Serbia's presidential poll haunted by phantom politics

Click to follow
Serbs were invited to vote for a president yesterday for the fourth time in two months. But apathy once again threatened to nullify the result. Andrew Gumbel describes the growing desperation of a country where politics is logjammed and the economy is in tatters.

Yesterday's run-off for the Serbian presidency was between the Yugoslav Foreign Minister, Milan Milutinovic, and the ultranationalist Radical Party leader, Vojislav Seselj.

Mr Milutinovic, a faithful servant of the real master of Serbian politics, Slobodan Milosevic, came out on top of the first round, held two weeks ago; he can expect stiff competition, however, since Mr Seselj was the nominal winner of the last presidential election, held two months ago and annulled because less than half of the electorate turned out to vote.

To call the occasion an election in any meaningful sense would be quite misleading, however. Nothing about the affair has been fair or transparent, as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe pointed out in a strongly worded statement after the first round. Mr Milosevic's ruling order controls the electoral commissions, the most important media, and the observation teams at polling stations. Political parties with an interest in democratic reforms have simply boycotted the entire process.

Every political analyst in Serbia believes that Mr Seselj will never become president - his purpose, it seems, is to scare the outside world into thinking that Mr Milosevic's man might not be so bad after all. That leaves two possible outcomes - another inquorate election, with yet another repeat slated for February, or victory for Mr Milutinovic.

Either way, the real master of ceremonies will remain Mr Milosevic. Although his party, the SPS, no longer commands a majority in parliament, he seems to be having no trouble manipulating the political scene just as surely as he did when he was the openly autocratic ruler of a Communist Serbia 10 years ago. Supposed opponents, like the crypto-fascist Mr Seselj or the pseudo-reformist Vuk Draskovic, seem quite content to prop him up in exchange for a few crumbs from his table.

What we are seeing is a giant exercise in phantom politics. Change is not on the agenda, and democratic change is quite out of the question. Less than a year after last winter's dramatic street protests, in which Mr Milosevic appeared to be cornered by a spirited outburst of public indignation, the energy and enthusiasm has gone. Belgrade's intellectuals have sunk into gloom, and the country seems gripped by a fatalistic depression.

"People have lost hope, and now all they concentrate on is surviving," observed one Belgrade writer. Wages are frozen, state salaries and pensions are several months in arrears, and the currency is forever losing ground against the German mark, but prices continue to soar. The economy has effectively collapsed and the only question is the extent of the disaster.

Factories are bumping along at 10 or 20 per cent of capacity. Since the international community has maintained its "outer wall" of sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro, denying the two republics access to international credit lines, outside investment cannot arrive. When Mr Milosevic travelled to China and Russia recently, in his new role as president of federal Yugoslavia, much was made on state television of the trade deals he signed. But these were no more than barter arrangements, with Serbia effectively begging for essential imports in exchange for oil and gas supplies it is barely capable of providing.

The international community has maintained a two-edged attitude to Serbia: on the one hand looking to Mr Milosevic as a guarantor of the Dayton peace process in Bosnia, and on the other keeping up pressure in the hope that he will deliver the three things the West still wants: the handover of indicted war criminals living in Serbia, a financial settlement of the assets of the pre-war Yugoslavia, which he holds, and a political settlement in the province of Kosovo, whose majority Albanian population is clamouring for autonomy in the face of heavy Serbian police and army repression.

For the moment, the political gridlock in Serbia is a convenient excuse for Mr Milosevic to ignore the Kosovo issue. So it festers away, like another Balkan sore, with no prospect of a solution.