- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 27, 2003

BELGRADE — It looks like another rough day for Serbian politics today — four indicted war criminals are running for parliament.

The elections could result in seats for at least two of them, Slobodan Milosevic and a former associate. They won’t be taking those seats, as both are in jail in The Hague.

But their election will deal a prestige blow to U.S. and European hopes of fostering a pro-Western democratic leadership.

Three years after Mr. Milosevic was overthrown and a decade of Balkan wars neared their end, Serbians have become disillusioned with democracy. That is evident from their failure, three times in a row, to get a big enough turnout to elect a president.

Today’s election is likely to be just as inconclusive. Polls are predicting the Radical Party will win the most seats in the 250-member parliament, but not enough to form a majority coalition.

The Radical Party’s lead candidate is Vojislav Seselj, a former Milosevic associate. Before he was jailed pending trial for reputed war crimes during the Balkan wars, his claims to fame included spitting at the parliament speaker and brandishing a handgun in front of the parliament building.

The Radicals are projected to win 24 percent of the vote, and the Socialists, who are running Mr. Milosevic, 8 percent. The closest pro-democracy grouping is G-17 at 21 percent.

The poll published Monday of 1,500 persons by the Strategic Marketing agency did not have a margin of error.

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic of the pro-democracy bloc expects many will vote for the extremists to show their disaffection with the West and three years of market reforms that have left them little better off than under Milosevic.

“Even Hitler came to power through democratic elections,” Mr. Zivkovic said, equating the wave of anti-Western feeling with Germany’s sense of betrayal after World War I.

Although average monthly salaries have tripled to the equivalent of about $300 since Mr. Milosevic fell, prices of some basics such as household electricity have increased tenfold. Industrial production has dropped by 3 percent this year, and privatization of state-owned companies has helped to drive up unemployment to about 30 percent.

Fractures in the pro-democracy bloc that took over after Mr. Milosevic’s fall and charges of widespread corruption have left Serbs hugely disappointed.

The Radicals, meanwhile, have toned down their nationalist rhetoric and focused their election campaign on promising cheap bread, effective government and the revision of reputedly corrupt privatization deals.

This has spread their appeal beyond the nationalist fringe to ordinary people such as Dragan Pavlov, unemployed since the state-run bank where he worked went bankrupt amid government efforts to reform the economy.

“Month after month, year after year, it’s getting only worse for me, for my family, for thousands of others,” he said. “The big shots in government are getting richer and richer and telling me that things are going in the right direction — sure, but only for them.”

U.S. and European Union officials voice a preference for the pro-democracy bloc, but do so cautiously, lest their endorsement backfire in the nationalists’ favor.

The Radical Party’s Mr. Seselj calls the United States an exporter of “evil, corruption and crime,” and Saddam Hussein “a victim of American hostility.”

Many Serbs still harbor resentment over the NATO bombing in 1999 to force Milosevic to relinquish Kosovo province. They believe the U.N. war-crimes tribunal in The Hague is just the latest in a long line of international institutions that are biased against the Serbian nation.

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