Parliamentary Elections Key to Serbia's Future

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Voters in Serbia go to the polls next month for parliamentary elections. Pro-Western parties are pitted against Serbian nationalist groups. To help Western-oriented parties, the U.N. has postponed a decision on the status of the breakaway province of Kosovo.


We turn now to the Balkans, where elections in January will be an important month politically as Serbians go to the polls on the 21st. That vote pits parties that are pro-Western against Serbian nationalist groups in a crucial fight over the country's political direction. The United Nations has postponed a decision on the status of the breakaway province of Kosovo to make that less of an election issue. At the same time, the United States has been reaching out to democratic forces in Serbia.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Vuk Jeremic, a youthful aide to Serbia's president, is enthusiastic about Serbia's budding military ties with the U.S. It started off with a joint program between Serbian forces and the Ohio National Guard.

Mr. VUK JEREMIC (Senior Adviser to Serbian President): They're kind of national heroes. They're like American cousins coming over and helping us out. That's the general public perception, whereas inside the armed forces, the enthusiasm is actually far greater.

KELEMEN: In an interview in a hotel lobby in Washington, Jeremic is particularly animated when talking about the recent decision by NATO to let Serbia join the Partnership for Peace Program. He and his boss, President Boris Tadic, made a big push here to make this happen even though Serbia has yet to meet one key NATO requirement - to handover an indicted war criminal, Ratko Mladic. Jeremic's lobbying effort went something like this.

Mr. JEREMIC: We tried to explain to our allies, the United States included, that membership in the Partnership for Peace before the key parliamentary elections that are taking place in Serbia on January 21st would amount to a very significant political boost for the forces in Serbia that are strongly pro-European, pro-Euro Atlantic.

KELEMEN: His boss even wrote a letter to President Bush bringing up another twist, the Kosovo question. That's according to Daniel freed, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Europe. He quoted the Tadic letter this way.

Mr. DANIEL FREED (U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe): We really do want to join with the West. Come what may in Kosovo, we're serious about this, and Partnership for Peace would be seen as a big step in this direction. This is a good time to do it. He made that pitch. He's a decent person. I've known him for over 20 years. He is a quite credible pro-democracy figure in Serbia, and this letter meant something to us.

KELEMEN: One longtime Balkans watcher, Daniel Serwer of the U.S. Institute of Peace, says Washington is making a mistake buying into this lobbying campaign rather than sticking to its principles, that Serbia must handover indicted war criminals before being embraced by the West.

Mr. DANIEL SERWER (Director, Balkans Initiative, U.S. Institute of Peace): Normal trade relations have been restored; Serbia has been allowed back into all international organizations. Basically I think America has surrendered its last bit of leverage on this issue and has signaled it's prepared to accept defeat.

KELEMEN: But the State Department's Daniel Freed defends this unusual flexibility for the Bush administration. He says keeping Serbia at arm's length wasn't working. And with a decision on Kosovo coming down the line, he says it was important to show Serbia it will be welcomed in the West. It's been seven years since NATO pushed Serb forces out of Kosovo to stop an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Albanian population.

Mr. FREED: We need to resolve Kosovo's status. We can't go back to Belgrade's rule. We can't stay where we are with this neither-here-nor-there situation of basically U.N. protectorate. That won't work. We have to move ahead. But we have to move ahead in a way that doesn't also leave Serbia in a kind of sullen, nationalist isolation.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has clearly concluded that it will be easier to get the Kosovo question resolved if pro-Western parties win the elections in Serbia in January.

Mr. FREED: If they see a future for Kosovo in which the Serbian minority has some guarantees, has some protections, including by the international community, they may live with this. And that's certainly our hope.

KELEMEN: The International Crisis Group warned in a report recently that there could be more violence in Kosovo if the international community keeps delaying its decision on the status of the province. Freed says he doesn't expect any more delays after the Serbian election.

MICHELE KELEMEN, NPR News, Washington.

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