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267. Serbia's Presidency: Between Nationalism, Reform and Apathy

On December 8, 2002, Serbs failed to elect a president for their republic for the third time since September. After rancorous campaigning, an October television debate, and a disturbingly strong showing by radical nationalist Vojislav Seselj in the election's first round in September, Serbs could not be bothered to come out in sufficient numbers to validate the December election between current Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, nationalist firebrand Vojislav Seselj, and Borislav Pelevic. As expected, Kostunica won handily with 57.5 percent of the vote and Pelevic's performance at the polls was inconsequential. Seselj's take of 36.3 percent of the electorate, however, was both astonishing and distressing. Yet, in spite of the fact that three candidates competed for the presidency, the principal opponent of each was once again voter apathy and Serbia's threshold requirement that a minimum of 50 percent of voters vote in order to validate an election.

Having prevailed in three electoral contests, a Kostunica presidency seems inevitable, and perhaps even desirable, given the apparently popular alternative of Seselj. Nevertheless, a Kostunica presidency would likely mean dramatic changes for Serbia. Rather than merely extend Serbia's political "cohabitation," a Kostunica victory could well have unexpected consequences for Zoran Djindic's government. In spite of the return of Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) to the Serbian Parliament, it is unlikely that his party and Djindic's Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) coalition will be able to bury their differences. In any event, any appraisal of the presidential elections must be considered against a background of Serbia's acrimonious political environment and bleak social conditions in the lingering, dysfunctional framework of Yugoslavia. Serbia is a house often divided against itself, in a loveless marriage with Montenegro, and still largely in denial of the crimes and consequences of its wartime past. Thus, Serbia's next president will have his work cut out for him in a country so dysfunctional that the laws designed to ensure democratic participation have twice invalidated elections.

Serbia's political scene is fractured, highly personalized and acrimonious. Thus, the first presidential election and runoff vote were both a referendum on the degree of economic reform and integration, as well as an extension of the personal feud between Kostunica and Djindic – the latter represented by candidate Miroljub Labus. For other candidates, the election was an opportunity to demonstrate that the cause of Serbian hegemonic nationalism remains alive and well. This extreme position is best embodied by Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj (who is under constant threat of indictment for war crimes by the ICTY). Seselj surprised perhaps even himself in the first round of the September 2002 elections when he finished third, with 22.6 percent of the vote. Seselj aside, the principal protagonists for the presidency were Kostunica and Labus, who finished both rounds first and second respectively. Kostunica stood as the candidate of his Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS). Labus, though he drew much of his support from the DOS, did not officially represent the coalition. Nevertheless, he was closely associated with Zoran Djindic and the fractious DOS coalition, which broadly share his pro-reform agenda and is the dominant political bloc in the Serbian Parliament.

The presidential contest came at an inauspicious time for Serbia's reformers. While on the one hand the reformers can boast of real achievements since their election nearly two years ago, many problems remain to be tackled. The reformers have been determined in their agenda, but have simultaneously been accused of the same kind of cronyism and corruption that characterized the Milosevic regime. Economic reform is always a painful process, and Serbia has had the misfortune of launching its reforms during a downturn in the international economy. Thus, candidate Labus faced an electorate weary of belt tightening and anxious to see visible improvements in daily life. Cautious Kostunica, by contrast, was able to deflect most of the fallout for the painful reform process onto the Djindic government and, by implication, Labus. Indeed, Kostunica sought to portray Labus as an extremist, charging that the G17 economist slavishly fulfills Serbia's obligation to international financial organizations irrespective of the impact on Serbian society.

In practice, Serbia has not had a president for two years. Serbia's current president (and ICTY indicted war criminal) Milan Milutinovic, has essentially withdrawn from daily politics and counts the days of his remaining presidential immunity before extradition to the Hague. If Serbia has existed this long without an active president (whose role is anyway somewhat limited), why the heated campaign for the post? And what would change in the likely event of a Kostunica presidency? After all, Serbia is currently characterized by the de facto cohabitation of Yugoslav President Kostunica and Serbian Prime Minister Djindic. On the surface, it might appear that the current Kostunica-Djindic rivalry would merely be replicated on the exclusively republican level. Closer inspection, however, suggests that a Kostunica presidency could result in major political changes in the Serbian political landscape. In fact, Serbia has been in the midst of a presidential as well as a parliamentary crisis for some time now, and Prime Minister Zoran Djindic must govern amid calls for extraordinary parliamentary elections.

