12/01/2007 - D-7
6,652,105 Serbs are being called to vote for the 250 members of the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia, the only Chamber in Parliament on 21st January next. Amongst this number 31,370 will vote abroad.
Serbia probably holds the record number of political parties. Indeed 357 parties are registered at the Ministry for the Administration of the State and Local Government (to do this a party has to rally at least 100 signatures of citizens who are old enough to vote and pay 8,750 dinars, i.e. around 115 euro). However, only 10% of these parties will take part in the general elections on 21st January. A new law governing the organisation of political parties is also due to be voted upon after the election.
A group of around 20 observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is attending to monitor the electoral campaigns led by the parties, media coverage and the running of the election along with an evaluation of the work undertaken by the Serb Electoral Commission. "These general elections are important for three reasons: they are the first since the dissolution of the State of Serbia Montenegro, the adoption of the Serb Constitution and they will take place before the final decision on the future of Kosovo is declared," said the head of the OSCE observers, Geert Ahrens.
Whilst the Albanian parties from the Presevo Valley (in the south of the country) have chosen to rally under the name of "the Coalition of Albanians of the Presevo Valley" in order to take part in the general elections on 21st January next – a first since 1990- the Movement for Democratic Progress (PDP) led by Jonuz Musliu finally decided to withdraw from the race just a few days after the defection of the Democratic Albanian Party – DPA-PDSh – led by Ragmi Mustafa. The Party for Democratic Action (PDD) led by Riza Halimi and the Democratic Union of the Valley (DUD) led by Skender Destani are therefore the only two parties left running. They will put forward ten candidates, Riza Halimi will be the lead candidate and Skender Destani will be number two. Both parties, who regret the decision taken by the other two Albanian parties, will represent around 750,000 voters.
The Union of the Roms of Serbia (URS) will be putting forward 250 candidates in these general elections and hope to win at least five seats. The Roms comprise the greatest minority in Serbia (800, 000 people). They are counting on the support of the Rom diaspora in the other states of Europe.
The Democrat Party (DS) appointed former Finance Minister Bozidar Djelic as its candidate for Prime Minister. Bozidar Djelic has promised, if he wins, to legislate to guarantee the autonomy of Voïvodina. The programme of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) led by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has defined four priorities: the conservation of the integrity of Serb territory, the decrease in unemployment, the re-initiation of negotiations with the EU and the fight against crime and corruption. The ultra-nationalist Radical Party (SRS), is fighting for a decrease in corruption and crime, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) is focussing its programme on Kosovo and the Liberal Democrat Party (LDP), led by Cedomir Jovanovic, the only party in favour of the independence of Kosovo, is promoting the arrest of war criminals and their extradition to the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in the Hague (ICTY) as well as the establishment of a law on lustration. Finally G17 Plus, a party led by the present Finance Minister, Mladjan Dinkic, would like to strengthen the stability of the dinar and improve regional development.
However the electoral campaign has focussed on economic issues. Over the past year Serbia has experienced a far too weak but nevertheless real improvement in its economic situation, notably with regard to the control of price rises. Inflation, which reached 17.7% in 2005 lay at 6.65% in 2006. The country has experienced a growth rate of 6% (the greatest in the Balkans) and last year attracted more foreign investments than in the past. However the unemployment rate is still high (more than 25% of the working population), the trade balance is still unstable (5.5 billion euro deficit) and the country is still suffering the handicap of its bureaucratic system and a great amount of corruption, without mentioning its political problems. In addition to this 10% of the population is still living below the poverty line. The political parties are trying to outdo each other with often unrealistic electoral promises in order to win votes.
However just a few days before the delivery of the report by UN special envoy for Kosovo, Martti Ahtisaari, to the contact group on the future status of the province (rallying Germany, the USA, France, Italy, Russia and the UK), the future of Kosovo in the south of the country has been in everyone's minds during the electoral campaign. In order not to interfere in the general elections the delivery of Martti Ahtisaari's report to the contact group, initially planned for the end of 2006 was postponed by a few weeks. The interim President of the Radical Party, Tomislav Nikolic, has repeated that these elections were organised "at a bad time" in order to achieve the lowest possible participation rate which is in the interest of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica (DSS).
Here is a brief reminder of the facts: in June 1999, resolution 1,244 authorised the UN to take control of Kosovo after eleven weeks of air strikes by NATO which defeated the Serb forces (army and police) and forced them to withdraw from the province where they were fighting Albanian separatists. Since then Kosovo has been a protectorate governed by the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), led by Joachim Rücker, and placed under the military protection of NATO. Resolution 1,244 grants "substantial autonomy" to the region within Serbia. Kosovo is inhabited by 2 million people, 90% of whom are Albanian speaking. It is governed by President Fatmir Sedju, elected on 9th December, succeeding Ibrahim Rugova, who died on 21st January 2006; there is a government led since 10th March by Agim Ceku, originally from the democratically elected Parliament. However foreign policy and security issues are managed by the UN.
With the new status in mind UNMIK has started planning its withdrawal and the transfer of competence over to local and international institutions who are to succeed it. In addition to this, whatever the decision taken by the international community, 16,000 NATO men will remain in Kosovo. It is the EU which will take over after UNMIK. The future European mission will enjoy an annual operational budget of between 145 and150 million euro, i.e. the biggest ever for a European civil management mission. Germany has made Kosovo one the priorities of its presidency of the EU that started on January 1st this year. "The decision on the status of Kosovo has to satisfy the demand for greater autonomy on the part of the Albanian speaking inhabitants without weakening democracy in Serbia," declared Chancellor Angela Merkel on 7th January. At the beginning of January, UNMIK head Joachim Rücker, said that he was confident that "Martti Ahtisaari will put forward a solution which is acceptable to both parties." The President of Kosovo, Fatmir Sedju, has asked the population to take part in the general elections on 21st January next. "You must take part in all that contributes to the democratisation of Serbia," he stressed.
