296. The Return of Nationalists in Serbia and Croatia: Is Democracy Threatened?

By
Mieczyslaw Boduszynski

Mieczyslaw Boduszynski has recently completed his PhD dissertation in political science at the University of California, Berkeley and is now a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State. He spoke at an EES noon discussion on May 12, 2004. The following is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report 296.

Seemingly discredited just a few short years ago, the nationalist parties that were the main perpetrators of war, undemocratic politics and economic mismanagement in the former Yugoslavia's two largest successor states have made an electoral comeback after several years of rule by reformist, pro-Western coalitions. In Croatia, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ-Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica), which held a virtual monopoly on political power throughout the 1990s, won the largest number of seats (43 percent) in the November 2003 parliamentary elections and became the governing party in a four-party coalition and Ivo Sanader, the HDZ leader, became prime minister. The far-right Croatian Party of Rights (HSP-Hrvatska Stranka Prava) doubled its representation in parliament from four to eight seats, but did not join the ruling coalition. In the Serbian parliamentary election of December 2003, the top vote- and seat-getter (32 percent of parliamentary seats) was the Serbian Radical Party (Srpska Radikalna Stranka—SRS) of Vojislav Seselj, currently detained in the Netherlands for war crimes. The SRS, albeit never the ruling party in Serbia, had played a key role as the ideological surrogate of Slobodan Milosevic and the former ruling Serbian Socialist Party (SPS-Srpska Partija Socjalisticka). Besides helping Milosevic solidify his nationalist credentials, the SRS also performed some of the former regime's dirty work by organizing paramilitaries to fight in Croatia and Bosnia. The SPS itself managed to win only 22 seats in the December 2003 election. Both Seselj and Milosevic topped their parties' lists and were elected in absentia. Despite its strong showing in the election, however, the SRS did not form a government, a task that was undertaken by a group of democratically-minded parties led by the Serbian Democratic Party (DSS-Demokratska Stranka Srbije) of Vojislav Kostunica, who decided, to the great dismay of Western diplomats, to seek nominal support of Milosevic's Socialists for his government. These developments (along with the fact that nationalist parties prevailed in 2002 federal elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina) could lead some observers to find a resurgent nationalism throughout the Balkans.

But do nationalist victories mean the same thing in all of the Yugoslav successor states? How should those concerned about the future of democracy and stability in the former Yugoslavia interpret this ostensible turn to the right? Does the victory of nationalist configurations indicate a widespread dissatisfaction with democracy, increasing ethnic tensions and hostility towards Western-sponsored reforms? The answers to these questions are especially important for Croatia and Serbia-Montenegro, the two largest and most important Yugoslav successor states, whose internal stability and bilateral relationship hold the key to security, cooperation and democracy throughout the region. Thus, it was no surprise that alarm bells rang in the West in response to the election results of late 2003.

On the one hand, given the record of the nationalist parties in the 1990s, concern is entirely justified, particularly since their legitimacy has been largely based on the illiberal nationalist projects of the 1990s, and not on progress in building democracy, reforming the economy and promoting international integration—areas in which they did much more harm than good. On the other hand, such pessimism may not be warranted. Many former communist parties in Eastern Europe, after all, have genuinely transformed themselves into democratic organizations. Moreover, the circumstances are different now than they were three years ago: since the reformist coalitions that ruled in Belgrade and Zagreb from 2000 to 2003 did institute reforms, it is difficult to reverse them, if for no other reason than because the vast majority of the public does not want to return to the authoritarian and nationalist years.

Does it mean the same thing throughout the region?

Most analysts agree that the nationalists' electoral success in Croatia and Serbia reflects public frustration with the economic situation, corruption and the slow pace of reforms. Numerous polls indicate that the populace is concerned first and foremost with issues such as unemployment and poverty, while problems related to ethnic relations rate much lower. Both the SRS and HDZ exploited such public sentiments by promising to raise living standards. The SRS in particular has a strong reputation in Serbia as an uncorrupted party of principle, an image that works well in a country where disillusionment with politics and politicians runs deep (as the three invalidated presidential elections due to low turnout attest). Thus, to the extent that voters in both Serbia and Croatia were voicing dissatisfaction with the inability of reformist governments to raise living standards by voting for the nationalist opposition, they were not necessarily endorsing radical populist programs. Protest voting, after all, is a common phenomenon in post-communist Europe, and does not always indicate a reversion to illiberal regimes.

But this is where the similarity between the nationalist comeback in Croatia and Serbia ends. The rest of the evidence suggests that the SRS victory in Serbia should be cause for greater concern than the HDZ victory in Croatia. For one, the SRS has always espoused a more illiberal program and inflammatory rhetoric. Seselj, for instance, has openly bragged about atrocities committed by his militias in Bosnia and Croatia and threatened to expel all ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. This does not mean that certain elements within the HDZ, and particularly its right wing, did not espouse or practice such extremist views in the 1990s. However, while the SRS proudly rejected Western liberal norms, the HDZ self-consciously tried to cultivate a ‘European' image to ensure some baseline level of Western support. This moderated its extremist proclivities to some degree.