Djindic and Labus have been the champions of economic reform and the reintegration of Serbia into the international community. However, the reformist agenda has been painful for much of Serbia, and the Prime Minister himself is associated by much of the population with lower purchasing power and cronyism. In the parliament, the DOS coalition has been beset by divisions over the past year, culminating in the coalition's confiscation of DSS' parliamentary seats as a punishment for the latter's obstruction of reforms. This in turn prompted DSS to withdraw from DOS, and bring the issue of the parliamentary mandates before the Yugoslav and Serbian Supreme Courts. Despairing of this situation, Kostunica has regularly called for new parliamentary elections in Serbia, something that Djindic and his allies, for obvious reasons, reject.

Additionally, Serbia finds itself on the verge of constitutional reorganization. Kostunica has spoken enthusiastically of this possibility and has talked of new arrangements that would reorganize and decentralized the republic. It is also suspected by some analysts that he would seek to enhance the powers of the presidency in any new Serbian constitution. While this would not likely result in a powerful American-style executive, the authority to call new parliamentary elections could shift to the president, which would be a real challenge for the Djindic government. (Currently, the Serbian president lacks legal authority to call early elections.) Thus, should relations between Kostunica and Djindic remain poor – which seems likely – both the Serbian presidency and the future composition of the Skupstina (Serbian parliament) could be at issue. All predict that Kostunica's DSS would do very well in parliamentary elections and a victorious President Kostunica would almost certainly push for early elections in the spring of 2003. As such, the Serbian presidential contest has real implications for the future of reform.

As an ideologue, Kostunica has the value of consistency. If elected, however, he would face the choice of supporting painful economic reforms or succumbing to more nationalist, conservative sympathies. His supporters are many and varied, ranging from nationalist opponents of reform, to political moderates frustrated with Djindic and his alleged cronyism. Kostunica, who considers himself a moderate nationalist, is viewed by many in Serbia as uncorrupted and is admired for his willingness to stand up to the West. This author believes that it is imperative for Serbia to stick to the path of reform and eschew the nationalist temptation at home and abroad. Such a course would be possible under Kostunica, but not assured.

While the charge that he simply represents "Seselj in a frock coat" is no doubt an exaggeration, the Yugoslav President clearly does sympathize with a variety of hegemonic nationalism. Kostunica is a clear improvement on Milosevic, but behind a veneer of legalism, Kostunica and his party have demonstrated a real commitment to Serbian nationalism and a disdain for the current international order in the Balkans. Such a programme cannot bring stability to the Balkans, which is a prerequisite for Serbian economic recovery. DSS' official party platform has called for creating "a state which would extend over the entire Serb ethnic space" and during the 2002 Serbian presidential campaign, Kostunica himself described Republika Srpska as "part of the family" that was "temporarily separated" from Serbia. He later claimed he had been "maliciously misinterpreted." However, his campaign manager and DSS Vice President Dragan Marsicanin confirmed that annexing Republika Srpska was "the goal we aim for." When the Serbian Democratic Party of Radovan Karadzic triumphed in Bosnia's October 2002 general election, Kostunica praised the party for its "wise and rational policies," which, he said, had been vindicated at the polls. Perhaps owing to his expertise in constitutional law, Kostunica has always displayed solid credentials as a democrat. For this, Serbia should be thankful. Unfortunately for his country and the region, Kostunica's credentials as a nationalist appear similarly in order.

The success of a reformist agenda in Serbia is imperative, given the state of the country's economy. Unfortunately, voter patience with the reform process is limited and at least one study suggests that the constituency for reform is shrinking. According to the National Democratic Institute, for the first time since Milosevic's ouster, a plurality of Serbs believes that the country is moving in the wrong direction. Both Kostunica and Labus are advocates of reform, but Labus should certainly be counted as the bolder reformer, while Kostunica favors a slower approach. Seselj, on the other hand, has a program that focuses less on reality and more on invective against Serbia's perceived enemies. It it may well be that only a nationalist can get elected president in today's Serbia. Ultimately, a rapprochement between Serbia's pragmatic reformers in DOS and the country's "moderate" nationalists around Kostunica is needed. However, this compromise must de-emphasize nationalism and focus on reform, if it is to be effective.

