(c) The Economist Newspaper Limited, London 2006. All rights reserved
Serbia's new nationalism
A nasty outbreak in the Balkans
IT HAS long been said that there are two Serbias. One is conservative, nationalist and backward-looking; the other liberal, modern and progressive. In today's politics, the first is on the offensive and the second on the defensive. Serbia faces crucial choices—and it may decide not to resume its path towards European integration.
Two weeks ago, tens of thousands of young Serbs converged on the city of Novi Sad for the Exit music festival, where big-name bands from all of Europe play. Exit is fascinating because it provides a glimpse of the Serbia that could be. It is well organised, peaceful, fun—and it attracts thousands of visitors from across former Yugoslavia. But ask young Serbs what the future holds and gloom descends. Visa restrictions mean they cannot travel out of their region. Disillusioned by politics since the fall of the Milosevic regime in October 2000, many say they will not vote any more. Indeed, an opinion poll in June found only 48% of Serbs would certainly turn out in the next election; and 36% of would-be voters said they would back the hardline nationalist Radical Party.
The government of Vojislav Kostunica has been playing this for all it is worth. Trying to forestall the almost inevitable independence of Kosovo (see box), it has been warning foreign governments that, if Kosovo's Albanians win their independence, Serbia will be lost to the Radicals. Some liberals doubt this. A get-out-the-vote campaign would surely stop the Radicals, they argue. But that is not certain, says one pollster, Srdjan Bogosavljevic. Indeed, a big turnout might help the Radicals. If they came to power, they could not start a new war, he says, but they clearly do not have enough well-trained, modern-minded people to run the country well.
The best moment to hold an election has now become a hot topic. The liberal president, Boris Tadic, would like an early vote. He assumes that, if the poll is held before Kosovo is lost, pro-European and democratic forces stand a better chance of winning, weathering the ensuing storm and then resuming talks with the European Union on a deal that should be a first step towards membership. (Talks were suspended in May, after Mr Kostunica failed to keep a pledge to arrest Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb ex-general wanted by the Hague war-crimes tribunal.)
But Ljiljana Smajlovic, editor of Politika, a daily, says that holding an election early would be a mistake. The democrats would have to run a campaign with an appeal that would implicitly amount to, “Vote for us and we will lose Kosovo for you.” Mr Kostunica, who perhaps realises that he cannot stop Kosovo's independence, is known to favour waiting at least until next year, probably the spring.
In the past few weeks Mr Kostunica has been spurred into an unusually energetic round of diplomacy. He has been to London, Washington and Brussels, where this week he presented an “action plan” meant to show that Serbia is genuinely trying to capture Mr Mladic—which not everybody believes. Officials in Brussels are also working on a set of incentives for Serbia to cushion the blow of what they see as the inevitable loss of Kosovo and, incidentally, to help beat off the Radical threat. But none of this may be enough to stop Serbia's slipping backwards.