AIM: start

SAT, 01 DEC 2001 00:42:24 GMT

Yugoslavia at a Crossroads

Belgrade in the Labyrinth of Elections

The writing off of a large portion of Yugoslavia's foreign debt and the rescheduling of the rest, cooperation with the international community and its support to the existing federal system would make some other state feel like a favorite of the big and rich. As far as Yugoslavia -- or, rather, Serbia and Montenegro -- is concerned, this has only brought more dilemmas.

AIM Belgrade, November 27, 2001

Recurring events seem to have become a rule in Serbia. The elections for the assembly of Kosovo and Metohija that just ended witnessed a surprising turnout of the Serb electorate, and those who had insisted on their participation -- the international community and the Yugoslav and Serbian authorities -- were surprised the most.

Many Belgrade-based analysts describe the Kosovo Serb turnout -- almost 50 percent in Kosovo and Metohija and about 60 percent in Serbia and Montenegro where exiled Kosovo Serbs voted -- as better than Europe's average. In a way this is a consolation for the obviously successful boycott in the northern part of Kosovska Mitrovica, the largest Serb enclave, where less than 10 percent of voters visited the polling stations. It is interesting to note that the Belgrade analysts failed to delve into the significant drop in ethnic Albanian turnout, which in the past two decades was extremely high and never less than 90 percent. An explanation, it seems, will be given at a later date, if ever.

Instead, experts are calculating away, trying to find out whether the Return coalition could have emerged as the second strongest political force in Kosovo. And, of course, why this did not happen. They blame the government for being late to call on Kosovo Serbs to vote, their poorly organized and brief election campaign, and a simultaneous anti-campaign which ultimately won because most voters did not cast their ballots. Judging from the way the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) has tackled many problems in the past year, it came as no surprise that at their first meeting after the Kosovo elections, DOS leaders were split on the issue.

The most recent clash was best illustrated by the fact that 17 members of the ruling bloc outvoted the 18th member and demanded that the Federal Commission for Kosovo and Metohija be disbanded, and that Momcilo Trajkovic and Marko Jaksic, two local Kosovo Serb leaders who spearheaded the campaign against the elections, be sacked. The trouble is that Momcilo Trajkovic, a DOS leader, has to be dismissed by the federal cabinet, and Marko Jaksic, vice president of the Democratic Party of Serbia, will have to be punished by his own party, whose president is Vojislav Kostunica and which was the only DOS member to oppose disbanding the commission. Thus, the 17:1 ratio does not confirm adherence to democracy inside DOS, but instead hints of deeper and more numerous divisions. Also, which is more important for the future of Yugoslavia and/or Serbia, of risks that DOS does not have enough political will or wisdom to avoid. In short, now that a major portion of Yugoslavia's foreign debt has been written off in successful negotiations with the Paris Club of creditors, after Serbs showed plenty of goodwill for participation in the elections in Kosovo and Metohija without convincing international guarantees, and with many sides supporting the preservation of the Yugoslav federation, Yugoslavia's near future looks neither clearer nor easily predictable.

Montenegro's independence referendum, it seems, is in the planning stage indefinitely: the newest deadline -- spring, 2002 will certainly not be maintained, because the "separatist" forces have not even reached agreement on basic conditions for its validity. Things are stuck on whether three Montenegrins, if only three decide to vote, should be enough to determine the future of Montenegro, or whether at least a majority of 50 percent of registered voters ought to be required. The OSCE's recommendation is that a convincing majority of the electorate should be necessary for such a decision, but nobody has even begun to discuss this yet. Under such circumstances it is clear that no form of agreement exists when it comes to the matter itself, nor have officials taken into account the experiences and consequences of all "separatist" referendums held so far in the former Yugoslavia, when voters en mass opted for independence, sovereignty, democracy, stability, Europe and a better future. No one has even brought up the issue of the possible consequences of Montenegro's future being decided by ethnic minorities, which account for over 25 percent of the electorate, or why Montenegrin citizens living in Serbia should be banned from voting. On the other hand, Montenegro's "departure" will not be prevented by force: this is less likely than, say, the probability of divisions among Montenegrins on the independence issue leading to an escalation or culmination of tensions.

What all relevant analyses show is the simple fact that the referendum -- regardless of its outcome -- will not eliminate the existing problems in Montenegro. A recent survey conducted in November by the European Stability Initiative (ESI), carried out with the support of the U.S. Institute of Peace, says the following: the actors on the Yugoslav political scene -- Serbia and Montenegro -- are urged to talk about basic issues of cooperation, which will continue to exist regardless of whether the federation survives or falls apart. That this "Dialog Timetable" is indeed warranted was confirmed by the fact that local leaders obviously suffer from a sort of autism, if not merely an unwillingness to debate practical and not only "historic" and "fateful" issues. On the other hand, Serbia's ostensible "indifference" towards the question of Montenegro's independence is a veritable test of the determination of Podgorica's key political forces, which is obvious from their need to react fiercely to even the most banal statements from Belgrade. Montenegrin "separatists" will, however, find international community pressure a greater challenge. For the time being, the international community supports the Yugoslav federation. If, it says, any major changes are to be made, then a qualified majority of voters should be required, and voters will have to be told, publicly and clearly, about the potential consequences of their decision.

