Elections, elections, elections...
Voting fever has swept through the Balkans during the past year. Anyone would be forgiven if they were to cringe at the very sound of the word—and yes, more elections are around the corner.
On 10 December, Romanians will vote in the second round of the presidential elections; on 23 December, the Serbian parliament will vote on whether to retain the remnants of Slobodan Milošević's regime; and next year Bulgarians will also go to the polls.
Although the nations of Central and Eastern Europe are individually very different, they share a common bond: they all experienced Communism and the collapse of Communism together—except Yugoslavia.
As a result, every four to five years a hive of electoral activity descends on the region, stretching the electoral monitors to the limits, and ushering in an atmosphere of both optimism and pessimism. This millennium, however, has been marked in history as the year that the last vestiges of Communist dictatorship in Europe were relinquished—for the time being, at least.
The end of an era
For the past decade Yugoslavia has become increasingly isolated by its Balkan neighbours and the international community. The devastation of the conflicts with Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia in the early 1990s and continued suppression of those that remained within the Yugoslavian fold under Milošević's ultra-nationalist, Communist regime, created an image of Yugoslavia as the pariah of Europe.
After Yugoslavian presidential and parliamentary elections on 26 September and the eventual overthrow on Milošević on 5 October, that image was no longer viable. Instead, Yugoslavia found at its head a "democratic nationalist," Vojislav Koštunica.
Almost overnight the isolationist policies were abandoned: Yugoslavia resumed its seat in the United Nations, has been invited to join the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), is to be integrated into the Southeast European Stability Pact, Koštunica has been welcomed with open arms across Europe, and there has even been talk of European Union integration.
The sudden and dramatic turnaround in policies towards Yugoslavia has been overwhelming. Yet, Koštunica is still an unknown entity with a mish-mash of often incompatible beliefs: nationalist against democratic. He is still the man who stood in Kosovo brandishing an AK-47, and he has also made it clear that independence for Serbia's Yugoslav partner, Montenegro, and for the region of Kosovo is not something that he would relish. Indeed, if Yugoslavia were to finally disintegrate, then Koštunica's position as President would become redundant.
The fall of Slobodan Milošević has opened up a new era for Yugoslavia, but at the same time, it has closed an era for the Balkans. Along with the retirement of Alija Izetbegovic in Bosnia-Hercegovina and the death of Frandjo Tudjman in Croatia, the war-time nationalists of the early 1990s have all but gone from power. With many of their former Communist neighbours now vying for integration with the European Union, these nations of the Balkans have become isolated in a different fashion: they are not yet part of the tier that have been accepted as potential members of the "European Club."
Breaking down barriers
Yugoslavia's acceptance into the Southeast European Stability Pact is crucial to securing regional stability. After the Kosovo conflict and the NATO bombings, the cost of rebuilding war-ravaged Yugoslavia and the damaged economies of South-Eastern Europe—particularly those that relied on Danube navigation for a large percentage of their trade, for example Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary—was immense.
The Southeast European Stability Pact was regarded as a means by which the nations of the Balkans could restructure themselves, with the assistance of the international community, in order to prevent another such crisis in the future.
Until now, Yugoslavia has been a barrier to securing regional stability, unwilling to rebuild its economic infrastrucure or co-operate with its Balkan neighbours who had sided with NATO throughout the Kosovo conflict.
According to Slobodan Milošević's regime, NATO were the aggressors and therefore those nations that sided with the organisation were also the enemy. In a region already suffering from economic and political instability, the position of Yugoslavia at the centre of the Balkans was a constraint against the growth of individual countries and the region as a whole.
Koštunica's relatively democratic approach has cleared the way for the Balkan nations to now work together and rebuild economic, political and social stability. In this respect, the prospects for the future of the region are looking brighter. Not only has a new market, in desperate need of support, been opened up, but improving stability of the region will benefit those nations vying for integration into the EU and encourage countries like Yugoslavia, Croatia and Bosnia to apply for membership.
The dramatic events in Yugoslavia have undoubtedly unleashed new prospects for the Balkans, but the changes have only just touched the surface. Elections throughout the region have revealed the continuation of two characteristics that have come to symbolise the nature of the Balkans: ethnicity and nationalism.
National elections in the Federation of Bosnia-Hercegovina and the presidential election in Republik Srpska revealed just how strong national and ethnic divisions remain.
In Republik Srpska, yet another Serbian nationalist was elected president, and the nationalist party gained the majority of the seats. In the Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina, the Muslim and Croat parties also did well with their particular national group, but a multi-ethnic party also secured several votes. Within the overriding Bosnia-Hercegovina Federation, the representation of ethnic groups corresponded with each group's particular nationality. However, here, the multi-ethnic party also gained a large proportion of the seats.
In Romania, the parliamentary and presidential elections on 26 November returned former Communist Ion Iliescu's Party for Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR) with the largest percentage of the votes. Nonetheless, the surprise came from their closest challenger, the Greater Romania Party (PRM).
The PRM is considered to be an ultra-nationalist party with extreme views on minority issues and the status of the "nation of Romania." (See CER's article of last week for more information) On 10 December, Ion Iliescu and PRM leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor are to battle it out in the second-round vote for the Romanian Presidency.
Nationalism in itself is not necessarily a problem, but in the hands of an extremist it can become a dangerous tool of manipulation. Milošević used this approach in Yugoslavia with devastating effects, and if Romania is not careful, Tudor could wield a similar influence.
Although Milošević has been ousted from power, nationalist and ethnic tensions are still running high in Yugoslavia, particularly in Southern Serbia on the Kosovan border. Ethnic Albanian rebels from Kosovo have breached the demilitarized zone between Serbia and Kosovo and are attacking Serb police in the Preševo Valley. Serbian troops and tanks have been brought to the area as "back-up." UN peacekeepers have been acting as an intermediary between the Serbians and Kosovan Albanians and a ceasefire has supposedly been agreed.
Kosovo has been seeking full independence from Yugoslavia since the end of the Kosovan conflict. The Preševo Valley houses a large number of Kosovan Albanians despite being a part of Serbia. The Albanians from Kosovo feel that their fellow Albanians need protection from the Serbs and that ultimately the Preševo Valley should be included in an independent Kosovo. Albania is watching the situation closely.
The collapse of the Milošević regime in Yugoslavia has been the crux for regional change during the past year. However, although the perception of Yugoslavia has changed, it will need more than concessions for regional stability to be ensured. Nationalism and ethnicity still run deep in the Balkans and the effects of transition are taking their toll. Romanians, sick of being poor, have vented their frustrations by voting for the extremes and "what they know best." Perhaps, after another four years have passed and another election season hits the region, resentments will be more widespread.
The Balkans has often been on that tentative line between extremism and democracy. Balkan history has been turbulent and, in the face of hardship, extreme measures can be called for. Perhaps that is why Romania voted for two former Communists, and perhaps that is why Bosnians voted for their respective national groups—it is what they feel safest with. It is an expression of their culture and history.
Catherine Lovatt, 11 December 2000
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