Sunday, May 07, 2006

"Tough few years" for Serbia

The glass is half empty in Serbia

William Montgomery ( Former US Ambassador to Serbia)

Every time I visit Belgrade, I come away impressed with its life, vitality, and the construction/renovation which is going on all over the city. While the rising economic tide is very uneven and many specific groups are suffering (the elderly, high unemployment of the young) it is also a fact that incomes are rising for many, the shops look better and fuller, and at least some foreign and domestic private firms are prospering in new buildings and state-of-the-art equipment. While there is still crime, the extreme violence of the Arkan era/the Zemun and Surcin Gangs is mostly in the past. Construction companies cannot keep up with the demand for their services. The open defiance of the West under the Milosevic regime is long gone, replaced by a desire to join the European Union. The military is no longer a threat to its neighbors or a destabilizing force in the region.

I keep reminding myself as well that the real transition started in Serbia only in 2000 and that due to unresolved questions such as Kosovo, cooperation with The Hague, and the final status of Montenegro, it will be harder and take longer than anywhere else. All this calls for patience, tolerance, and refraining from any leaps to judgment. Under the best of circumstances, experience has shown that the democratic transitions take at least ten uninterrupted years of stability and Serbia is in the middle of this process, not the end.

And yet…while my mind is repeating all of the above, I have to admit that in my heart I still see the glass very much as at least half empty. I remember the euphoria of October 2000 and the belief that major, positive, and irreversible change would rapidly take place. For me (and many in Serbia), those heady, optimistic days seem very long ago. The governments of Prime Minister Djindjic and his successor, Zoran Zivkovic, seemed to be fighting unending battles with their democratic opposition, with themselves, with organized crime, and with a population largely more nationalistic and inclined to socialist-era values and benefits than they were.

The current government seems to be repeating the same pattern that we saw in the final days of the Zivkovic government: conflicting views expressed more openly by coalition partners; frantic scrambling to maintain a very narrow majority in Parliament; consistent accusations on all sides of the "buying" of deputies' votes; confrontations over the mandates of deputies; and corruption scandals. Speculation is rife as to how long the government will survive and when new elections will be called.

From the time this government was formed, it was an uneasy grouping of parties with radically different agendas, different philosophies, and different operating styles. Every party in it wanted power and was able to justify to itself that the particular piece of the pie which it had was sufficiently delicious that it was worth putting up with the antics and counter-productive steps being taken elsewhere in government. Western governments, seeing the rising specter of the Radicals in the wings, turned their eyes away from actions and statements which would have drawn a sharp response two or three years earlier. Basically, given the political instability, which conditionality imposed for the arrest of Mladic and Karadzic and the upcoming Kosovo decision is already causing, no one in the West has the stomach to be tough on Serbia for anything else.

The decision of the Republic Broadcasting Agency (RRA) to simultaneously deny national licenses to BK TV (the third most popular TV show in the country) and RTL TV (a strong foreign channel which would have been huge competition for PINK TV) and to give licenses to a station which does not now exist (TV Avala) and a local one with a rather dubious reputation and little viewership (Kosava TV) have definitely dealt another sharp blow to the reputation of the government. Particularly when the RRA sent the police late at night to shut down BK TV because during its regular programming it was interjecting frequent objections to the license denial. Taken all together, the issue has been handled in the worst possible way. In my government, it's impossible for me to count the number of times a specific course of action was removed from consideration because it "couldn't pass the Washington Post test." This meant that the decision could not appear reasonable or justified to the average reader of the local newspaper. That is the case here. The actions have been universally condemned by news organizations and more importantly, average citizens. The government is claiming that it doesn't control the RRA, but the fact is that it was this government that created it in its current form and oversaw the selections of its members.

What you have in Serbia today is not one functioning, effective government, but a series of fiefdoms, all controlled by different political parties and different tycoons. Everybody does his or her own thing without much regard to what anyone else is saying or doing. Moreover, it's no secret that the government is surviving today thanks to the votes of the Socialist Party of Slobodan Milosevic and that from time to time, such as for arrangements for his funeral, certain quiet concessions have to be made. While the details of those concessions are worked out, other coalition members delicately avert their eyes.

I consistently hear more Serbs saying that they believe that they must join a political party for protection. Instead of moving towards rule of law and fair play, Serbia is actually moving in the opposite direction. More and more positions in the economic sector and government are filled by party quota and not by merit. No one can be fired or replaced for incompetence because everyone belongs to a party that is needed for the coalition to survive. Corruption is rampant. One doesn't turn to the system for justice or to resolve problems, but to political parties.

The problem, which bedevils every Serb contemplating this scene, is that it is very hard to see a way forward, which will, at least in the short term, produce anything better. Looming over everything is the knowledge that there will almost certainly be a decision later this year granting conditional independence to Kosovo. The Radical Party and the Socialist Party are busy planning all sorts of strategies on how to best take advantage of this decision and every other party is trying to figure out how to survive it. They know that any government in power ---or any that comes to power -- will be pressed hard by the West to take actions which in some way recognize the decision or at the very least will show positive reconciliation with the new "Kosovo." At the same time, they will be pressed by the Radicals and their own domestic constituencies to take actions, which will make their international relations far worse.

Elections after the Kosovo decision make it far more likely that the Radicals will come to power. Elections in advance may avoid that, but any resulting government almost immediately will be confronted with the Kosovo disaster and will almost certainly lose its standing and support. Certainly, the Radicals will do their best to bring this about. They are in fact being aided by the failure of the government to prepare the public for the loss of Kosovo. This is setting the stage for a major crisis shortly down the road.

Finally, if a Radical government is to be avoided, it will inevitably require a coalition involving the DSS (Kostunica's Party), the Democratic Party of Boris Tadic, and probably one or two others. Given the history between these main two parties, it is hard to see how an effective government would result. Which puts us back to square one in Serbia. It is going to be a tough few years. B92

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