Serbia Votes Westward

A political narrative proved its ascendancy in Serbia’s election last week, reflecting widespread support for European integration and identity. But a series of potentially seismic developments threatens that support.


Political parties were not the only victors of Serbia's contentious elections last week. A political narrative has also proved its ascendancy-one that warrants a cautious optimism about Serbia and its people. But future events will undoubtedly affect the continuing currency of the narrative, and its prospects will largely be determined by how well EU leaders and State Department officials support Serbia's pro-European democrats.

The elections reflected an endorsement of those parties offering some form of European narrative and identity. The combined support for both President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia-New Serbia far surpassed that of the right-wing Serbian Radical Party. In the end, the real contention among this majority appeared to be its preferred shade of European identification and "how much" European integration was the right amount for Serbia.

The election reveals a delicate balance within Serbia regarding these questions. After weeks of clever and intense campaigning by national democrats and EU leaders, the balance appears to have tipped toward some conception of Serbia as a European nation-one that accepts the general social and political program of the EU countries. Still, it remains an unsteady and contentious balance.

Serbia's political constellation resembles a scale: at one end is Serbia's "Radical" right, espousing its highly nationalist narrative and identity; at the other end is Tadic's decidedly European vision for Serbia; and in the middle somewhere is Kostunica's dualism of Serbia as both nationalistic and European.

The symbolism of Tadic's Democratic Party, which won 23 percent of the vote, centered on the yellow-and-blue of the EU flag. The party's rallies were deliberately youthful, energetic and cosmopolitan, with "Yugoslav rock" music blaring in pre-rally warm-ups and keynote speakers making frequent references to the European identity of Serbia. The principal campaign narrative was unmistakable: a European future for Serbia meant a better life for its families.

The right-wing Serbian Radical Party, which won 28 percent of the vote, campaigned on the themes of suffering and injustice. Pre-rally warm-ups featured wartime fight songs and personal testimonials of economic hardship and social frustration. The Radical party's leader, Vojislav Seselj, on trial in The Hague for alleged war crimes, was held up as a kind of right-wing Nelson Mandela and a symbol of an oppressed yet defiant Serbia. At the Radical's closing rally in Belgrade, a special letter from Seselj was read to the crowd, which responded with chants of "Vojo, Vojo" and "we won't give away Kosovo."

Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia-New Serbia, which won 16.5 percent of the vote, represents a half-way point between the two other parties. The campaign focused on the narod, or people of Serbia, and folk tunes were the campaign's music of choice, with lyrics articulating Serbia's indivisibility and Kosovo's inalienable place in it. Regarding Serbia's relationship with Europe, Kostunica offered "a Serbia which joins Europe but keeps its identity."

In the elections, a right-wing resurgence was contained to some extent with the aid of recent support from both Brussels and Washington. In two consecutive parliamentary elections, the Radicals have been held to just over a quarter of the popular vote. The question remains, though: have the Radicals reached a plateau or are they merely on their electoral beachhead, waiting to breakout? The coming political calendar is full of potential seismic events that are certain to test the strength of Serbia's democratic consolidation, such as the determination of Kosovo's status; the vexing problem of compliance with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY); and the future of EU Stabilization and Association talks.

Brussels and Washington must first recognize the January results as a source of opportunity. When adding to the tallies the success of smaller pro-European parties, such as G17plus, which garnered 7 percent support, the margin over the Radicals grows even further, with two-thirds of the voting public supporting some form of pro-European narrative. The EU needs to reciprocate Serbia's electoral embrace of "Project Europe" with vision and certainty. With the recent accession of all post-Soviet candidate states to the European Union (Bulgaria and Romania entered the EU on January 1), Brussels is now better positioned to facilitate Serbia's integration than it was at the time of Milosevic's overthrow in October 2000.

The western Balkans is Europe's next enlargement frontier, and Serbia, the region's biggest political and economic player, is the cornerstone in any plan for regional stability and security. As the last seven years have shown, Serbia-Euro-Atlantic relations are symbiotic: Serbia's democrats cannot "go it alone", while Brussels and Washington cannot stabilize the region without them.

It is important to recall that Milosevic's overthrow in October 2000 represents a regrettable missed opportunity. Instead of embracing Serbia's democratic block wholeheartedly and moving the country irrevocably down the path of European integration, EU and U.S. officials burdened Serbia's fledgling democrats with uncompromising conditions for ICTY cooperation, which helped resurrect Serbia's right-wing in the form of the Serbian Radical Party. Western fears of nationalism became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The January elections have opened a new and delicate chapter in Serbia-EU relations and the stakes are high: Serbia's mediation between its past and future literally hangs in the balance.