The Pointless Poll

Nebojsa Malic is on vacation this week.

Five years after the NATO occupation of Kosovo began, the Balkans remains as restive as ever. Serbs in the occupied province have just suffered another terror attack, even as the UN occupiers fuss about gender quotas. Tensions are mounting in Bosnia, as viceroy Ashdown, NATO and the Hague Inquisition are ratcheting up pressure on the Bosnian Serbs to arrest someone – anyone – accused of war crimes, and thus prove their pledges of submission; Ashdown has threatened sanctions unless an arrest is made by June 21.

Meanwhile, reports that a pan-Albanian congress is being planned in Macedonia are receiving confirmation. American Albanians seem to be firmly backing Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, whose administration is virtually guaranteed to re-visit the Balkans in a detrimental way once in power.

Against this depressing backdrop, Serbians will head to the polls this Sunday with the intent to elect a new president. This will be the fourth such election in two years, the previous three having failed due to bureaucratic and political obstacles. One major impediment – the requirement that more than 50% of registered voters participate – has since been removed, guaranteeing that this vote will not fail. The candidates are another story.

Fourteen Men and a Princess

A total of fifteen candidates have made it on the ballot. Radical leader Tomislav Nikolic leads in the polls, trailed by Democrat Boris Tadic (successor to the Napoleonic Zoran Djindjic) and Dragan Marsicanin, candidate of the ruling coalition. Of the twelve other candidates, two stand out as curiosities.

Bogoljub Karic, a native of Kosovo, built his fortune from scratch while paying protection money to politicians and mobsters. When the DOS regime tried to extort millions from him through an “extra profit” tax, he must have decided enough was enough. According to several polls (which can’t necessarily be trusted), he is in the fourth place.

Princess Jelisaveta Karadjordjevic, cousin of the current self-proclaimed heir to the overthrown Serbian monarchy, also decided to run. Her chances are also slim, though she does get some media coverage as the only woman running, and a royal at that.

As the Serbian electoral system predicts a runoff if no candidate wins the majority in the first round, none of the candidates can be “spoilers.” Though no one is likely to win outright, Nikolic is virtually guaranteed placement in the second round. The only question as this time is who would face off against him, Tadic or Marsicanin.

Discord Among “Democrats”

Former federal defense minister in the DOS government, Tadic became the leader of the Democratic Party (DS) in January, sidelining the faction that ran amok after the assassination of Djindjic in March of last year. However, Tadic’s election came too late in a game of brinkmanship with Vojislav Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), which resisted strong outside pressure to re-create the failed DOS alliance and turned to support from the Socialists (SPS) instead.

Even with such support, guaranteeing it parliamentary majority, the disparate alliance of Kostunica’s wobbly conservatives, neo-Keynesians (G17), and servile populists (SPO/Nova Srbija) has not managed to do much so far, except stare down an ultimatum from Washington in March and forfeit several million dollars of Imperial bribes. Its tax-relief plan was aborted, while investigations of the infamous sugar scam and privatization of a major steel mill were attacked as “politicized” by the DS. With the DS attacking from the left and the Radicals from the right, the coalition has hardly had a chance to formulate a coherent policy, let alone find someone to be its embodiment in the presidential vote. That they chose Marsicanin, a relative non-entity who was ousted as speaker of the parliament by Djindjic’s dirty politics in 2002, illustrates the degree of their bitterness towards the DS.

Many circles close to the Empire not only desire, but openly advocate a return to power for the DS – a reliable vassal when Djindjic was alive, and even better afterwards. Says IWPR:

“The West does not want to see new general elections in Serbia but rather an alliance between the DS and DSS to block the Radicals. […] If Tadic does win the presidency, the DS … is then likely [to] use its new political muscle to enter the government as a senior partner or at least as an equal partner to the DSS.” [emphasis NM]

Why sure, there’s nothing wrong with a minority party becoming a “senior partner” in the governing coalition, especially since it was spectacularly booted from office by the angry electorate? Not in the Empire’s definition of democracy, anyway.

Victims of Democracy

There is no doubt that Serbia is a democracy of the worst kind, in which the mob votes for politicians who then assume they have absolute legitimacy to do as they please. While some individuals may have scruples to avoid malfeasance, the temptation of wielding the nearly-unlimited power of the government is overwhelming. Worse yet, the people seem to believe in the legitimacy of omnipotent government, enough to not laugh at patently nonsensical promises of the candidates. Most parties on the Serbian political scene are statist, subscribe to some form of socialism or social-democracy, desire to be swallowed by the EU, preach and practice “multi-culturalism” and quotas, and have little regard for entrepreneurs, private property or individual liberty. It is hard to find a Serbian politician who could present a consistent agenda, or even recognize one if it punched him in the face.

As for the people, the extent to which many Serbians – much like Americans, really – passionately argue about politicians and policies without actually having any coherent idea about their underlying principles (or indeed, if there are any) is simply appalling.

Speaking about the Middle East, noted scholar Bernard Lewis once told an interviewer:

“We talk sometimes as if democracy were the natural human condition, as if any deviation from it is a crime to be punished or a disease to be cured. That is not true. Democracy, or what we call democracy nowadays, is the parochial custom of the English-speaking peoples for the conduct of their public affairs, which may or may not be suitable for others.” (Jerusalem Post, April 2002)

His observation is just as valid for the Balkans. The abundant evidence points to the conclusion that democracy is indeed not suitable. Some form or republicanism, maybe, or better yet a constitutional monarchy, but anything has got to be better than this …

Between Reverence and Disdain

There is a silver lining of sorts: the political circus does make for some great entertainment. One Belgrade-based TV network even put together a campaign reality show called “Taxi,” in which politicians (including presidential candidates, e.g. Karic) drive a big red taxi and listen to their customers’ concerns. But the show’s creator is disappointed that passengers aren’t more confrontational:

“I was hoping people would open up and tell them exactly what’s on their minds,” he told BBC. “They’re not necessarily scared of politicians, but they’re uncomfortable with them. In Serbia there’s still an attitude that politicians are ‘higher beings’. They’ll criticise them behind their backs, but less so to their faces.”

That is Serbian politics in a nutshell. On one hand, the people consider politics as honorable as whoring (though that’s a terrible insult to whores). On the other hand, they are as likely to engage in leader-worship as Americans, as shown by the veneration of Zoran Djindjic after his death, and the persistent hope that electing “the right people” would bring salvation. There is no awareness yet that politics is part of the problem, not the solution.

Likely Outcomes

This is why the presidential election will inevitably be a failure for Serbia, much as it may be a success for any candidate and his party. Judging by the polls, Nikolic and Tadic will face off in the second round, two weeks from now. Nikolic’s support is steady; it’s Tadic who may or may not scrape together a majority. A lot will depend on his approach to government voters, whether he would persuade Kostunica to support some form of collaborative cohabitation, or arrogantly demand “senior partnership.” Ultimately, none of that will make a difference.

Serbia can pick and choose presidents and cabinets, but what it really needs to do is pick a form of government that would renounce absolute power and the absolute abuse and corruption it engenders. On a more practical note, anyone elected to rule Serbia will have to deal with the aggressive policies of Brussels and Washington. That someone will need to understand that the Empire divides the world into servants and victims, and present that choice to the Serbians.

Only then would it be possible to stop the ongoing downward spiral of modern Serbia, where life, liberty and property are simply words devoid of meaning.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.