When the Montenegrin referendum is concerned, Belgrade's greatest worry is that it could be postponed again. Miroljub Labus, Yugoslavia's deputy prime minister and one of the three main negotiators with international financial institutions, said after the talks with Paris Club that separate lists of claims put together for Serbia and Montenegro was no attempt to presuppose their future status. He stressed, however that Serbia should give Montenegro until the end of March 2002 at the latest to make up its mind. Otherwise, Serbia will have wasted valuable time and put off seeing the effects of the changes initiated on Oct. 5, 2000 -- it can expect no more grants for toppling the Milosevic regime. Labus's warning was not only meant for Podgorica; one could say without exaggerating that Podgorica, in fact, wasn't its primary objective.

That takes us back to the factional bickering inside DOS, a bloc of parties that formally has a two-thirds majority in the Serbian Legislature. Despite this, however, Serbian Premier Zoran Djindjic relies more on cabinet decrees, personal participation in disputes and agreements than on the lawmaking power of the highest government body. As opposed to Vojislav Kostunica, whose personal popularity is backed by his party's high approval rating, Zoran Djindjic has managed to survive solely thanks to the support of the smaller DOS parties. Apart from having a majority at sessions of the DOS presidency, this otherwise greatly limits his ability to act, even in areas where his public image could be greatly improved. The agreed distribution of positions of cabinet portfolios not only prevents him from replacing associates who are practically killing themselves -- such as Justice Minister Vladan Batic and Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic but also gets him involved in scandals such as the recent rebellion of the Special Operations Unit, better known as the Red Berets, a part of the State Security Service (secret police). On the other hand, Vojvodina's "autonomy mongers," led by Nenad Canak, are capitalizing on forcing concessions which, regardless of how they are explained, have nothing to do with the platform of reforms offered last year during DOS's election campaign, and even less with what would be happening under normal circumstances.

With things of this sort happening it is only natural that the future of Yugoslavia and Montenegro's referendum have been pushed to the second plane by Canak, who has promised, as head of the Vojvodina Assembly, to hold a referendum that will achieve one of the following: get the province greater autonomy, upgrade its status to that of a republic, or even secure full independence for it. It was recently announced that preparations had begun for drafting a constitution for the province. That, and the fact that Canak narrowly avoided dismissal in the Assembly, is confusing people in Vojvodina. Still more confusion was brought by Justice Minister Batic, who has said that he wants Serbia to organize its own referendum in response to Montenegro's. For a change, at the end of November he announced that Serbia would get new national symbols -- a flag, a coat of arms, and a national anthem -- without the referendum required by the valid constitution. As far as the public is concerned, "the government's message is far from clear, and people are reacting accordingly," says public opinion researcher Srdjan Bogosavljevic. All five solutions offered for relations between Serbia and Montenegro so far, from full independence to a united Yugoslavia, have their backers, although the majority in Serbia still favors a common future.

It therefore comes as no surprise that according to polls taken on the anniversary of the fall of Milosevic, there hasn't been that big a drop in the popularity ratings of the victors, as much as a troublesome increase in the number of undecided, the silent majority that in the end finally overthrew Milosevic. Taken separately, Kostunica's party would now win 24 percent, and Djindjic's Democratic Party 17 percent of the vote. Not a single one of the 16 remaining DOS members would even pass the threshold required for entering the Legislature, which shows why they are siding with the "strong" and why there have been successful (Vuk Obradovic's Social Democracy party) and unsuccessful coups and splintering in parties (Momcilo Perisic's Movement for Democratic Serbia) in a bid to realign their forces ahead of a new showdown at the polls. As far as the opposition is concerned -- Milosevic's Socialists, Seselj's Radicals and Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic's Party of Serb Unity -- lots of time will go by before they can endanger DOS, or the two strongest parties, although they would probably manage to enter the legislature. A survey carried out by Strategic Marketing shows yet another consequence of the divisions inside the ruling bloc: if the G17 Plus think-tank, of which Deputy Prime Minister Labus, National Bank of Yugoslavia governor Mladjan Dinkic and many other experts working for the federal and republican cabinets are members, decided to run in elections independently, it would become the third strongest force in Serbia. The Otpor People's Movement would also win enough votes to make it into the Legislature.

Followup local elections held in 18 municipalities in central Serbia at the beginning of November, gave some indication of the outcome of divisions in DOS: the results showed that Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia and Djindjic's Democratic Party are supported by 23 percent each, but that the same is the case with the Socialists, which was a surprise to them as well. Despite the fact that the Socialists owe their success to a continuation of the post-Milosevic decay, there are no signs yet that anybody in DOS has given these figures any serious thought. It appears that regardless of strained relations inside DOS, the parties have reached a tacit agreement on not making any more rash statements about early elections. They stress that elections will not be held before a new Serbian constitution is adopted. And no new constitution can be adopted before the future of the common state formed by Serbia and Montenegro is settled. And that will not happen until Montenegrins decide what they want. And that brings us back to square one. The only thing that is certain is that a regular presidential election is due next year in Serbia -- but that too hinges on an end to Montenegro's indecision.

Aleksandar Ciric