’s office? Without Kostunica, the mathematical burden, in terms of parliamentary seats needed to form a government, is on the Democratic Party.
May 12 may be just as important as May 11. If the election outcome is close, we could see messy and protracted coalition talks, much as happened following last year’s parliamentary elections. A close outcome makes Kostunica’s presumed spoiler role becomes more important. Local election coalitions, particularly over Belgrade, might also factor in.
There are important “democracy issues” about these elections that speak to the need for politicians to connect to voters, most of whom want to talk about how Serbia can function better, in terms of economic growth, social cohesion and government reform.
For parliamentary elections, Serbia as a whole is one election district. Voters receive one party or coalition ballot listing 250 candidates—the total number of parliamentary seats. There is little if any connection between voters and individual candidates as a result. Campaign strategy and media coverage naturally funnel to the top and center on one or two issues, such as Kosovo, without sufficient debate beneath on such other critical issues as job creation, public health or employment discrimination. The recent decision to stop the direct election of mayors and return to their indirect election by municipal assemblies also stymies an important political dynamic at the local level that can favor greater public participation in the political process.
These election issues responsive feed post-election governance problems. There is a near complete absence of links between members of parliament and the public, through constituent offices, policy dialogue with civil society, legislative public hearings in parliament, etc. that can be used to take ‘Europe’ as such off the shelf and bind it in concrete ways to the reforms that people want. Political parties need to do a better job of developing these linkages and using them to communicate their political vision and principles, along with concrete policy agendas. NGOs, for their part, need to become “legislatively literate,” help aggregate the public interest on many issues and engage politicians constructively. These links are critical for both Serbia’s European prospects and its democratic health. People are tired of voting repeatedly for a message without seeing the follow-through.
Serbia is contending with the legacy of Milosevic even as most people want to move beyond it. Their desire to do so and the ability of reform-oriented politicians to lead the country in that direction are presently, if temporarily, overshadowed by Kosovo. The hope is that this and similar shadows will indeed fade and that political leaders can use democratic political tools to focus the country’s energies on reform. May’s election outcome will have much to say in this respect, but this remains a long-term process for Serbia, as it is elsewhere in the region, that speaks to good government and responsive politics, and not only elections.
Published on Apr. 14, 2008