294. Democratic Consolidation in Serbia: Pitfalls of the Post-Djindjic Transition

By
Lenard J. Cohen

Lenard J. Cohen is Professor of Political Science at Simon Fraser University. He spoke at an EES noon discussion on March 10, 2004. The following is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report 294.

The results of the December 28, 2003 parliamentary elections began a new phase in Serbia's post-Milosevic development. Considerable attention has been focused on the surge of support for the highly nationalistic Serbian Radical Party (SRP), formerly headed by Vojislav Seselj, who at the time of the election was awaiting trial at The Hague tribunal. Seselj's Radicals, now headed by Tomislav Nikolic, received 28 percent of the vote and 82 seats in the 250-seat Serbian National Assembly. But it is important to remember that the other major election winners were from a broad grouping of reformist, democratically-oriented parties, albeit some quite conservative. For example, the Democratic Party of Serbia (DPS), headed by Vojislav Kostunica, received 18 percent of the vote and 53 seats. The party of the assassinated Premier Zoran Djindjic, the Democratic Party, received 13 percent of the vote, garnering 37 seats. The G-17 Plus, headed by Miroljub Labus, won 34 seats and 11.5 percent of the vote. And Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement (SRM) received 7.7 percent of the vote and 22 seats in alliance with the small party called New Serbia (NS).

After wasting two months on inter-party wrangling in January and February—quite costly for a country in dire need of reform—a minority government was formed in early March, without the Democratic Party, and without the ultranationalist Radicals, but with the contingent support of the Socialists (technically headed by Slobodan Milosevic). A new Serbian government and cabinet backed by 130 deputies was installed in March. The composition of the cabinet is split among the parties in the minority government (17 portfolios: nine for the DPS, four going to the G-17 Plus, and four awarded to the SRM-NS). The Socialists supported the minority government, but no members of that party are part of the government.

Considered together, the reformist parties (including smaller parties that did not receive parliamentary seats), received 2.3 million votes. The Radicals, by contrast, together with other non-reformist parties received only 1.4 million votes. Thus, despite the significant reversal of fortunes for Djindjic's Democratic Party and the former Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) partners, it is fair to say that the reformist orientation in Serbia carried the day. However, a significant impediment to Serbia's future political development is that the reformist parties are divided and that some reformers give precedence to national goals over democratic objectives, which have allowed the radical ultranationalist orientation to gain ground.

The Djindjic legacy

How did politics in Serbia shift so substantially to the right, such a short time after Milosevic's departure from political power? In answering this question it is useful to look back briefly at the record of the Djindjic government. There is no doubt that a good deal was accomplished during Djindjic's tenure, such as the achievement of macro-economic stability, the reduction of inflation, the adoption of reform initiatives that appeared promising and, at least initially, the creation of a mood of optimism, a sense of normality and rising expectations in Serbia. For example, early on in the Djindjic regime the exchange rate was unified, restoring confidence in the currency. The National Bank adopted a tight monetary policy, pegging the currency to the euro, prudent fiscal policies were adopted and an investor-oriented privatization law was enacted. The GDP per capita rose from $1,032 US dollars in 2000 to $1,879 in 2002. For the first time since Milosevic's fall, Serbia rejoined the world community. Additionally, promising measures were taken to ensure representation for, and the protection of, national minorities in Serbia.

Regrettably, the dead hand of the former Milosevic regime is still felt in Serbia today, through the continuity of certain groups in the police security system and the continued strength of the crime clans. Another factor blocking progress was the debilitating political duel between the Djindjic-led DOS and Kostunica. Indeed, by early 2003, the regime's failure to deal effectively with crime and corruption, as well as its own ties and obligations to criminalized circles and the stalemate between the two Serbian leaders substantially stalled reform in Serbia. Djindjic and Kostunica never really shook off the grip of Milosevic's criminalized power and security structure. Kostunica was philosophically wedded to the idea of post-communist transition in a gradual and legalistic manner, that is, a path that stressed the avoidance of radical purges and lustration. Therefore, during the first few years of the early post-Milosevic period, it was often remarked that Djindjic controlled the police (with all that meant in terms of police corruption and ties to the criminal world), and Kostunica controlled the army (an implication that also alluded to military links to the paramilitary sector, and the continued strength of conservative military influence).

