Serbia between a rock and a hard place: West and/or East? by Birgül Demirtaş*
ILLUSTRATION: CEM KIZILTUĞ
Serbia has won an important victory in the Eurovision song contest, coming in at third place thanks to the outstanding performance of singer Zeljko Joksimovic and strong support from the ex-Yugoslav countries.
All five ex-Yugoslav countries participating in the Eurovision contest -- Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro -- awarded the Serbian entry either their highest score of 12 points or second-highest of 10. Since Eurovision is not only a song contest but also an expression of political relations between participating nations, the high level of support for Serbia may also be viewed as manifesting the normalization of relations between ex-Yugoslav countries, and even, in a way, the Europeanization of the region.
Serbia can be regarded as the key indicator as to the normalization of the Balkan region. The 20th century has in fact demonstrated to the international community that if Serbia sneezes, not only the Balkans but the whole of Europe gets the flu. Given that Serbia has been a key actor in regional affairs for more than a century now, the surprising results of its recent elections are worth examining.
Four levels of elections took place in Serbia on May 6: parliamentary, presidential, local and the regional assembly in Vojvodina. When none of the presidential candidates was able to garner more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round of elections took place on May 20.
European decision-makers were facing one of the most important events since the push for Serbian integration began and had clear expectations regarding the outcome of the elections: the overwhelming victory of pro-Western parties and candidates. The results, however, came as a big surprise, contrary not only to Europe’s expectations but also the suggestion of the opinion polls.
The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), led by former hard-line nationalist-turned-moderate Tomislav Nikolic, emerged victorious in the parliamentary elections. Nikolic also swept the presidential elections with almost 50 percent of the vote, ensuring that he will become the next president, replacing Boris Tadic, serving president for the last eight years and leader of the pro-Europe Democratic Party (DS).
The SNS’ need for a partner
Although the SNS was the first party in the parliamentary elections, it is not certain whether it can form the next government. To do so, it requires a partner. All indications suggest Tadic’s DS and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) will establish the next cabinet in Serbia. The SPS, under the leadership of Iviva Dacic, spokesman for Slobodan Milosevic and known as “little Slobo” during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, became the third party, but in many ways the SPS is the real winner as its votes have almost doubled in number from the 2008 elections. Hence Dacic’s party is considered a “kingmaker,” as the two major parties must win its support in order to form the cabinet. Dacic implied after the second round of presidential elections that the SPS would favor a coalition with the Democratic Party, with which it formed a coalition after the 2008 elections.
Several characteristics of the Serbian elections should be highlighted. First of all, there was no question that the elections took place in a fair and free environment. In this Serbian democracy proves its maturity once again. Secondly, neither any mainstream political party nor any candidate, excluding marginal groups, supports hard-line nationalism of the kind witnessed by the international community throughout the 1990s. Thirdly, the surprising results were influenced by economic problems currently suffered by the Serbian people; as a result of the global economic crisis Serbia’s unemployment rate has reached almost 25 percent. Fourthly, the trend in Serbia mirrors that of both France and Greece, where incumbent leaders and parties were effectively punished by the electorate for social and economic difficulties experienced by the people. In fact, the results of Serbia’s elections conform very well to the current European model. Both Kosovo and Europe have proved defining elements in Serbian politics, as the major parties are determined Serbia will never recognize Kosovo’s independence nor give up the dream of European integration.
It will be intriguing to observe whether Nikolic’s victory results in the diversion of Serbia’s path from Europe’s. Only last March, Belgrade’s relations with the European Union were lent new impetus by the acceptance of Serbian candidacy, in a move also regarded as a sign of support for the pro-EU DS.
Until recently Nikolic has been critical of the European integration process, as exhibited in his declaration that he would rather Serbia become a province of Russia than a member nation to the EU. However, his rhetoric has softened since the severing of ties with radical nationalists in 2008 and establishment of the SPS. His current discourse calls for Serbian foreign policy to be based on three pillars: Russia, the EU and the US. He also states that if Serbia is required to recognize an independent Kosovo in order to become a full member of the EU, then it is better to reject membership altogether.
Time will tell whether Nikolic’s recent tendency to promote Serbia’s EU accession (while maintaining his stance on Kosovo) indicates a superficial change or genuine transformation. If Tadic’s pro-Europe DS manages to form government, it will herald a phase of collaboration in Serbian politics and hopefully lead to the consolidation of the democratic system of checks and balances rather than instability.
President-elect Nikolic has started to give the first signals that he wants to promote a balanced foreign policy between East and West. The first presidential visits following an election are considered to have symbolic value, and so it is worth noting that just one week after the elections Nikolic visited the Russian Federation, underscoring the “long and uncertain road” ahead to EU accession and the importance of the Kosovo issue to Serbia during talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Following his inauguration in early June his first scheduled visit will be to Brussels.
Under these circumstances the EU should be aware that dangling carrots in front of the Western Balkans will not be enough to keep the region on the path to Europeanization. European decision-makers should not allow the economic crisis to dominate their agenda at the expense of promoting the European model as a means to regional peace. As emphasized by then-EU Commissioner Chris Patten, either Europe will spread stability to the Balkans or the Balkans will spread instability to Europe. It is high time the EU showed the Western Balkan nations there is light at the end of the tunnel.
*Dr. Birgül Demirtaş is an associate professor at TOBB University of Economics and Technology, Ankara.