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Swallowing Frogs

8 March 2004 Cooperating with the ICTY could prove a relatively small frog for Kostunica to swallow. The problem is that he has an appetite for confrontation.

Serbia’s bumpy transition from a corrupt and violent society into a law-abiding democracy entered uncharted territory last week with the swearing in of Vojislav Kostunica’s minority cabinet.

In order to be able to form a government that excludes the Democratic Party (DS), which dominated the previous government, Kostunica and his Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) had to rely on the votes of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) of former Yugoslav and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who is on trial for war crimes at the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

Given that, outside Serbia, Milosevic is almost universally regarded as the leader who contributed more than anyone else to the region’s troubles in the 1990s, Kostunica’s willingness to embrace the party initially triggered a fresh wave of international anxiety about the Balkans.

Kostunica said in the election campaign that the DSS would enter government neither with the DS nor with the parties of the Milosevic regime—the SPS and the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), now Serbia’s biggest single party.

The math of December’s election, though, had always indicated that no majority that excludes both the DS and the old regime parties was going to be possible. In other words, it was always perfectly clear that Kostunica’s electioneering equation did not balance--and that something would have to give in.

It was taken more or less for granted that, faced with international and domestic pressure, Kostunica would form a governing coalition with the DS, the liberal G17 party and the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO)-New Serbia grouping of Vuk Draskovic. But Kostunica proved extremely resilient to pressure and went for the other option, which many liberal commentators despairingly argued would amount to Milosevic returning to power by the back door.

So what case does Kostunica have in his defense? Do any of his arguments for doing what he had pledged he would never do hold water? And was the international community right to take so much interest in what some in Serbia tend to describe as simply the party politics of one country?

Given the criminal nature of the former regime, Kostunica’s election promise not to cooperate with the former regime parties needed little explanation. But his rejection of the DS required at least some elaboration.

Kostunica offered little by way of explanation, simply claiming that the members of the DS-led Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), which brought down Milosevic in 2000 and went on to govern Serbia until last week, had been utterly and irredeemably compromised in corruption scandals.

The record of the DOS government--of which the DSS and Kostunica as Yugoslav president were a reluctant part until early 2003--was indeed marred by often reckless politicking, the arrogance of some prominent ministers, and numerous allegations of corruption (some of which proved to be well-founded). However, Kostunica’s verdict on the DOS era appears to be motivated more by DSS grudges against the DS leadership and, in particular, against its foreign policy.

Some former DS top officials at times appeared so obsessed with their rivalry with the DSS that they did not shy from manipulating the media, parliamentary procedures and even police investigations to harm their foes; Kostunica now seems to have set a stage for this vicious cycle of revenge to continue.

He appointed his security advisor, Rade Bulatovic, as the new head of Serbia’s secret police. In what the DSS now claims was a DS-inspired witch-hunt, Bulatovic was arrested and held in detention without charges for several months during the police action against organized crime that followed the assassination last March of Zoran Djindjic, Serbia’s prime minister and the leader of the DS. That move, one of the first that the new government made, may also indicate a continued obsession with secret service among Serbia’s top politicians.

Kostunica’s quarrel with the previous government on the foreign affairs front is more principled, though (potentially) no less troublesome. The new Serbian prime minister has never hidden his disgust with the ICTY and the Djindjic government’s willingness to comply with its extradition orders. Amid Western calls for full cooperation with the ICTY, Kostunica defiantly stated, while prime minister designate, that cooperation with the Hague would not be one of his priorities. In his first address to parliament, however, he modified his stance somewhat, saying that he will seek to turn cooperation with the ICTY into a “two-way process,” with senior former regime figures being tried before Serbian courts and others offered state help to defend themselves in the Hague.

The new prime minister’s take on ICTY was undoubtedly central to securing the votes of the SPS, whose leader and scores of prominent members are on trial in the Hague. But it is far from clear what exactly Kostunica intends to do when the outstanding ICTY demands and other possible future demands land on his desk. Most of his stated policy goals—economic growth and greater EU integration in particular—depend on Belgrade’s cooperation with the ICTY. Surely, when faced with the possible consequences in a few months’ time, Kostunica will seek pragmatic solutions to get himself out of the corner he finds himself in. After all, two coalition partners, G17 and the SPO-NS coalition, will be very keen to quickly find the least painful solutions to the Hague issue. Yes, Kostunica may lose the SPS’s support, but that could be a wonderful opportunity to bring in the DS, which now has a new, less confrontational leadership, into the government.