More importantly, however, after their defeat in 2000 these parties embarked on very different trajectories. The HDZ underwent an internal shakeup, with a new cadre of moderate, reformist leaders taking control of the party's governing apparatus. In 2002, Ivo Sanader, a former deputy foreign minister in Franjo Tudjman's regime, was elected party president and proceeded to purge the party of its hard-line elements. He began promoting the HDZ as a modern, European, Christian Democratic party that left its nationalist past behind. Sanader also actively courted the support of the West. In a surprising strategic move in 2003, the HDZ took the side of the United States in its conflict with the European Union (EU) over the Iraq war and the jurisdictions of the International Criminal Court. During the election campaign, however, Sanader also began actively supporting Croatia's bid for EU membership by 2007 and promised to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Perhaps most significantly, he made overtures to Croatia's ethnic Serbs, inviting ethnic Serb refugees to return to the country and ultimately won the support of ethnic Serb parties.

By contrast, the SRS remains a largely unreformed party. It is nominally led by indicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj, who has managed on occasion to make unauthorized calls to Serbian radio stations from prison. The party's day-to-day operations, however, are conducted in Serbia by Tomislav Nikolic, who represents a slightly more moderate voice than Seselj, but who nonetheless openly challenges existing borders, espouses an anti-Western stance and exploits deep feelings of victimization among Serbs. One need only look at the web pages of the two parties to realize how different they are: the SRS website solicits donations for the legal defense of Seselj and contains a link called "Greater Serbia," while the HDZ site prominently displays pictures of Sanader visiting Western capitals and rubbing elbows with EU officials.

The last eight months are a testament to these differences. While the HDZ has built on the reforms of its predecessor, cooperated with the ICTY, and made progress on the road to EU membership, the SRS has agitated in parliament and blocked important reform legislation. All of this suggests that the dual nationalist victory does not mean the same thing, and thus that we should be much more concerned about the negative consequences of the SRS victory.

What explains this difference?

I argue that the very different paths taken by the SRS and the HDZ in the post-authoritarian period provide a telling illustration of the power of external factors in providing a strong impetus for domestic reform. Above all, the different degree to which Serbia and Croatia have been co-opted into the Western liberal project—especially the process of EU accession—explains this difference. The process has advanced much further in Croatia than in Serbia over the past three years, due both to the efforts of Ivica Racan's government and EU policies. Under the reformist Racan government (2000-2003), Croatia embarked on the path toward European integration and the West reciprocated by holding out a fairly consistent and credible promise of membership. In 2000, Croatia joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program, in 2001 it signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU, in 2003 it submitted an application for EU membership, and was formally accepted as a candidate state in 2004. Serbia-Montenegro, on the other hand, is the only state in the region not to have even signed the SAA agreement.

The HDZ government has arguably been riding on the coat tails of its predecessor. The Racan government pursued the EU at all costs, even when its popularity had fallen to dangerously low levels and it was in the midst of a cooperation crisis with the ICTY. The EU, in turn, has continued to hold out the ‘carrot' of membership, providing rewards at key moments. Thus, what began as an instrumental acceptance of EU norms on the part of the Racan government became a process in which the substantive beliefs of both Croatian elites and the public were altered. EU accession has replaced national issues as the baseline of political competition, and has slowly become the "only game in town." As a result, radical populist political groups have been largely marginalized and even right-wing parties cannot avoid speaking the language of European integration. Similar processes have taken place in recent years in Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. By contrast, due to the lack of an external impetus for reform in Serbia, anti-Westernism continues to be worn as a badge of honor by even ostensibly liberal political parties, and radical programs are very much a part of the political discourse.

The HDZ and its members, thus, were not necessarily endowed with more liberal genes than their counterparts in the SRS. In fact, a large part of the HDZ's base continues to be quite nationalist in orientation. Zagreb political scientist Mirjana Kasapovic has recently noted the irony that Sanader has had to maintain a hierachical and undemocratic party organization in order to ensure that any illiberal tendencies are kept in check. Yet, even the nationalist elements in the party have had to adapt to the new conditions and make the "rational choice" of supporting Europe.

This does not mean that there are not important structural differences underpinning the divergent post-authoritarian trajectories of the Serbian and Croatian nationalists. Economic conditions are much worse in Serbia than in Croatia: the GDP per capita in the former is just over $2,300; while in the latter it is over $10,000. The unemployment rate in Serbia hovers near 30 percent while in Croatia it is below 20 percent. In Serbia, moreover, there is more ambivalence and mistrust towards Western institutions than in Croatia. The December 2003 elections reflected this: in Croatia, roughly 40 percent of the electorate voted for parties with clear liberal credentials; 40 percent of the electorate voted for parties (including HDZ) whose liberal credentials are ambiguous, and 6 percent of the electorate voted for decidedly illiberal parties. By contrast, in Serbia roughly 25 percent of the electorate voted for parties with clear liberal credentials, 25 percent voted for parties whose liberal credentials are ambiguous, and a troubling 36 percent of the electorate voted for decidedly illiberal parties (including SRS). Moreover, the recent Serbian presidential election, in which the electorate was split almost evenly between the pro-Western Boris Tadic and anti-Western Tomislav Nikolic, is another powerful indicator of the continuing division in Serbian society. Polls show very low levels of trust in NATO and relatively low levels of trust in the EU. In Croatia, by contrast, anti-Western parties are marginalized, and though levels of trust in Western institutions do reflect a degree of cynicism, they are still significantly higher than in Serbia. Finally, Serbia's territory is insecure, with the final status of Kosovo uncertain and the question of Montenegro's independence unresolved. There is a more fertile ground, therefore, for nationalist populism in Serbia than in Croatia.

