The Return to Power of Nationalist Parties in Croatia and Serbia: What Does it Mean?
May 12, 2004
Staff-prepared summary of the EES informal discussion with Mieczyslaw Boduszynski, Lecturer, Political Science Department, University of San Diego and former Title VIII JSTS alumnus and EES Research Scholar

Given that Croatia and Serbia are the largest and most important of the successor states of Yugoslavia, the developments there are crucial to the stability of the entire Balkan region. Both states recently held key national elections and both saw the return to power of coalitions dominated by nationalist parties. Mieczyslaw Boduszynski has analyzed these two events in depth and presented his findings. He argued that in the case of Croatia, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has proved, so far, that it has undergone substantial reform and is far less radically nationalist than it once was. In Serbia, democratic forces managed to form a government, but the largest vote-getting party was the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which remains in opposition. The verdict is still out on how nationalist the coalition of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), will be, how long it will last and whether it will eventually need to offer more concessions to the SRS following presidential elections on June 13, 2004.

In both Croatia and Serbia, the nationalist parties (HDZ and SRS respectively) won votes by gaining the support of disaffected groups, such as pensioners, refugees and the unemployed, by promising to raise living standards. People in both countries have increasingly been preoccupied with the economy, jobs, corruption and crime, rather than nationalistic concerns. The strong support for the HDZ and SRS clearly show that these large groups of people are not satisfied with the pace of reforms, but they were not voting for a return to the past.

Boduszynski underlined the important distinctions between the two parties as well. Although its roots are clearly nationalistic, the goals of HDZ have evolved, and it now has a clear trajectory towards EU membership and is also fully cooperative with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). By contrast, the SRS is still nominally led by indicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj (who is currently in prison in the Hague), is openly hostile towards the ICTY and maintains an anti-Western stance. These differences can be explained in part by the "different degree to which Serbia and Croatia were ‘co-opted' into the Western project, especially the process of EU integration." For example, in April 2004, Croatia was cleared to begin accession negotiations with the EU. As a result of a number of factors, such as the lack of economic and social reform, continued instability as a result of the undetermined status of Kosovo and Montenegro and ambivalent support for Western institutions, Serbia remains a few years away from even applying for EU membership. Boduszynski nevertheless remains optimistic about the prospects for domestic change in Serbia: both Kostunica and the leadership of the SRS recognize the need for the support of the international community and will not stand in the way of European integration.

So, how should the West respond to the resurgence of nationalist parties in Croatia and Serbia? First, it must recognize the democratic legitimacy of the electoral results. Second, the EU and the US must harmonize their policies in order to maintain pressure on both countries to cooperate with the ICTY and continue on the path to European integration. The ICTY needs to speed up the pace of the trials and announce any final indictments. Most importantly, a decisive policy must be established on Kosovo's future status in order to help lay the framework for a stable democracy and economic growth in Serbia.