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Serbia and Croatia: after the elections

01 April 2004

Parliamentary elections in Croatia and Serbia in late 2003 brought the question of nationalism in the Balkans back onto the agenda. In Croatia, former President Franjo Tudjman's party, the HDZ, returned to power, while in Serbia, the Radical Party led by war crimes indictee Vojislav Seselj won the largest share of the vote. In neither case, however, are we faced with a return to the nationalism of the 1990s, which mobilised peoples for violent aggression against each other. In both countries, extremism is fed by hopelessness due to acute economic distress and disillusion with the outgoing governments' ineffectiveness, internal bickering and corruption.
In Croatia voters chose the HDZ because they were looking for more effective government. The outgoing coalition was failing to deliver. The HDZ leadership has made a convincing start on reforming the party's image and removing the most compromised politicians from its previous period in power. It also ran a very good election campaign, presenting the image of a modern party with a determined leader ready to pursue a strong agenda of reform, prioritising the goals of NATO and EU accession. Croatian public opinion strongly supports these objectives. Positive signs are the inclusion of representatives of the Serbian minority in the new government, and the HDZ is now taking useful advice from West European conservative and peoples' parties on how to revise its ideology and adapt to the demands of `Europeanisation'.
The results in Serbia are more troubling. An optimist would point to the fact that the democratic parties between them carried off more than 60 per cent of the vote, while the Radicals won 27 per cent, and in absolute numbers no more votes than in the past. Only at the beginning of its `transition to democracy', which began late in 2000, Serbia could be compared with, for example, Poland or Slovenia, which both saw surprise electoral successes of unknown `wild card' outsiders in early 1990s elections. The key problem, however, is deep division and personal animosity between the democratic parties, which seem unable to work together. So the new government - which took two full months to form - is a coalition of three partners led by Vojislav Kostunica's DSS. It is dependent on the parliamentary support of Slobodan Milosevic's Socialists to survive, while the DS party of assassinated Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic remains in opposition.
In both countries, the issue of cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal (ICTY) in The Hague continues to touch raw nerves in national sensibilities. Croatia faces the key challenge of handing General Ante Gotovina over to the court, but he is still widely regarded as a war hero. The HDZ leaders claim to be ready to comply, and unless they do, they will not get the `green light' from the European Commission on their application for EU membership, expected in April. But will they carry the party's rank-and-file with them? This will be the key test of how far Croatia has gone in recalibrating its national identity to match its sense of a European vocation. The HDZ could well be better placed to deliver on this (and other difficult issues on the reform agenda), precisely because of its credibility and legitimacy as defender of the `national interest'.
The new government in Serbia is profoundly ambivalent about cooperation with the ICTY, reflecting Prime Minister Kostunica's long-held views. Other parties in the coalition are more willing to cooperate, but for the moment they are prioritising coalition unity in the interests of rebuilding the lost momentum of domestic economic reform. None would benefit from an early election. Meanwhile, another attempt to fill the long-vacant post of President of Serbia will be scheduled for May/June. The Radicals are optimistic about their chances of winning this time - their candidate, Tomislav Nikolic, came top in the last ballot on the Presidency in November. That was invalid, however, due to a turnout of below 50 per cent, but now the election law has been amended to remove the turnout requirement. So it is absolutely vital for the democratic parties to field a common candidate who can muster the support of all their voters. This has become much harder after the bitter mud-slinging of the past few months.
The government will be hard put to show any success stories to impress the voters by May. Reluctance to comply with the ICTY will further delay integration with the EU and NATO. And the economic situation will get worse before it gets better. Even if it was poverty and an inchoate sense of grievance that fuelled recent support for the Radicals, the old nationalist agenda is not yet dead. The awful events of this March in Kosovo have handed the Radicals a further electoral asset that they are ready to exploit to the full.