Whoever becomes Serbia's president will preside over a highly dysfunctional state. This dysfunctionality is evident everywhere, from the inability of Djindic and Kostunica to delineate their respective spheres of influence, to the highly personalized nature of Serbia's charismatic politics. Both the federal and republic regimes in Belgrade lack legitimacy among Kosovo Albanians and many Montenegrins. Sandzak Muslims regularly express concern over their status in the country. And while Serbs have eagerly returned to the international community, they have done so mostly for pragmatic reasons. Indeed, the Serbian analogue to Germany's post-war process of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung (or "coming to terms with the past") has made little headway in Serbia. Only 20 percent of Serb respondents in a 2002 survey by the National Democratic Institute found moral arguments for cooperation with the ICTY "very convincing." Pragmatic arguments fared far better: 44 percent of respondents accepted cooperation with the ICTY if it would move Serbia towards EU membership, and 36 percent were similarly convinced by the motivation of securing U.S. aid. Meanwhile, Serbia's nominally pro-reform leadership has, thus far, failed to confront popular cynicism on the ICTY. For example, rather than defend Milosevic's extradition as a first step toward reconciliation with the past, Djindic's Serbian government explained it as something necessary to secure badly needed international financial aid. In fact, international cooperation is often couched in terms of practical necessity, or even blackmail.

Yugoslavia and Serbia remain beset by endemic corruption, a powerful underworld, and a limping economy. Though important progress has been made, the state is not yet properly characterized by rule of law. Political assassinations are still not uncommon and much economic activity occurs on the black market. Meanwhile Kostunica is not himself above using legality for nationalist ends. Such was the case in the months before Milosevic's extradition, when the Yugoslav president found any number of legal reasons to avoid cooperation with the ICTY, which he dismisses as biased.

Lastly, it is necessary to consider the EU brokered Belgrade Agreement establishing Serbia and Montenegro as the successor state to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). The Belgrade Agreement ultimately resolves little of the root differences between Montenegro and Serbia. The "new" joint state it creates – "Serbia and Montenegro" – ends the "Yugoslav" fiction of Milosevic's FRY by effectively recognizing the status quo of two basically independent republics in a fictional state. Rather than guarantee stability, the Belgrade Agreement is remarkable for the very uncertainty built into the new state. The agreement includes a "Provision on Reconsideration," which stipulates that: "Upon the expiration of a three-year period, the member states shall be entitled to institute proceedings for a change of state status, that is, withdrawal from the state union [my italics]." The Belgrade agreement appears to hardly resolve Yugoslavia's dysfunctionality and may even enhance it.

While thus far not conclusive, the Serbian presidential elections have been a useful barometer of the current political mindset of Serbia today. The vote darkly demonstrates that a virulent, xenophobic nationalism continues to infest part of Serbian society and will continue to provide Vojislav Seselj's Radical Party with a sizable constituency in the future. However, the vote simultaneously indicates an enthusiasm for reform among the electorate. Although neither Kostunica or Labus was able to achieve more than a plurality in the September 2002 contest, combined they earned 57.37 percent of the vote with broadly pro-reform programs. Their agendas may have differed in quality and degree, their supporters may not share the same optimism about reform, and there is no doubt that Kostunica drew much support for his nationalism, but this combined tally nevertheless indicates that reforms should be expected to proceed in Serbia. This result was confirmed in December. At issue is merely the scope and speed of reform.

Another question is whether nationalism will continue to shape Serbia's fate. Seselj's recent electoral performance at least suggests the possibility. Ultimately, there needs to be less recrimination and more cooperation in Serbia's highly fractious and personalized political scene. A genuine rapprochement between Kostunica and DOS' reformers would be significant in that it would lower political tensions and lend Kostunica's important reputation to the reform project. Regardless, it appears certain that Kostunica will be Serbia's next president.

Ultimately, any rapprochement between Serbia's leaders must emphasize liberal reform at the expense of nationalism and international isolationism, which continue to impede Serbia's progress. The Council of Europe on November 4 announced that, due to Yugoslavia's unresolved constitutional charter and intransigence before the ICTY, it could not expect to accede at present to that organization. At the behest of Carla del Ponte, the UN and the EU are also bringing pressure to bear upon Belgrade. Thus, Yugoslavia's dysfunctionality and selective attention to international law is yielding bitter fruit. There should be no denying that Yugoslavia has made genuine progress since Milosevic's ouster. The country's "moderate" nationalists must now lend their reputation to the project of liberal reform, and the country must definitively move away from the temptations of extreme, and especially hegemonic, nationalism. Only then will Serbia's progress on the path toward Europe and stability be assured.

Phillip Lyon spoke together with John Hulsman and Damjan de Krnjevic-Miskovic at the EES seminar "The Implications of the Elections in Yugoslavia for U.S. Interests in the Balkans" on November 7, 2002. The above is an edited summary of Mr. Lyon's presentation.


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Phillip Lyon

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Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program is focused on Europe’s capabilities, and how it engages on critical global issues.  We investigate European approaches to critical global issues. We examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our initiatives include “Ukraine in Europe” – an examination of what it will take to make Ukraine’s European future a reality.  But we also examine the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, Europe’s energy security, transatlantic trade disputes, and challenges to democracy. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more