EU pushes Serbia to form govt quickly

By bne IntelliNews May 19, 2008

Dominic Swire in Belgrade -

Despite raucous street celebrations in downtown Belgrade following the pro-European Democratic Party's self-proclaimed victory in Serbia's general elections on May 11, the second-placed nationalists are still bullish they can form a government. However, the speed at which the new administration is formed is also likely to have a large effect on the country's aspirations of a swift integration into the EU.

Soon after the pro-EU partying had died down, Tomislav Nikolic, deputy leader of the ultranationalist Radical Party, was beating his chest claiming that, in actual fact, his party had won and would be soon be forming a government. "The Serbian Radical Party will be the strongest political party in the People's Assembly of the Republic of Serbia," Nikolic was quoted as saying in reaction to the results.

A quick look at the numbers shows he has a point. While the "For a European Serbia" coalition led by President Boris Tadic beat all projections to take 38.7% of the vote and 103 seats, they are still 23 seats short of the magic 126 needed to form a government. In order to achieve this goal, they will need to attract the Socialist coalition who won 20 seats, along with minority parties that total seven seats. However, it's far from clear that the Socialists will side with Tadic's Democratic Party.

Although Nikolic's Radical Party only managed to capture 29.1% of votes, or 77 seats, an expected coalition with caretaker Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's rather confusingly named Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) would take this total up to 107, enough for the Socialists alone to take them to power and shatter the dream of the pro-EU coalition.

"Why would the Democratic Party be able to form a government? That should be the question everyone is asking," points out International Crisis Group's James Lyon, who argues that it's the nationalist bloc that has won the mandate. "If you look at the election results, only 44% of voters voted for pro-EU parties. 49% voted for nationalist parties or their allies. Everyone keeps focusing on the showing of the Democratic Party, but they're not putting it in context of what the numbers actually boil down to," he says. Lyon gets his figures from adding the percentage of votes for the Radical Party, Socialists, Kostunica's DSS and two Bosniak parties that are aligned to DSS.

European disunion

Should a nationalist government be formed, many fear that dreams for rapid entry into the EU would lie in tatters. During the election campaign, both Nikolic and Kostunica repeatedly issued vitriolic statements against Brussels. Just days before the election, Nikolic ensured supporters that he would "never deliver" any more fugitives to the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, one of the EU's key requirements for Serbia to join the bloc. He also said he would prefer to join a "Russian Union" to the EU should one exist. Since the declared independence of Kosovo on February 17, Kostunica, too, has hardly stopped attacking the EU, calling Serbia's recent signing of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement - a first step to joining the EUI - a "forgery" and threatening to annul it when he regains power after the elections.

With these two at the helm, pro-EU supporters fear Serbia's membership aspirations will evaporate once again. However, not all analysts are so pessimistic. Dragana Ignjatovic of the consultancy Global Insight says that although a brief backlash could be expected following the formation of a nationalist government (especially seeing as though the EU has already recognized the Tadic-led coalition as election winners), this would change in the long term. "Even if the SRS was to form a government, it would be forced eventually to cooperate with the international community if it wants to maintain macroeconomic balance in Serbia, especially given that the majority of the country's exports go to the EU," Ignjatovic says.

Bojan Jankovic from the Serbia Investment and Export Promotion Agency concurs. "Non-cooperation with the EU is unrealistic for Serbia... I honestly don't see any possibility of any of those statements coming true," he told bne, referring to Kostunica and Nikolic's threats.

But Serbia's bid for fast EU membership could be threatened by another factor. Under its constitution, Serbia now has three months to find a government. However, the EU is pressurising the politicians to find a solution in just one month. In order for a transitional trade agreement with the 27-member bloc to take effect as planned on July 10, Brussels wants the new Serbian government to be finalized by June 10. If the agreement is signed, Serbia may be rewarded with candidate status by the end of 2008; failure to meet this deadline could seriously derail accession plans as France, the holders of the next EU presidency has no plans to deal with the issue of Serbia in July.

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