Sun, Dec 28, 2003 - Page 6 News List

War criminals in Serbian poll

PARLIAMENT Ghosts from Serbia's thuggish 1990s are returning to run in parliamentary elections and at least two, including the former strongman Milosevic, may win seats

AP , Belgrade, Serbia-Montenegro

Socialist Party of Serbia supporters hold pictures of former dictator, indicted war criminal and now parliamentary candidate Slobodan Milosevic at the party's final pre-election rally held in Belgrade, Wednesday. Serbians go to the polls today.

PHOTO: AFP

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, since both are in jail in The Hague, awaiting or undergoing trial. But their election will deal a prestige blow to European and US hopes of fostering a pro-Western democratic leadership.

Three years after Milosevic was overthrown and a decade of Balkan wars neared their end, Serbians have become disillusioned with democracy. That's 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 alleged 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 Milosevic, 8 percent. The closest pro-democracy grouping is G-17 at 21 percent.

The poll published Monday of 1,500 people by the Strategic Marketing agency did not state 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," Zivkovic told The Associated Press, 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 US$300 since Milosevic fell, prices of some basics like 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 Milosevic's fall and allegations 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 allegedly corrupt privatization deals.

This has spread their appeal beyond the nationalist fringe to ordinary folk like 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."

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

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 Serb nation.

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