That Pesky Democracy

Famous anarchist Emma Goldman once said, "If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal." Following last weekend’s presidential elections in Serbia, the party of the incumbent Boris Tadic must be wishing they had made voting illegal. It appears that "democratic moderate reformers" – epithets Western press routinely uses when describing Tadic and his followers – have badly overestimated their popularity. Looking at the mainstream media in Serbia – either lavishly sponsored or owned outright by Western corporations, governments and NGOs – it is not hard to see how they may have acquired this misguided perception.

It is unlikely that the outcome of the February 3 runoff vote could actually change Imperial policy towards Serbia; Washington and Brussels remain committed to carving out the Albanian-occupied and UN/NATO-administered Kosovo. Yet, lacking political, legal and even military means to impose its will, the Empire needs Serbia’s acquiescence, even if it’s tortured and threadbare. It has been openly speculated in the mainstream Western press that Tadic would provide such acquiescence. This is the real reason why Washington and the European capitals watch Serbia with bated breath; a victory by Nikolic would derail their already precarious project.

Shock and Irony

The real shock in the aftermath of Sunday’s vote was not Nikolic’s lead; a similar situation, in which the Radicals would poll well in the first round but lose the runoff, has happened before. There were, however, two surprises that upset both the campaign managers and the pollsters and analysts close to the establishment. First of all, the turnout in the election was substantially greater than expected. Recent parliamentary elections and the constitutional referendum barely rose above the necessary census; this time, over 60% of the voters took to the polls.

Secondly, and contrary to conventional wisdom, a high turnout did not hurt the Radicals. For years it was assumed that the Radicals had a stalwart but stagnant core of voters, while any larger turnout would include fickle voters more sympathetic to the Democrats. Last Sunday proved this assumption wrong.

A little bit of background is crucial for understanding the extent of panic in Tadic’s camp. The vote was scheduled in mid-December by speaker of the parliament Oliver Dulic – member of Tadic’s Democratic Party – without any consultations with the Democrats’ coalition partners in the cabinet. In fact, the vote was a big bone of contention within the coalition, with the current Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, opposed to elections in the midst of the ongoing crisis over the occupied province of Kosovo. Dulic’s decision to ignore Kostunica’s objections was deemed sufficiently insulting by the Prime Minister that his Populist Bloc ran their own candidate – Velimir Ilic – rather than support Tadic.

Ilic made a relatively modest showing with only 7% of the vote. However, that percentage puts Kostunica in position to rescue Tadic on February 3 – or bury him. Nikolic got 39.4% of the vote, leading Tadic (at 35.4%) by a whole four percent. Assuming the supporters of Milutin Mrkonjic (of the late Milosevic’s Socialist Party, with 6% of the vote) throw their support behind Nikolic in the runoff, and the 5% favoring Cedomir Jovanovic, leader of the belligerent Liberal Democratic Party (which is neither liberal nor democratic), support Tadic, the incumbent president absolutely needs Ilic’s seven percent to scratch out a win. Once again, he is at the mercy of the partner he so openly scorned.

‘Pro-Westerner’ and ‘Ultranationalist’

Typical reporting about the election went along the lines of the AP, which reported Nikolic’s lead on January 21 with trepidation. The agency called Nikolic an "ally of late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic" and even alleged (erroneously) that he "ruled alongside" Milosevic in the 1990s. Elsewhere, Nikolic has been called an "ultranationalist" and a "hardliner." The "pro-Western" Tadic, on the other hand, was presented as a progressive advocate of "Western-style reforms and integration into the European Union."

News and analysis in the West have largely echoed the claims of the Tadic campaign (or is it the other way around?) that a victory for the Democrats would mean "progress" and prosperity within the European Union, while the Radicals’ triumph would cause a regression into the horrible darkness of the 1990s – the age of sanctions, bombing and wholesale demonization of Serbs and Serbia.

However, these are not the 1990s. Demonization of Serbs never really stopped. The seven-plus years of various "democrats" in charge (from the October 2000 coup onwards) has failed to change Empire’s policy of pressure, extortion and humiliation in any appreciable way. With the U.S. economy tanking and Washington bogged down in Mesopotamia and the Hindu Kush, Imperial officials may make noises about dismembering Serbia, but it isn’t clear how much they can actually do.

Tadic presents himself as the "European" choice, and threatens the Serbian voters with the loss of their European future, which is supposedly just around the corner. From vague promises about a better life, his message is now that of fear – fear that if Nikolic wins, the bright Eutopian future just around the corner will be lost. Now, the EU is scheduled to sign the Stabilization and Association Agreement – the ponderously named document marking the first step in Brussels’ process of swallowing up a country – with Serbia on January 28. Yet with Kosovo a key bone of contention between Belgrade on one side, and Washington and Brussels on the other, it is apparent that a large portion of the electorate is wondering whether Tadic’s Europhilia is at the expense of his own nation.

True Colors?

In May 2007, after months of acrimonious talks between Tadic and Kostunica’s parties, they formed an uneasy coalition government. Kostunica remained Prime Minister, but Tadic’s people took over the money, the military, and foreign affairs. This last post was filled by Tadic’s protégé and former advisor, Vuk Jeremic.

Jeremic had previously been suspected of clandestine talks with certain Western governments to acquiesce in the separation of Kosovo; his appointment caused diplomat Leon Kojen to refuse a cabinet post overseeing Kosovo affairs. Yet his conduct as Belgrade’s top diplomat has been downright exemplary, compared to his predecessors. Given that Vuk Draskovic was a raving lunatic and Goran Svilanovic sold out to the Empire openly, that’s not saying much – but Jeremic stayed faithful to Belgrade’s official position on Kosovo, even if he did not share it personally.

When election returns from the first round became public, however, Jeremic sounded panicked. During a visit to Greece, he downright pleaded for EU to support his party boss:

"The most critical decision that Serbia is going to be making in the next few weeks is strategically which path to take," Jeremic said. "Will it continue with European integration or will it choose another path? … We very much hope that Serbia’s people are going to make" the choice of European integration. (AP)

The following day, in Bucharest, Jeremic again appealed to Brussels, now saying that the signing of the SAA could help swing the vote in Tadic’s favor. However, he also said this:

"Our conviction is that the EU, in accordance with the international law, or with a new U.N. resolution, will send a mission to Kosovo and this will clear off all issues linked to such an engagement’s legal conformity.” (Xinhua)

Unless he was mistranslated somehow (though he speaks fluent British-affected English), Jeremic just invited the EU to Kosovo! However, Prime Minister Kostunica indicated previously that an EU mission in Kosovo, intent on shepherding Albanian independence, was absolutely unacceptable to Belgrade. If the EU gets to decide what is legal, then anything the EU wants to do can be declared legal. It is extremely unlikely that Kostunica agreed to a EU mission; odds are that, in his eagerness to prop up his embattled patron, Jeremic has finally overstepped his bounds.

What Tomorrow Brings

It is apparent that electoral results have shocked and shaken Tadic and his allies, to the point where they’ve begun to stumble in the rhetorical minefield that is Serbian politics. While Nikolic calmly thanked his voters for supporting him through a "difficult campaign," Tadic gave an impassioned speech pleading for support, and pledging he would "not allow" Nikolic to become president.

Only, that really isn’t up to him, but rather to the voters, right? What a pesky thing, democracy.

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.