As for the Serbs the tone is totally different. Although the Albanians of Kosovo are demanding the province's independence, the Serbs are refusing to give up land that they believe to be the cradle of their history and do not seem prepared to accept more or less autonomy. Although most politicians know that the future of Kosovo will probably be decided outside of Serbia none are taking the risk of admitting this publicly. The Serbs can however still count on Vladimir Putin's Russia to place its veto at the UN Security Council if the solution put forward with regard to the future status of the province does not suit Belgrade. However Moscow's vision goes beyond Kosovo and Russia may also see in the modification of the borders of Serbia a precedent enabling Northern Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria, three secessionist republics it supports, to enjoy the same right. The international community fears that Kosovo will declare its independence unilaterally as already threatened by Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku. "It is not a threat but we believe that it is a possibility. Kosovo will certainly become an independent country. Of course we would prefer for it to happen thanks to a widely supported Security Council resolution," he declared.
"There is no doubt that the redefinition of the Serb borders and the creation of a new, independent Albanian State on 15% of Serb territory are unacceptable and impossible. The UN Charter guarantees the inviolability of borders, sovereignty and the territorial integrity of every State," maintained Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica on 3rd January last in a letter addressed to the new UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon. "Kosovo is the most precious part of Serbia," he declared on 1st January in Kosovo itself where he spent the end of 2006. Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Radical Party, accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes by the ICTY in The Hague and who has been in prison since he was handed over in February 2003 entered the debate to say that Serbia should break off its diplomatic relations with any country that acknowledged a sovereign Kosovo and to defend his idea of Grand Serbia that for him extends right into Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina where Serbs live. The new leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia, Ivica Dacic maintains that "Kosovo is the birthplace of Serbia and no-one has the right to say that he refuses to fight to defend Serb Kosovo." Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic (Movement for Serb Renewal; SPO) is calling for a compromise respecting Serb territorial integrity; "Why can't we have one Serbia, two systems?" he suggested quoting an example adopted by China after the annexation of Hong-Kong to China in 1997 (by integrating China, Hong Kong maintained the institutions it inherited from the British system). Vuk Draskovic, for his part promotes the fact that "independence was a guarantee for Kosovar leaders from the start which did not encourage them to make any compromise. Serbia will not accept that part of its sovereign territory becomes another Albanian state in the Balkans," he concluded.
"The independence of Kosovo would not only destabilise Serbia but also the whole region for a long time. This is not just about Kosovo but also the EU's regional aspirations. The result must lead to regional stability. Without stability there can be no development nor hope for our countries and populations," stressed the President of the Republic, Boris Tadic, who added "it is very difficult to guess what will happen but you can be sure that Serbia has an answer ready for every eventuality and that this answer is certainly not war." The head of State worked hard during the electoral campaign for the general elections and is working even harder to achieve a rapid return to the negotiation tables with Brussels. Last May the EU suspended negotiations on the stabilisation agreement, the first step towards accession, in order to force the Serb authorities into co-operating with the ICTY in The Hague notably with regard to the arrest of two former political and military leaders of the Serbs of Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, suspected of genocide against the Bosnian population in the Bosnia-Herzegovina war (1992-1995). "We must show that we want to become members of the EU. Our number one priority is joining the EU. We must become official candidates before the end of 2007." Boris Tadic and the Democrat Party maintain that if they win the election on 21st January they will find and arrest General Mladic within three months – until now the government led by Vojislav Kostunica has been unable to find him. "I will not allow the forces who want to take us backwards to win the elections. I hope that with the victory of the democratic forces we shall also gain political victory the objective of which is our integration into the EU," maintained Boris Tadic.
Olli Rehn, European Commissioner for Enlargement stressed, "We support Serbia's European aspirations. We are sure that Serbia will be able to make up for lost time and to progress on the way to Europe." EU Foreign Ministers are planning to meet on 22nd January next, a day after the Serb general elections to re-evaluate the political situation in the Balkan republic.
The latest opinion polls credit the Radical Party with the greatest number of votes. The ultra-nationalist party will be followed by the Democrat Party then the Democratic Party of Serbia. According to polls only the G17 Plus, the Liberal-Democrat Party and the Socialist Party of Serbia will rise beyond the 5% mark of votes vital to be represented in Parliament. "The parties that do not achieve this threshold will disappear forever from the political arena and will be absorbed by other parties," forecasts political analyst, Dragoljub Zarkovic at the daily Politika. Le President of the Republic Boris Tadic immediately asked Vojislav Kostunica to say clearly that he would not govern with the Radical Party, which the Prime Minister has refused to do until now. "The composition of the new government will be the subject of discussion after the elections," he maintained. "Vojislav Kostunica is not answering Boris Tadic because he is dishonest, he is cheating the voters who are going to vote for the Democratic Party of Serbia since they believe he will protect the interests of the State of Serbia," maintained Dragan Todorovic, president of the executive committee of the Radical Party. The Prime Minister had clearly said that he would like to remain in office if his party was to govern with the Democrat Party, but the party is however firmly against this idea. According to political analysts Vojislav Kostunica's future depends mainly on the decision taken by the international community on the status of Kosovo.
There is a glimmer of hope: a great number of analysts confirm a weakening of the ultra-nationalists in Serbia. Many believe that the population which appreciates the economic progress achieved over the last few years mostly believes in the future of the country within Europe and that Serbia has a place within the democratic, developed nations; it believes that war is now part of the past.