Balkans brace for new Serbian Prime Minister

Myriad hurdles face newly elected government as former Slobodan Milosevic ally becomes Prime Minister.

    Balkans brace for new Serbian Prime Minister
    Serbia's new Prime Minister Ivica Dacic has aspirations to join the European Union [AFP]

    When Ivica Dacic swears an oath as the new Prime Minister of Serbia in Belgrade on Thursday afternoon, all of the Balkans will be watching.

    The largest country in what was formerly Yugoslavia will get a government chief who was a spokesman for the late accused war criminal Slobodan Milosevic during the Balkan wars.

    In 2006, Dacic took over Milosevic's Socialist Party, which was ousted in 2000. Today his party returns to power for the first time in 12 years, in a coalition government that includes new President Tomislav Nikolic's Serbian Progressive Party and several smaller parties.

    While Dacic, who retains his post as Internal Affairs Minister, has stated that his party would not return to the Milosevic-style nationalist policies, the beginning of Serbia's integration into the European Union is seen in some of its Balkan neighbours as a front for temporarily covering the new government's intentions.

    Hidden agenda?

    Both Dacic and Nikolic have trumpeted Serbia's EU aspirations, after the country recently began an official dialogue with the Union about joining.

    Nevertheless, what resonated the most in the region after Nikolic's win in the presidential elections in May was a darker aspect of Serbia's newly elected political establishment.

    Nikolic told a German newspaper that a genocide did not happen in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Bosnian Serb forces and irregular units from Serbia slaughtered more than 8,000 people in 1995. As well, he said that Vukovar in Croatia, where Serb forces killed around 4,000 people in 1991, was a "Serb town".

    The Bosnian and Croatian presidents then boycotted Nikolic's inauguration. Nikolic has since given milder statements in the spirit of good neighbourly ties and euro-integration.

    "The countries which were once part of former Yugoslavia have much more in common than the unfortunate and bad events that happened in the past."

    - Ivica Dacic

    His more measured tone reflects that of Dacic, who is working to build an image of a peace-loving corruption fighter.

    In late June, when he was forming government, Dacic said nobody in the Balkans should fear the new Serbian government, adding that joining the EU and good relationships with its neighbours would be the key aims of his future cabinet.

    "I am not stupid so as to do something to my own detriment. I will do what is best not only for me, but for the people of Serbia and Serbia itself," Dacic said.

    "This is a huge maturity test for me and a chance which I will not waste", adding that Serbs would prefer a future without conflict and war.

    "There is no danger to anyone in the Balkans from Serbia, from the Serbian people. To the contrary, it is in our interest that the ties between the countries in the region are as strong as possible," Dacic said.

    Washington's view

    During a visit to Croatia earlier this month, US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon said the US message to Belgrade was always the same, regardless of its president or government.

    "We want to see Serbia as part of Europe, as we want to see the entire region as part of Europe," he told Al Jazeera.

    This means that, like other countries which are about to join the EU or NATO, Serbia must make peace with its neighbours, reform its economy and have transparent and democratic processes, said Gordon.

    Asked if Dacic was an acceptable choice of PM for the US, Gordon said: "It's not matter of being acceptable to the US or not. The US considers it important to see a stable democratic process in the choice of leadership. Of course we are interested which way that leadership is heading and that government will have to show it is willing and committed in forging good relationships with its neighbours, which is key to Serbia going forward."

    In an early show of good neighbourly relationships, Dacic visited Bosnia and Herzegovina at the start of July to help open a border crossing, where he said his country had a clearly defined relationship with its neighbour.

    He said "serious states" should not change their policies according to which political party was governing the country.

    "Serbia is committed to forging good relationships with Bosnia and Herzegovina," he said. "I think the countries which were once part of former Yugoslavia have much more in common than the unfortunate and bad events that happened in the past," Dacic said, adding that joint interests and new policies should be created.

    He said Serbia had no territorial aspirations towards Bosnia and Herzegovina and favoured peace and stability. Dacic especially highlighted the cooperation of the two countries' police agencies in combatting organised crime, which he hoped would continue.

    The question of Kosovo

    Closer to home, Dacic favours the division of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, but which Serbia does not recognise, although he recently said that the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina would continue with EU help to find "at least the lowest common denominator which would satisfy both our path to the EU and national interests, as well as regional peace and stability".

    Nikolic, for his part, this week asked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in Belgrade to provide a UN monitor for the continuation of dialogue with Pristina.

    "The idea of the division of Kosovo has reached its use-by date a long time ago, at least according to the international community, above all the United States", said Al Jazeera reporter Vladimir Bobetic.

    Vladislav Jovanovic, former foreign affairs minister of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and its United Nations ambassador, told Al Jazeera that by promoting the division of Kosovo, Serbia is confusing those countries which have not recognised its independence.

    "A country which has a constitutional definition that Kosovo is a part of Serbia should not be coming out with suggestions that one part of that Serbia could be divided with somebody else," he said. "It would be quite another matter if the idea of division was coming from the Albanians."

    In the north of Kosovo, which comprises three councils spread over 1,000 square kilometres, Serbs make up 65,000 of the 70,500 inhabitants, while there are more than 4,300 Albanians.

    "The municipalities north of the River Ibar, according to Dacic's idea, would belong to Serbia," said Bobetic.

    One problem, though, is that several monasteries and some of the holiest places of the Serbian Orthodox Church, would remain south of the river.

    Better living

    Serbian political analyst Dejan Vuk Stankovic told Al Jazeera the main challenges of the new government would be the fight against organised crime and corruption, ensuring better living standards for Serbia's citizens and the question of Kosovo.

    About 70,000 unemployed Serbians get a 130 euro monthly benefit. The June instalment arrived late as the Treasury did not have enough money.

    "The government will have similar challenges as the previous one, on the socioeconomic and political fronts, but with a lot less resources, together with citizen expectations that negative trends are removed. The greatest political challenge will be Serbia continuing on its path towards European Union membership in light of the Kosovo question," he said.

    Stankovic said the government would need to make deep cuts in its first two years, so it could reap the economic benefits in the last two years of its mandate, as well as tackle the foreign policy problems as soon as possible.

    "A clear benefit is that they have a majority of 142 parliamentary seats. There are a lot of challenges and not a lot of time to solve them," Stankovic said.

    Serbia's economy is in a trying state. At the start of July it was able to sell only 40 per cent of the government bods valued at 160m euro [$194m USD], whose sale was meant to cover its debts.

    The country's Fiscal Council warned that in the following three months Serbia would need around 500m euro.

    About 70,000 unemployed Serbians get a 130 euro monthly benefit. The June instalment arrived late as the Treasury did not have enough money.

    Death threats

    Another issue for Dacic will be the continuing fight against organised crime and corruption, which in the last two decades has reached many pores of Serbian society.

    Last week, Serbian media reported that Dacic, former Serbian president Boris Tadic and four other high state officials were on the hit list of runaway drug lord Darko Saric, who had reportedly offered 10m euro for the killing of those he considered responsible for the fall of his drug empire.

    Dacic said such reports were not news, but that the information contained in them was current, as such threats were made "all the time".

    "All those who fought against organised crime will be protected. Their security level has been raised to the highest degree", he said.

    Six members of Saric's group were jailed in March after admitting trafficking at least two tonnes of cocaine from Latin America to Western Europe in 2009. Saric and six others have escaped.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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