Winds of Change

In a Country Where Election After Election has Changed Little, The May 11 Vote was a Revolutionary Vote for Europe

News | Eva Mansieva, Tanja Vicas | June 2008

President elect Boris Tadic with jubilent Serbs on election day in May in Belgrad (Photo: Eva Manasieva)

A historic moment for Serbia, and one of the many this country has gone through over the last decade. But this one may even have greater significance than those preceding it – it could result in the end of Serbia’s international isolation.

In a country where election after election has changed little, the May 11 vote was special – the pro-European democrats, led by president Boris Tadic won with nearly 39 percent of the vote, leaving the pro-nationalist, anti European Union Radical Party far behind, with 10 percentage points less. It was a vote with a clear message – the people of Serbia want to rejoin the rest of Europe.

"The parliament and the future government now have the historical chance to finally set a European course," Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik told the Austrian daily Der Standard.

This was an opinion shared by a Serbian woman at a Pro-European rally one day before the elections.

"I think this is the only exit and salvation for Serbia, the European Integration," she said. "Without it there is nothing for us - here it will be only an empty space."

Others, however, remain sceptical. Many Serbs expressed disbelief that the Democrats would bring better days to Serbia. They also blamed the United States and Europe for the loss of one of Serbia’s cherished former possessions – Kosovo.

"Kosovars used to be our friends till the Americans intervened," complained one man. "They were even part of our government. And then America decided to save them. Save them from whom?"

In February, Kosovo, which Serbia considers to be its historic center, unilaterally proclaimed independence from Serbia – a decision that won prompt recognition by the United States and its key allies in the European Union.

The winners promise positive change for Serbia – but they face formidable hurdles. First, a new coalition government has to be formed, and Serbian president Boris Tadic has already said that those talks are going to be tough. And if they fail, Serbia will have to go to the polls again in September. For a population that has had its hopes of change dashed time and time again, there remains widespread scepticism that these elections will finally bring them what they want.

Although a clear winner, Tadic still has far from a majority in Parliament and he will need to form a coalition with the smaller liberal parties. And although he already stated his readiness to negotiate with every party that accepts his principles, the radicals have firmly declared they will make no compromise. The main bones of contention between the Radical Party and President Tadic are his ambitions for better cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, which is looking for Serbian war criminals as well as the quick European integration of Serbia – ambitions Vojislav Kostunica’s Radical Party shuns.

Tadic claims his party is not to blame for the dispute. The European Union needs to reconsider their position on Kosovo for him to restore peace with the Opposition. But he definitely needs a coalition if he can find the support.

The most pressing issue now is how long the negotiations will take. Tadic has the support of the minority parties and the liberals, but he will also need the Ivica Dacic’s socialists to form a coalition. The Socialist party may be the wild card, since it’s not clear if it will decide to side with the rightist Radical Party.

It is too early to say if the new government will be strong enough to lead: First, it has to be formed – and this could take a long time.

"It can still go either way," said Ivan Milosevic, a leading political analyst who supports Serbia’s integration into the EU  in an Interview with the International Herald Tribune. "Sometimes in the morning, I think the nationalists are ahead, and by afternoon, I breathe a sigh of relief that the pro-EU forces are winning.

"The political manoeuvring on both sides will drag on weeks, if not months," he said.

A Serbian taxi driver agreed, saying a quick positive change is simply not realistic.

"Do I think things will change quickly? No, I don’t," he said. "It won’t be quick, but it will be surely easier than before when everyone used to fight."

Despite such scepticism, the results have the potential for bringing major changes to this country and dislodging it from decades of political and economic stagnation. But perhaps the biggest winner is the European Union, which had been concerned that this country could slide into chaos and lawlessness on its doorstep. And a big lose is Russia, which had hoped to find a strong political and economic ally with the Radicals - and a power base in Serbia.

With these parliamentary elections, Serbia has clearly shown that it wants a change. The forming of any new coalition government that can accomplish this, however, will clearly take time -- and delay the start of Serbia’s change of direction.

Many difficulties still lie in the way. The Radicals may be able to muster enough support in Parliament to make democratic attempts to rule difficult. And even if they don’t, they command enough backing among the population to make the path to that new era a rocky one. Still, the mood of optimism is strong among those who voted for change - and equal portions of frustration for those who oppose it.

The victory of the Democrats was unmistakable. Yet is may only represent a small step on the long and rough road to the country’s integration into the rest of Europe.

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