When a new confederal arrangement between Serbia and Montenegro was put into place in early 2003, Kostunica stepped down from the presidency of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on February 4, 2003 and Djindjic became the dominant personality in Serbian politics. Djindjic's decision to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and specifically its prosecutor Carla del Ponte, as well as his broader planned attack on crime and corruption engendered growing anger among the remnant paramilitary and criminal elements in Serbia. There is a clear and direct line between the Serbian paramilitary warrior bands, the hooligans who operated in Croatia and Bosnia in the early and mid-1990s (causing some of the worst ethnic cleansing and atrocities associated with that warfare) and the assassination of Zoran Djindjic on March 12, 2003. The leader of the ring who planned his assassination, the notorious "Legija" (Milorad Lukovic Ulemek) remains at large. Some of the co-plotters in the assassination were killed in the initial police response, while others were put on trial in Belgrade in early 2004. But the entire case remains murky, and as of this writing, a good deal of information is still hidden about the conspiracy against the prime minister.

In the wake of the Djindjic assassination, the political heirs in the DOS coalition launched a state of emergency and a major police crackdown in March and April 2003. The so-called "Operation Sword" scored some major successes, including obtaining information on other assassination plots. Regrettably, however, it did not really crack the backbone of organized crime or eliminate the influence of criminal clans operating in Serbian politics. By the time Operation Sword ended, the political infighting between the post-Djindjic reformers in DOS and Kostunica's party, which had already left the ruling coalition, had reached fever pitch. An intense process of inter-party competition ensued as all political forces prepared for the December 2003 elections. The dissatisfaction, apathy, cynicism and general feeling of hopelessness in the Serbian population was reflected in Serbia's continued inability to elect a new president. The mid-November 2003 presidential elections failed due to an insufficient number of votes cast to validate the election. By fall 2003, the DOS coalition had disintegrated, and a new election was called for December 28—an election that completely changed the coalition of parties controlling Serbia.

Institutional reform

Serbia's difficulties with the process of democratic political transition are sometimes chalked up to the turbulent and rancorous party politics, or to some other specific factors such as Serbia's relationship to the United States and the EU, the complex Kosovo issue or the government's cooperation (or lack of cooperation with) the Hague tribunal. All of these issues are, of course, highly pertinent to Serbian political development. At the same time, aspects of Serbia's internal political evolution are often overlooked, specifically the process of institution-building. Distracted by the surface political squabbling, scandals and psycho-drama that makes up the Serbian political landscape, observers often overlook the potentially important character of institutional political evolution in Serbia.

For example, careful attention should be paid to political party development in Serbia, particularly the link between the development of the party system and the process of democratic consolidation. For instance, despite the resounding defeat of Djindjic's Democratic Party in the December 28, 2003 elections, it is important to keep in mind that the peaceful and smooth alteration of power, albeit excessively time-consuming, was a positive experience for Serbia, and a not-insignificant aspect of democratic consolidation.

Moreover, the defeated Democratic Party has begun an important process of internal transformation, which includes disavowing some of its more free-wheeling "reformers" who had exhibited rather authoritarian overtones in their behavior and their willingness to cooperate closely with the criminal clans. Djindjic's close associates are still prominent in the Democratic Party leadership. But the new leader of that party, Boris Tadic, is a genuine reformer. He has begun to take his party forward and assume a new posture as a "constructive opposition." The questionable elements in the Democratic Party have been sidelined. A process of "de-Djindjic-ization" has been taking place that eliminates reliance on the total primacy—sometimes really a cult—of the party leader (a flaw of most Serbian parties).

These changes may prove very helpful to the overall process of democratic consolidation. It will, of course, take a long time for Serbia's elite sub-culture to adopt genuine and sustainable democratic rules, and also for individual parties to develop internal democratic practices and norms required to function as an effective, cooperative and loyal opposition. Additionally, the fading of the smaller parties associated with the initial wild pluralism of early transition is also a desirable development. After the considerable party fragmentation from late 2000 to late 2003, there is more order to the Serbian parliamentary scene, with only six parties now in the legislature (although there are over 280 registered parties).

A similar, albeit guardedly optimistic, development on the Serbian political landscape involves the role of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), now headed by Ivica Dacic, in supporting Kostunica's government. For most observers, Socialist support for Kostunica's new minority government is very worrisome, given the unsavory record of the Milosevic-created SPS. But it should also be remembered that the center-left orientation is a traditionally important facet of Serbian political life. Although it certainly has not undergone a thorough metamorphosis, the SPS ceases to be the direct tool of Milosevic. Despite SPS's checkered past, it may potentially be a positive factor for Serbian party development and democratic pluralism. For example, when a former Milosevic crony was asked why the SPS had not followed Milosevic's advice about whom to support as the new party leader, he answered: "This was not the first time that [Milosevic's] advice was turned down. This was the fifth or sixth time."