Furthermore, the most difficult chapters of Serbia’s cooperation with the Hague have already been written by the Djindjic government. In all likelihood, Kostunica will only be required to carry out one potentially difficult arrest and extradition—that of the wartime Bosnian Serb military leader, Ratko Mladic, who is believed to be in hiding in Serbia—and persuade a few former and now almost forgotten military and police commanders to surrender. Altogether, it would be a comparatively small frog to swallow. And while it may make him temporarily sick, his solid nationalist reputation would guard Kostunica from any long-term negative impact on his ratings. A nice little piece of cake that any sensible politician would go for?

Not quite. Observers have been wrong on Kostunica many times before. Whenever he was in position to make a simple, decisive move that would detach Serbia from one piece of its unfortunate recent past, he just would not make it. After all, if it hadn’t been for Kostunica’s whims, the SPS wouldn’t now be an important part of the governing machine. It is therefore not at all inconceivable that, irritated by impatient and tactless pressure from Washington, Kostunica will once again prove incapable of overcoming himself and will simply reject any meaningful cooperation with the ICTY, throwing the country into another round of uncertainty and confusion.

In other words, while a Kostunica-led government is hardly the worst that could befall Serbia, Kostunica the prime minister needs some careful analyzing and handling by Western negotiators and some of his more pragmatic ministers, Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus of G17 in particular.

The West’s coordinated decision not to make a huge drama of Kostunica’s marriage with Milosevic’s party—a decision that followed the initial panic--should be welcomed as wise.

One of the elements that all future participants in the West’s communication with Kostunica should also take into account is his circle’s cheap anti-Americanism and its greater openness toward the arguments made by the European Union, and by the French government in particular.

None of this means that Kostunica and his ministers should be allowed to get away with anything that others would not be allowed.

One of Kostunica’s political trump cards has always been that his hands and the hands of his closest associates are clean. As such, DSS officials have successfully sold themselves as natural future holders of the most troublesome portfolios. But it now turns out that the whiter-than-white Kostunica has appointed a man found guilty of burglary as his interior minister, while his justice minister presided over a notorious 1980s trial against activists of free speech in the then communist Yugoslavia. None of this is necessarily compromising in itself. But it is disconcerting that Kostunica failed to discuss the issues publicly, while the two ministers in question shrugged off the episodes as irrelevant.

Kostunica’s failure to include a single ethnic-minority member in his cabinet is also worrying and may even be indicative of his hardening approach to so-called “national” issues, of which Kosovo and Bosnia are the most important. While his promise of more hands-on involvement on Kosovo is welcome, especially given the previous government’s reluctance to deal with it in any meaningful way, Kostunica’s decision to immediately fire off a proposal—an ethnic partition of the province-- that he knew would irritate the international community and the Kosovo Albanians alike may signal something of an appetite for confrontation.

At this stage, DSS support for the nationalist Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) in Bosnia is probably incurable. Kostunica’s views, however, are not as extreme as those held by some of the SDS past and present leaders. Therefore, the best that those in the international community preoccupied with turning Bosnia into a viable society can do is to use Kostunica’s influence among Bosnian Serbs to foster more moderate policies.

Last, but not least, the new government’s economic policies will deserve close attention. The DOS initiated economic reforms that, had they been implemented with more skill, stamina and tact, would have put Serbia on an irreversible path to becoming a prosperous market economy. Many of its macroeconomic reforms had, in fact, been masterminded and carried out by members of the G17--Labus, who served as the federal deputy prime minister, and Mladjan Dinkic, the new finance minister and former governor of the National Bank of Serbia. Those reforms will now have to be taken further.

The G17’s close association with the DSS as a party of considerable populist reputation may make the task of selling those reforms easier than before. But it is far from certain that Kostunica will let Labus run the economy unchecked--and as a prime minister he would be wrong to do so.

While the DSS has, on the whole, shown much less interest in the economy than in other policy areas, Kostunica appointed one of his deputies, Dragan Marsicanin, economy minister.

There have been a number of signs that the DSS’s economic instincts are protectionist, which could create a crippling conflict at the heart of government between the G17 ministers and the DSS. While it can be argued that some sectors of the Serbian economy could use a bit of protection once they are put firmly on the road to restructuring, protecting them before they even start reform may score the new government a few populist points but will only prolong the economy’s agony.
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