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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 March 2006, 13:21 GMT
Serb nationalists still a force
By Gabriel Partos
BBC South-East Europe analyst

The row about the funeral arrangements for former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has highlighted the enduring influence of his supporters in Serbia.

Milosevic supporters in Belgrade
The ex-Yugoslav president still has plenty of support in Serbia
The BBC's South-East Europe analyst Gabriel Partos looks at the threat the Socialists and other nationalists pose to Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.

The Serbian Socialist Party (SPS) ruled Serbia for a decade until Mr Milosevic was ousted from power in October 2000, following his refusal to acknowledge defeat in the Yugoslav presidential election.

Previously the SPS had been known as the League of Communists of Serbia. But Mr Milosevic redesignated the party in 1990, as the old brand had gone out of fashion with the collapse of communism across Europe.

Since Mr Milosevic's fall the Socialists have been on the fringes of Serb politics. At the last elections in 2003 they barely passed the 5% threshold to get into parliament.

But while they ended up with only 22 MPs in Serbia's 250-seat parliament, the Socialists have a crucial role in keeping in place Mr Kostunica's four-party minority government.

Legacy of war

The governing coalition of moderate nationalists, conservatives and economic liberals has just over 100 seats in parliament. So far it has taken previous threats from the Socialists very seriously.

In the face of clear warnings from the SPS - whom Mr Milosevic continued to lead at, least nominally, from his prison cell in The Hague - the government has avoided surrendering indicted war crimes suspects to the UN tribunal. Instead, it has used its powers of persuasion to encourage indictees to hand themselves in.

Serb Radicals' leader Vojislav Seselj (archive pic)
The Serb Radicals' leader Vojislav Seselj is now in The Hague
One reason for Belgrade's reluctance to locate and apprehend the Bosnian Serbs' wartime military commander, General Ratko Mladic, is precisely the fear that it might prompt the Socialists to withdraw their support from the government.

The SPS's continuing influence over the government is out of all proportion to its real strength among the population.

The party's popularity collapsed in the wake of Mr Milosevic's fall from power, by which time many Serbs had blamed their former leader and his party for impoverishing their once relatively prosperous country, through four wars and the resulting UN sanctions.

But the implosion of the SPS did not mean the end of hardline nationalist politics in Serbia by any means. Instead, the diehard nationalists regrouped in the Radical Party, which had been through a long love-hate relationship with the SPS.

Power of Radicals

As the Radicals had spent a comparatively short stint in government as the Socialists' junior partners, they were not blamed for the catastrophic state in which Serbia emerged into the 21st Century.

With around one-third of the seats, the Radicals are the largest party in parliament. It is quite possible that if Mr Kostunica's government were to fall, they could gain further votes and get closer to power.

Those who have caused most evil have raised their heads again
Vuk Draskovic
Foreign Minister of Serbia-Montenegro

The Radicals will almost certainly try to fully exploit Slobodan Milosevic's funeral, if it takes place in Serbia.

A Serbian court has suspended an arrest warrant for Mr Milosevic's widow, Mira Markovic, so if his funeral takes place in Serbia she could attend it.

She has been living in self-imposed exile in Russia with her son Marko Milosevic, fearing arrest on fraud charges.

But President Boris Tadic has refused to annul the charges against her.

Mr Milosevic and the Socialists may belong to the past, but the Radicals could use the funeral to rally ultra-nationalists.

Amid claims by Serb nationalists that Mr Milosevic was poisoned in prison, the Radicals have already expressed fears for the safety of their leader, Vojislav Seselj, who is also in The Hague awaiting trial on war crimes charges.

Belgrade wary

Serbia's political establishment is taking the threat from the ultra-nationalists very seriously.

The Foreign Minister of Serbia and Montenegro, Vuk Draskovic, has appealed to the European Union to ease the pressure on Belgrade for surrendering Gen Mladic to The Hague tribunal.

"Those who have caused most evil", Mr Draskovic told journalists on Monday, "have raised their heads again, expecting to come back to power".

Mr Draskovic is clearly worried about the nationalist threat. As an opposition leader, he was the target of two assassination attempts by security forces during the final phase of Mr Milosevic's rule.

His concerns are likely to be shared by other prominent politicians.

Difficult year

Although a Milosevic funeral in Serbia might turn into an ultra-nationalist rally, it is unlikely to pose a real threat to the governing coalition. For Mr Kostunica it might be the lesser of two evils, when the alternative could be the fall of his coalition.

However, the Radicals remain a potent threat. The more so as Serbia is facing an exceptionally difficult year. It needs to deliver Gen Mladic to The Hague if it wants to advance its talks with the EU for closer links and eventual membership.

The coming months may well see the end of Serbia's historic partnership with Montenegro, whose people are set to vote in an independence referendum in May.

Most crucially for Serbia, this year may see the loss of Kosovo - the territory administered by the United Nations, whose long-term status is expected to be determined by the UN in the coming months.

Although Serbs regard Kosovo as the cradle of their national culture, when it comes to deciding on its status, the international community is more likely to be swayed by the overwhelming desire of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority for independence.

If Kosovo does, indeed, become independent, the resulting nationalist backlash could well bring the Radicals and their hardline allies back to power.


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