Prospects for democratization in Serbia and Croatia

All of the above strongly suggests that what we have witnessed in Croatia is not a return to the dark years of nationalism but rather the beginning of an alternation in power of liberally-minded parties committed to the EU with different political histories, much as is the case in Hungary, Poland or the Czech Republic. The real test for the HDZ is whether it will be able to sell difficult policies to its nationalist base in war-torn areas, such as the return of Serbian refugees (70 percent still have not returned to Croatia). Cooperation with the ICTY is a similar test in this regard, but the Sanader government has already cooperated and won the right to pursue domestic prosecutions. Yet, one should keep in mind that the HDZ has a high degree of legitimacy when it comes to national issues and the electorate may give it more leverage than it gave the Racan government in this regard. Moreover, with Croatia now a formal EU candidate country, the Sanader government can credibly use the need to fulfill dictates of the acquis communautaire as an ‘excuse' for unpopular reforms. Continuing public support for the fulfillment of EU conditions is contingent on visible improvements in living standards, so economic conditions will very much determine progress as well. Thus, democratic reforms are likely to continue, but not without bumps and diversions in the process.

In Serbia, we are more likely to see political instability in the short term. Since Serbia has also pursued integration into Euro-Atlantic structures to some degree, it will be difficult to completely reverse the course of reforms. The SRS cannot stop democratization, but it (along with the SPS) can certainly slow it down. Liberal parties will be forced in the short term to respond to nationalistic rhetoric. The SRS's visible presence in the Serbian parliament, moreover, negatively reflects on Serbia's international relations, especially its relations with its neighbors, such as Croatia. It also hurts negotiations on the final status of Kosovo. However, the election of Boris Tadic as president and the fact that the foreign relations of Serbia-Montenegro are nominally entrusted to federal structures and not the Serbian government, may mitigate these negative effects. And even the SRS knows that Serbia is dependent on the international community and is unlikely to go too far with its illiberal appeals. Thus, democratization will likely proceed in fits and starts. The process of EU integration will be slow, but the larger momentum towards it will not be thwarted with the DSS in power and strong demonstration effects from neighboring countries. Furthermore, if the DSS stands up to the SRS and other nationalist groups, it may discover that the nationalists are weaker than it thinks.

How should the West respond?

In Croatia, the West has a historic opportunity to solidify Croatia's future as a democratic and European state. In doing so, however, it should provide consistent, clear conditions and not make compromises on key issues to counter a populist rise in Serbia, for instance. Rewards for compliance should be forthcoming. The United States should capitalize on the pro-American stance of Sanader, but not at the risk of jeopardizing Croatia's relations with the EU. The ICTY should speed up trials and announce any final indictments.

In Serbia, the West must work with Kostunica despite his often-ambivalent approach to Western-dictated reforms. The carrot of EU or NATO membership is not enough: the stick is also needed at times, and even appreciated by reformers, as this gives them the backing to push through difficult reforms. At the same time, misguided or mistimed pressure can strengthen nationalist groups. The policies of the EU and US towards Serbia need to be harmonized, and both would do well to avoid making Serbia and other states in the region proxies for their disputes. A decisive policy is needed on Kosovo's final status, as well as a flexible policy on Montenegro. Finally, aid and investment must be forthcoming to make sure the economy does not collapse, since it is the poor economic conditions that empower the SRS's simplistic populist appeals. If the combination of positive and negative inducements is right and the Serbian political elite embarks decisively in the EU path, a socialization process of the kind that occurred in Croatia is likely to ensue, and that would only be a positive sign for democracy in Serbia.

Now that Croatia is formally an EU candidate, Washington and Brussels would be advised to promote cooperation between Serbia and Croatia. One cannot envision security and democracy in the region in the absence of reconciliation and cooperation between the former Yugoslavia's two most important successor states. Economic cooperation is the beginning. Slovenia long ago realized the importance of regaining the Serbian market, and Croatia should do the same. Economic cooperation is likely to strengthen the bilateral relationship and marginalize nationalist parties such as the SRS. Reconciliation took a positive step forward with mutual apologies and visits by Serbia-Montenegro President Svetozar Marovic and Croatian President Stipe Mesic. Of course, reconciliation will have to happen at the grassroots level as well: the fact that in the most recent Eurovision song contest Croats voted for Serbian folk singer Zeljko Joksimovic is definitely a step in that direction.

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