Jun 27, 2008 | 21:32 GMT

5 mins read

Serbia: A Pro-EU Government in the Making

A new pro-EU government will soon emerge in Serbia, notable for involving Slobodan Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia. It will also mark the rise of a newly competitive regional player as well as the partial eclipse of Russian influence in the Balkans.
Serbian President Boris Tadic announced June 27 that he will ask former Serbian Finance Minister Mirko Cvetkovic to form a government and serve as prime minister. The new government, expected to be in place by July 4, will be the result of elections called in March after a split between Tadic and then-Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica over the signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement — a step toward EU membership. Kostunica insisted that it contain provisions guaranteeing Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo while Tadic wanted to keep Kosovo and EU accession separate. The new government will be notable in that it will include former President Slobodan Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), a long-time opponent of Tadic’s Democratic Party (DS). It will also be much more pro-EU and likely more stable than the previous one, led by Kostunica, who was known to play both the Russians and the EU for personal political gain. The biggest obstacle for Serbia since the fall of Milosevic has been its inability to pick a course and stick to it. Although the new government will have an SPS component, it will be firmly pro-EU. The SPS has decided to look beyond its nationalist ideology and sell itself to the highest bidder. In its decision to join the DS government — its historical enemy, which removed it from power in a 2000 bloodless revolution — SPS is motivated by two main goals: becoming a modern, European-focused leftist party and signaling to other parties and the EU that it can be bought. The SPS was swayed to join the new government through intense lobbying by the EU, which convinced party leaders that being kingmakers of a pro-EU government was far more lucrative than being the third wheel of a pro-Russian Kostunica-Radical coalition. Yet joining the new government does not really make them indispensable kingmakers. If SPS decides to change its mind and make trouble for the Cvetkovic government, an even more pro-EU Liberal Democratic Party will be waiting in the wings. This makes the new Serbian government as stable as a coalition government can be. A new pro-EU Serbia will be a stronger regional player competing for EU attention and it will diminish Russian influence in the region. The EU and Russia have long vied for influence in the Balkans, a conflict that came to a head with the independence of Kosovo in mid-February. The regional effect of the new government is that Serbian neighbors will no longer be able to view Serbia as a political black hole. A democratic Serbia will cause its neighbors to view it as a competitor, particularly for EU development aid. Croatia, in particular, will need to speed up its accession talks because it will want to be in the EU when Serbia begins negotiating in order to set the terms for Serbian accession. Hungary will also no longer be able to take it for granted that the EU will listen to its concerns about the Hungarian minority in Vojvodina, Serbia’s northern region. Meanwhile, the EU is extremely satisfied that its long-term strategy for the Balkans has been successful — a far cry from its failure to be relevant during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. With the election of a pro-EU government in Serbia, EU’s plan of rushing Bulgaria and Romania into the union to close off Russian (and to an extent American) access and influence in the Balkans has succeeded. The main foreign policy goal of the western Balkan states is to enter Brussels’ club, and that gives the EU enormous leverage over other powers who may want influence in southeastern Europe. The EU has also managed to influence Serbian politics, preventing the nationalists from using the loss of Kosovo to take power, an impressive feat in and of itself. The EU now has four full years, assuming the new Serbian coalition holds, to mold and influence Belgrade to such an extent that a return to a non-EU-oriented Serbia would be difficult. Nonetheless, the EU is too preoccupied with internal concerns (e.g., failure to ratify the Lisbon Treaty) to seriously push expansion in the region. This could cause a problem for Serbia’s pro-EU government in four years if the Serbs, at that point, feel their progress toward EU membership should be further along. For Russia, the new government represents a catastrophic loss. Serbia was Moscow’s only noteworthy non-former Soviet Union ally and was willing to sell to Russians important infrastructure, including the state-owned Petroleum Industry of Serbia for well under its market value in return for Russian political backing over Kosovo. The Serbian Radical Party, the country’s ultra-nationalists, talked of bringing Russians into Serbia militarily and turning Serbia into a Russian launching pad for power projection into the very heart of Europe. Russia will still have strong economic interests in Serbia, and many pro-EU Serbs still want Russian investment. With Serbia orienting itself toward the West, however, Russia will have to reconsider its plans to confront the EU in the Balkans.

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