Serb Socialists torn over identity as rivals woo them

A01946027.jpgBELGRADE (Reuters) – Courted by pro-Western and nationalist rivals for a coalition government, Serbia’s Socialists are torn between seeking new respectability in Europe and the legacy of their founder, autocrat Slobodan Milosevic.

The liberal alliance around the Democratic Party says the Socialists have changed and are now “pretty decent fellows”, a clear offer of rehabilitation to their former enemies.

The opposing bloc of the nationalist Radicals and populist DSS counter they have “the same ideology” as the Socialists and make natural allies. These three parties started talks last week.

“The Socialist Party finds itself in a very complicated political moment,” said its leader Ivica Dacic this week, as the party had to choose between “tradition and a new, uncertain path”.

“On state and national issues we are closer to the bloc we are now negotiating with,” Dacic said. “Ideologically, in terms of entering into the Socialist International and forming a leftist government, we are closer to the Democrats.”

Dacic inherited the party from Milosevic, who steered Serbs to three wars as Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990s and remained a key figure until he died in 2006 while on trial for war crimes.

The Democrat-led alliance that came first in the May 11 election was part of the opposition that ousted him in 2000 and has long been a bitter critic of his legacy.

But with the Socialists their only hope for a parliamentary majority, the Democrats’ new motto is “national reconciliation”.

Dacic in turn has shown he wants to turn the Socialists into a centre-left party, despite grumblings from the rank and file.

“Socialist voters are older, less educated, their strongest tie to the party is Milosevic,” said analyst Milan Nikolic. “They are dying out. For the party to succeed in the future it has to change its electorate. Joining the Democrats would give it a chance to reform, become a social-democratic party.”

Pollster Marko Blagojevic said that if the Socialists chose to ally with the Radicals, the second biggest party after the election, they would lose out in the long run.

“The Radicals would absorb Socialist voters”, he said. “The two parties have similar goals and voters tend to be attracted more by a bigger and stronger party such as the Radicals.”

PRESSURE

Dacic has not shown his hand, with analysts saying he will maneuver to get maximum power, and coveted posts for his officials, from whichever coalition partner he ends up with.

While he is close to an alliance with the nationalists on local level, he won’t close the door on the Democrats.

“We want Serbia to be a European Union member,” he has said, and insisted on ratifying the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the bloc, which the nationalists want to annul over the EU’s backing of Kosovo’s independence.

The Albanian majority in Serbia’s former province declared independence in February, with Western support.

Serbia’s fragile coalition collapsed in March, divided over how to deal with the loss of the nation’s medieval heartland. The issue will be a stone around the neck of any future cabinet.

Former U.S. ambassador to Serbia, William Montgomery, said the Socialists are “unsure of where they’re going or what they stand for”. The party had flirted with moderation, he said, but also been afraid to really break with its past.

“Forming a coalition with the Democratic Party would go a long way to help that transition to legitimacy, but it would severely risk alienating their base,” he wrote in a commentary.”

A Democrat-Socialist coalition would be fragile and under constant pressure to show they were not soft over Kosovo.

“The philosophical differences between them would crop up constantly and threaten the government’s existence,” Montgomery noted. “And this is the most optimistic scenario.”

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