Serbia, it seems, may be returning to the dark days of the 1990s, with former allies of ‘Serbian Saddam’ Slobodan Milosevic and his extreme nationalist counter-part Vojislav Seselj (both charged for war crimes in the Hague), Ivica Dacic and Tomislav Nikolic, recently being elected as Prime Minister and President respectively. As Reuters has pointed out, an alliance of this sort last existed ‘at the close of Milosevic’s disastrous 13-year rule, when his forces expelled almost 1 million ethnic Albanians from Kosovo and NATO bombed in 1999 to wrest the province from him.
This interpretation is what has dominated the headlines in the West, anyway. But such alarmism is unwarranted, as there is unlikely to be any significant change in Serbia’s democratic prospects or its policies towards Kosovo and the EU.
Dacic and Nikolic and their parties, the Socialist Party of Serbia and the Progressives, have changed a lot in the past five to ten years.
Dacic has been referred to as Milosevic’s man, but, much more recently than that, he was an ally of the Democratic and pro-Western President Tadic. The Socialist Party he leads (and which Milosevic founded) had always been closer to the populist and ‘patriotic’ opposition since Milosevic’s fall in 2000, but in 2008 switched sides and joined the Democrats, helping them secure a much-needed parliamentary majority. Dacic became Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister. This about-face was – it was no secret at the time – engineered by Western embassies in Belgrade, and Dacic henceforth became a loyal man in the Democrat-led coalition, including its policy towards Kosovo and the EU. The Socialists entered the most recent elections in that coalition and intending to continue it, and it is only because of Tadic’s surprise defeat that they, again, decided to change sides. Dacic’s promotion to Prime Minister should hardly, therefore, be cause for alarm.
Nikolic, too, has an unsavoury past, but support for him over the past decade has had more to do with dissatisfaction with the rule of the Democrats, in power uninterrupted since 2000, than with support for extreme nationalism. His supporters are the socio-economic ‘losers’ of the transition, whose numbers have grown with Serbia’s current recession. Moreover, his current party, the Progressives, were formed from a 2008 split from Seselj, and have tried to shed their nationalist image.Western embassies probably had something to do with his split from Seselj, and Nikolic has been keen to emphasise his changed character, taking a former American ambassador as an advisor and even inviting former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a supporter of NATO’s 1999 bombardment of Serbia, for consultations.
The Guardian recently noted Nikolic refusing to rule out the partition of Kosovo, as if this was a radicalisation of Serbian policy. In fact, this was long been an option for Serbia, although officially it is almost always denied, as Serbia refuses to hand over any of its territory. Nikolic and Dacic emphasise their commitment to the territorial integrity of Serbia, as do all the major parties in Serbia, but, despite some nationalist posturing, immediately after the elections Nikolic went to Brussels and confirmed that he would be respecting recent Serbia-Kosovo agreements on ‘normalisation’ and continuing that process, claiming that the EU did not require recognition of Kosovo. Thus, it seems that the same Serbian policy will continue of pretending not to know that they are, bit by bit, being led towards de facto recognition of Kosovo. As Nikolic emphasises, the EU path remains the priority.
Likewise, in relation to Bosnia, where Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Serb entity, Republika Srpska, has been a thorn in the West’s side, there is unlikely to be any real change in Belgrade’s role. Dodik, in fact, had good relations with President Tadic, whom he backed in the May elections.
Nikolic may not initiate reconciliation with Serbia’s neighbours to the same extent as Tadic, and has already committed a few gaffes in this regard, but there is unlikely to be any real deterioration in regional relations, or inter-ethnic relations within Serbia. It is worth remembering that some of the best regional ‘reconcilers’ have had radical nationalists pasts. Former Kosovan President Ramush Haradinaj, for example, who was supported by the West as someone who embraced the idea of a multi-ethnic Kosovo, had to step down in 2004 to face trial in the Hague for horrific war crimes against national minorities committed just a few years earlier. It is notable that, as has become standard practice, the two key Bosniak politicians in Serbia have been given ministries in the new government, one as a deputy prime minister. (Their background is, incidentally, about as radical as Nikolic’s, both formerly advocating the secession of the Serbian region where most Bosniaks live.)
Serbia is not a perfect democracy, and the dominance of one party, the Democrats, for the last decade has not helped. Multiple changes in power are the real test of a democracy, and there shouldn’t be much to fear from Nikolic and Dacic in this respect. Whether they implement the same EU-sought policies as the Democrats, or perhaps the economic programme their voters sought them to implement, remains to be seen, but as far as Serbia’s democratic prospects and its relations with its neighbours go, there is no cause for alarm.