Jan 25th 2007 | BELGRADE AND PRISTINA
From The Economist print edition
The Serbs vote for Europe, but not yet for Kosovo
AN EXAGGERATED pride in ethnic and religious identity is a familiar curse in the Balkans, and at first glance the Serbian elections that took place on January 21st confirm that the curse continues: the greatest share of the vote was won by the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, whose leader, Vojislav Seselj, is on trial before the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague. A second glance is more reassuring: the real message of the election is that a majority of Serbs, including many who voted for the Radicals, favour moving the country forward on the path of European integration.
The question is how. All of Serbia's main parties were disappointed by the results, gaining less than they had hoped in competition with smaller parties. The conservative and nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia, led by the outgoing prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, took 16% of the vote; the more liberal, more pro-western Democratic Party of President Boris Tadic 23%; and the Radicals 28.5%.
But should the Radicals' relative success be interpreted as support for its traditional goal of a “Greater Serbia”, which would take in a large part of Bosnia, Croatia and, of course, the Serb province of Kosovo? Certainly that dream remains, at least on paper. But even if the Radicals were to control the government, which is unlikely, Serbia has no means to realise it. Indeed, quite a few of its voters were committed pro-Europeans who chose the Radicals as a protest against the other parties; others were the losers from years of war and economic turmoil. As one local analyst points out, the day of bellicose nationalism is over: the Radicals did better than Mr Tadic's party in traditionally liberal Belgrade because many voters believe that there is corruption in high places—and not because they want to go to war again.
The problem, which will doubtless take weeks to solve, is to how to form a coalition government reflecting this overall pro-Europe trend. “All bets are on,” says Ivan Vejvoda, who heads the Balkan Trust for Democracy. Yet the Radicals are very unlikely to be part of this process, unless asked to support a minority government, and, odd as it may seem for the biggest party (which they already were), they have no interest in being in government.
The reason is simple: they do not want to be remotely near to power if and when Serbia's southern province of Kosovo is lost to independence. Meanwhile, Mr Kostunica wants to remain prime minister and Mr Tadic would like someone from his party to be prime minister. Since there are some valuable privatisations coming up, and being in power means being able to put your party faithful in lucrative positions, there will be hard bargaining for ministerial posts. One possibility, with presidential elections due later this year, is that Mr Kostunica will retain his job in exchange for supporting another presidential term for Mr Tadic.
But even before the parties strike a deal, Serbia faces a major challenge. On January 26th Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president charged by the UN with finding a solution for the problem of Kosovo, was to present his proposals to officials of the main countries concerned with the region. They include America, Britain, Russia and France. On February 2nd he will present them to the Serbs and Kosovars.
It will be a tricky task. Since 1999, Kosovo has been under UN jurisdiction, after Security Council Resolution 1244 ended the Kosovo war. Of Kosovo's 2m people, some 90% are ethnic Albanians bent on independence. Mr Ahtisaari's report is expected, without actually using the word “independence”, to support that goal. Serbia rejects this and publicly Russia, its fellow-Slav ally, does too.
In private, though, Russian diplomats are saying that “all options” are on the table. In other words, independence is indeed one of them. However, nerves are fraying. If Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, decides to veto any new UN resolution on Kosovo, then its Albanian-dominated parliament could declare independence anyway, just as Croatia and Slovenia did in 1991, and hope that other states will recognise them.
For the diplomats this is the nightmare scenario. Unlike in Croatia and Slovenia, legal authority in Kosovo lies with the UN and its administration there. Kosovo is expecting a large EU-led mission to replace this and guide it on its Ahtisaari-defined path—but how could this happen if Russia vetoes a resolution to end the existing UN mission? “There is no plan B,” says one diplomat.
In the meantime, Fatmir Sejdiu, Kosovo's president, says that delay will only create “tensions” and “challenges”. He means violence. If that happens, the 17,000-strong NATO-led peacekeeping force might come under attack and the UN would almost certainly be ejected from the Serbian-dominated north. Once the Ahtisaari plan is revealed, the Balkans could be in for a long, hot time. Fair Use.