One thing that’s noticeable about post-Soviet Eastern Europe is the reassertion of familiar political patterns, although often in new and surprising ways. You see a lot of this in the Western Balkans. Slovenia, for instance, looks more and more eerily like a southern Austrian province, albeit an Austrian province with its own flag and president, a seat at the UN and even a rinky dinky little army that gets allowed to go on Nato exercises once in a while. Croatia’s body politic was traditionally dominated by fanatical loyalty to the Catholic Church and the Habsburg family and, while the Habsburg connection has faded quite a bit, there’s a lot that’s recognisable from the past. Bosnia has reverted to being a foreign protectorate; Montenegro has reverted to being basically a pirate republic.
Where this is relevant is that, historically speaking, one of the basic cleavages of Serbian politics has been between pro-French and pro-Russian tendencies. When you remember this, it casts a bit of light on what’s conventionally portrayed in the metropolitan media as the struggle between “pro-Western reformers” on the one hand and “ultra-nationalists” on the other. And actually, if anyone in Serbia has a claim to being a pro-European democrat, it’s Vojislav Koštunica, arguably the most prominent intellectual Francophile in the country, as well as being the man who translated the Federalist Papers into Serbian way back in 1982, when many of today’s most ostentatious “democrats” were cosily ensconced in the Stalinist bureaucracy. If Koštunica is sufficiently pissed off with the EU to be throwing pro-Russian shapes, it says less about him than it does about EU diplomacy. Kosovo is only the most egregious example of this. We also have Brussels’ refusal to make a harmless goodwill gesture like relaxing visa restrictions. Not to mention Javier Solana playing silly buggers with accession talks, dangling association agreements before the Serbian voters when there’s an election coming up and then junking them afterwards, while hoping that the simple peasants won’t notice. Way to go, EU diplomacy!
So, what are we to make of Boris Tadić’s famous victory? Well, it’s not quite as clear-cut as Boris and his spin-meisters would have us believe. Yes, Boris has done rather well. Partly that’s due to rallying voters who were scared of the Radicals getting into power. And partly it’s because, while Boris’ Democratic Party ran alone last year, this time out it was the main force in a broad coalition. Well, I say a broad coalition – there are some fairly motley partners in there, basically anyone who could add a few votes to the total. Most notable is Mladjan Dinkić’s G17 Plus, the expert technocrats (or gang of crooks, depending on your perspective) who have had a stranglehold on the economic ministries since the October 2000 coup, and probably reckoned they were unelectable under their own name. There’s also the Vojvodina’s rightist hard man Nenad Čanak, and we are delighted to see Vuk Drašković being exhumed from his political grave. Boris’ coalition also includes the Srpska Lista za Kosovo i Metohiju, a smallish but significant outfit which returns a number of abstentionist deputies to the province’s puppet assembly, and that can’t have hurt his patriotic credentials.
But all this leaves Boris’ fractious alliance, even assuming he can hold it together, with 102 seats out of 250 in parliament, and getting the extra 24 to elect a prime minister will be no mean feat. Boris can probably rely on the Liberal Democratic Party, who are neither liberal nor democratic – they’re a bit like our own Desocrats, only considerably nastier. The LDP has consolidated its base among Belgrade’s trendy postmodern metrosexuals, which isn’t a big niche but is solid enough to deliver them 13 deputies. And then there are seven representatives of national minorities, of whom the Magyars and Albanians could be counted on to support Boris, and the Sandžak Muslims will vote for whoever looks most likely to deliver monetary returns to the Sandžak. But that still leaves Boris short.
In this situation, what’s a Balkan president to do? He might put in a call to Koštunica, although relations between the two men are extremely bad at the moment. Old Vojislav did badly in the election, but still has kingmaker potential. Worth noting, too, that the Radicals (who put on 40,000 votes but dropped three seats due to the vagaries of PR) have also been courting Koštunica, even unto the point of offering him the premiership. The Radicals will be well aware that Koštunica’s solid reputation as a conservative patriot, and one of the few people in Serbian politics who’s totally incorruptible, would do wonders for their own hoodlum image.
And so it’s likely to be crunch time for the Socialists, who did quite well. A lot of people assume the Socialists to be natural coalition partners for the Radicals, but perhaps not. The two parties have had a prickly relationship since the days when Milošević and Šešelj used to square off against each other, drawing not least on their respective identifications with the Titoist and monarchist traditions. More to the point, the Socialists and Radicals pitch their appeal to the same kind of electorate. Ask yourself why the PDs have never coalesced with Fine Gael, and you’ll get my point.
But could the Socialists enter a Tadić government? There’s already been some spin to that effect. The Democrats, despite their lack of any leftist policies, call themselves a centre-left party and are actually an affiliate of the Socialist International. (Which just goes to show that the Second will let anybody in these days.) The Socialists, on the other hand, are keen to big up their social democratic credentials. But what are the odds of any social democratic policies while the G17 Plus continue to control the economy, as they surely will in any Tadić government? And how could Boris, who derives a lot of his moral authority from having been part of the anti-Milošević opposition back in the day, justify going into government with the party of Milošević? Bizarre coalitions are commonplace in countries with PR systems – on the Emerald Isle we have two of them – but in most countries elections are not cast as grand existential struggles between good and evil.
Interesting times ahead. And watch out for the diplomatic SWAT teams being deployed from Brussels and Washington to fix things for Boris. What the Eurocrats fear isn’t so much a return to the 1990s (as if they bore no responsibility for that) but that a Radical-led government might make it more difficult to project Imperial power, by exposing the misdeeds of the Empire’s favoured parties while making life harder for the lavishly funded neocon fronts that proliferate in Belgrade’s NGO sector. I guess, in the end, it all comes down to how power-hungry Tadić is and how slippery the Socialists are. Don’t underestimate either.