Another aspect of party development relates to the potential role of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DPS) and its leader, Vojislav Kostunica. Many observers worry that Kostunica's brand of moderate or so-called liberal nationalism smacks of traditionalism and anti-Americanism, opposition to The Hague tribunal and support for cantonization in Kosovo. However, what may be more troubling, at least from the perspective of party development, state-building and institution-building, is that Kostunica's party and the conservative democrats in the center of the political spectrum are not actually stronger. In some respects, Kostunica, who is again in a powerful post as prime minister, was really not the big winner of the last elections. For example, he was forced into a minority government with parties that are less democratically oriented. What is still absent in Serbia is the development of a fully Europe-oriented conservative right. Indeed, the absence of both a modern, strong, moderate right and a modern, strong, moderate left, have perhaps been the most worrisome problems of post-communist pluralism in Serbia. The Radical Party is highly nationalistic, and did much better than most observers wished in the December 2003 elections. The Radicals may achieve even more strength in coming elections if the current moderate national-democrats, such as Kostunica, falter. As of now, the Radical Party has been excluded from power. But in the long run, it is important for Serbian democratic consolidation that the voting constituency supporting the Radicals—the lower middle class, the impoverished, and sections of the rural sector—is incorporated into political life and de-radicalized. Less extreme forms of nationalism, such as Kostunica's, are not entirely palatable, but are less of a threat to democracy than the Radicals.

Kostunica believes that what distinguishes him from other reformers, including those of the Democratic Party, is misunderstood in the West. Kostunica sees himself as a Tocquevillian: a supporter of the rule-of-law who favors an independent judiciary, the separation of powers, a strong parliament and who believes in the importance of morality and religion. Kostunica clearly opposes the "hurried pragmatism" or "revolutionary" spirit of transition Zoran Djindjic represented. His opponents contend that Kostunica is too closely linked to the church and to the pre-modern sector of Serbian society. But many of the beliefs espoused by Kostunica and his followers are typical of most European centrist and conservative parties. In any event, the de-radicalization of the constituency supporting Seselj remains essential for the emergence of a strong center-right party in Serbia. Thus, the most recent empirical data on Serbian attitudes indicates considerable ethnocentrism, nationalism and parochialism in the Serbian population. The most extreme expressions of ultra-nationalism have diminished compared to the 1990s, but ethnic distance and xenophobia have actually strengthened in the last few years. Feelings of isolation, the notion that Serbia is under siege and is treated unfairly by the world community prevail in Serbia. Viewed in this context, the incorporation of Vuk Draskovic and his Serbian Movement of Renewal (SMR) into political life as part of Kostunica's minority government can also be seen as a relatively benign feature, although Draskovic's traditionalism, monarchism and clericalism must not become the center of gravity if a fully democratic political alliance on the moderate right is desired.

Another potentially positive development is the new law on campaign financing that went into effect in late 2003, but was not applicable to the December elections. The law bans financing from foreign sources, puts limits on private donations, bans anonymous sources from contributing to parties and includes stricter controls and high fines on violators. Parties will be financed from the state budget in the future. The role of unsavory economic interests, oligarchs and crime clans in financing political parties has been one of the most troublesome features impeding party development in Serbia. It is also important that the parties in the minority government not simply engage in a division of the spoils, which turn ministries that they control into party fiefdoms. This will take time because the notion of a non-partisan bureaucracy is still very new and needs more attention.

The positive features of party development noted above will not contribute to Serbia's democratic consolidation if Kostunica and his government do not depoliticize the security sector and continue their attack on organized crime. The recent separation of the secret police from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the recruitment of new personnel in the police sector are certainly improving the overall situation. Moreover, the Security Intelligence Agency, set up in 2002, is slowly pushing reform. But, it was implicated in matters relating to the Djindjic assassination and the close ties between the security and intelligence services still need to be severed. Rule of law development, especially judicial reform and genuine anti-corruption measures, are essential if Serbia has any chance at democratic consolidation, not to mention attracting foreign direct investment and taking advantage of "normal trade relations" with the United States.

Naturally, questions of party development, nationalism, rule-of-law and economic reform are interrelated. Serbia faces daunting problems with unemployment—registered unemployment is 28 percent, and Prime Minister Kostunica mentioned 950,000 unemployed in his first speech to parliament. There is also a need to jump start privatization. The private sector of GDP is still only about 45 percent, which is well below the other Western Balkan states. In 2004, Serbia must also pay back $700 million to foreign creditors. Serbia's disadvantageous position at the end of the queue to join the EU is also a problem, since Serbia's isolation feeds national anxiety and xenophobia to the benefit of nationalist politicians. The danger remains that various economic grievances combined with growing isolationism will converge to fuel extremism or radical populism.

