Sunday, January 21, 2007

A telling election


A telling election

Jan 21st 2007 | BELGRADE

Serbs are going to the polls. The outcome matters in the Balkans and beyond


FOR a small country in the Balkans, Serbia has been receiving a fair amount of attention from people in high places of late. In the week or so before elections on Sunday January 21st the leaders or foreign ministers of Greece, Romania, Sweden and Slovakia have visited. The United States Senate passed a resolution on the poll and messages from top European Union officials in Brussels have flooded in. The reason is clear. The results will affect the entire region.

The decision of Serbia’s 6.6m voters will have an impact on Bosnia and Kosovo, and that in turn will affect what happens in the rest of the Balkans. If memories of the disastrous Yugoslav wars of the 1990s are not reason enough for foreign leaders to be concerned about what happens then a glance at a map may be. The recent accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU leaves the western Balkans as an enclave within it.

In theory Serbian voters have a clear choice between the extreme nationalist Radicals and a loose cluster of pro-reform, pro-European parties dubbed the “Democratic Bloc”. In practice it is not so simple. At the moment, the largest party in parliament is the Radical Party, led by Vojislav Seselj, who is on trial at the UN’s war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Its nationalist supporters have been joined by large numbers of the former middle classes, whose status and jobs have been destroyed over the past 17 years by war and sanctions, and now by the strains of economic transition.

The Democratic Bloc includes the party of Vojislav Kostunica, the current prime minister, and that of Boris Tadic, Serbia’s president. Mr Kostunica is a conservative nationalist who has little love for Mr Tadic. But the result may yet force both to hold their noses and do business together.

Most recent opinion polls suggest that the Radicals will win nearly a third of the vote, Mr Tadic's party perhaps a quarter and Mr Kostunica's, including a main ally, perhaps a fifth. So Mr Kostunica may hold the balance of power. He is unlikely to enter into a coalition with the Radicals but, depending on how the votes fall, his price for a teaming up with Mr Tadic's party is likely to be the premiership. If no coalition is formed then fresh elections will have to be called.

Serbia's electoral calculus matters to the rest of Europe because on February 2nd the country will be presented with a UN-devised plan for Kosovo. Since 1999 this overwhelmingly Albanian-inhabited territory has been under UN jurisdiction while technically remaining part of Serbia. The plan will, in effect, prescribe independence for Kosovo, an outcome opposed by all Serbian leaders. If and when this comes about, reactions will vary.

The Radicals care far more about Kosovo than about Serbia's future within Europe. At the other end of the scale, although Mr Tadic's spokesmen do not say so publicly, if Kosovo is lost, his party will not seek to cause havoc in the region by isolating Kosovo and trying to sabotage resurgent regional co-operation. Mr Kostunica's position lies somewhere in between.

Mr Kostunica's government has succeeded in getting Russia to say it opposes independence. If Russia vetoes the UN plan in the Security Council, which it might, violence could break out. And, though flouting international law, many countries will recognise Kosovo's independence anyway. If this happens Bosnia will feel the effects. Serb leaders there are determined to use Kosovo's independence as both a precedent and an example for the secessionist hopes of their own. Mr Kostunica would probably support this; Mr Tadic would not. Either way, uncertainty and upheaval would be bad for the region and thus for Europe as a whole.

Serbia | A telling election |

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