Territorial integrity

There is no doubt that anxiety still exists in Serbia with regard to the future disposition of lands that are viewed as integral Serbian territory, such as Kosovo. As a result of the intense and substantially organized violence against Serbs which erupted in Kosovo during the second half of March 2004—leaving 19 people dead and several hundred injured—the situation has become even more inflamed. In three days of rioting approximately 50,000 Albanians drove 4,500 Serbs from their homes. The failure of the international community to resolve matters has come into sharp focus, and is currently the subject of considerable discussion. What is most apparent is that creative and sustainable alternatives to the status quo must soon be found. The violence against Serbs, and the reactive violence in Kosovo and other areas of Serbia against Albanians and Muslim targets, demonstrated the combustibility and spiraling effect that can result from Albanian-Serb polarization. At present, two mutually irreconcilable positions concerning Kosovo can be found in the region, a zero-sum game, with most Albanians desiring independence and most Serbian leaders arguing for an international commitment that would prevent such a development. The potential of an independent Kosovo or another Albanian state—and one that could conceivably create a "greater" Albania—would not be well-received in Serbia, to say the least. Today, it is difficult to predict when negotiations will begin regarding Kosovo's status, but effective provisions for multi-ethnic rights of minorities in Kosovo is absolutely essential to prevent further instability in the region.

The issue of Montenegro's relationship to Serbia also feeds Serbian nationalism today. Political relations between Serbia and Montenegro may soon go downhill quite quickly. Montenegrin leader, Milo Djukanovic, and Zoran Djindjic cooperated closely. But Vojislav Kostunica is likely to take a more aggressive posture against Montenegrin sovereignty. The joint state created in 2003 was essentially stillborn. Some joint institutions were put in place, but they have not been functional. Moreover, there is no commercial court for the state union, and property issues between the two republics still need to be resolved. It is difficult to predict the result of a future Montenegrin referendum on independence. The recent population census in Montenegro indicates a sizeable increase in those declaring themselves to be Serbs, which may work against a vote for independence if it is held in 2005. Significantly, the issues of Kosovo and Montenegro are closely linked and a precipitous movement towards independence by one of the two units may stimulate independence-seeking pressures within the other.

There is also a festering issue of demands for more autonomy in Vojvodina, which caused an uproar in early 2004, as autonomy-oriented political forces in the province adopted a flag and new anthem. However, it is important to note that the Vojvodina issue is not intractable and that a decentralization-centralization dialectic is a normal and a negotiable issue within an emerging democratic system. However, the issue of decentralization or autonomy for Vojvodina will likely become highly contentious as Serbia's new government begins the process of drafting a post-Milosevic constitution in the coming months. Continued problems in the Sandzak and South Serbia will also become political issues of considerable importance.

External factors

Belgrade's external relations with Brussels and Washington will have an important impact on how Serbia's future unfolds. The United States has already contributed over $3 billion dollars to Serbia's economic development during the last three years (2001-2004) in the form of donations, credit arrangements and direct investments. The decision of the United States to withhold funds from Serbia at the end of March 2004, the EU's decision to delay a long-awaited feasibility study on future EU membership for Serbia and Montenegro and NATO's announcement that Serbia and Montenegro do not yet fulfill conditions for admission into the Partnership for Peace program, present Serbian leaders with very difficult choices. There is no doubt that Serbia must deal with the criminal indictments against its citizens, such as General Ratko Mladic, who seek refuge on its soil. Kostunica appears to be more pragmatic on this issue than first meets the eye. The US and EU approach to conditionality and assistance to Serbia with respect to cooperation on the matter of Belgrade's policy of extradition to The Hague must be handled with considerable care and diplomatic sophistication in order to avoid stimulating reactive extremist and xenophobic tendencies in Serbia. Presidential and local elections will take place in Serbia during the late spring, and a ham-handed approach from foreign capitals could make matters worse for the reformers.

The international community can assist in keeping reform and democratic consolidation moving forward in Serbia if sensitivity is shown toward its current leaders. War criminals must be prosecuted, but Serbia should be allowed to play a substantial role in the process, and international officials must recognize that it takes considerable time and political skill for any society to disassociate itself from its past. Such a disassociation cannot simply be externally engineered if it is to really matter for the consolidation of democracy over the long run. Committed reformers on the center-left, and the center-right, must be patiently assisted while encouraged to move "past the past." As a self-proclaimed democratic supporter of national values, Kostunica may prove able to assist in this process, and the international community should try to constructively engage his fragile government in the process of reform.

 

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