Serbia Needs the Reformists

Presidential elections in Serbia—which took place yesterday—will give the “yes” or a “no” to “fast track” reforms of the Serbian government. In the wake of presidential elections, citizens of Serbia need to reflect back on the past two years of reform and realize why the “reformist” stream is the right option for Serbia.

A defining feature of the Serbian political scene and of yesterday’s elections is the rivalry between reformist and traditionalist forces. The candidate of the reformist stream is Miroljub Labus, an economics expert who had secured Yugoslavia’s membership in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The main reformist force in the country and propagator of reforms is the Serbian government led by Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who recently gave a much-praised speech at the Kennedy School of Government. The other major candidate is Vojislav Kostunica, president of Serbia and Montenegro, a traditionalist advocating a moderate pace of reforms, a stance he has much profited from in terms of popular support. He has tended to avoid any unpopular steps—what reforms are in fact to a large extent about—and has instead often criticized others who did. Kostunica and his traditionalists do not have the courage to grapple with reforms themselves, but rather stand idle, sighing and complaining. Kostunica’s platform does not resemble a positively defined program; rather, it is nothing but a critique of the work of the Serbian government. There is little doubt a Kostunica victory would endanger Djindjic’s government and consequently slow down reforms.

First, Serbia should vote reformist because this political option in the Serbian politics is future-oriented and has a vision—to bring Serbia back to the family of European nations and to do it as fast as possible. In his address at Harvard, Djindjic compared the image of reformist Serbia to that of a bicycle—it is only stable when it is moving and if you look ahead while you ride.

While Kostunica favors the status quo, insisting on “legalism”—often a euphemism for inaction due to lacking ideas and expertise—reformists acknowledge that after a decade of war and degradation, time is what Serbia does not have. Djindjic suggested that there is a higher sense of justice than legal justice and words written on a piece of paper. Life itself is more important than the Milosevic-era constitution. The reformists’ agenda is concrete: for example, to remove the outdated Yugoslav Constitution and build a new legal system following European Union (E.U.) guidelines. Djindjic’s appeal to the international community to set any prejudices aside and “give us the rules of the game and see what we can do” reflects the reformists’ readiness to work to rebuild a democratic Serbia its citizens can be proud of.

Moreover, reformists embrace pragmatism and the spirit of cooperation that Serbia is in much need of after decades of failed experiments with strict ideologies. This healthy approach is especially important for issues such as Kosovo. Remarking that “we cannot choose our neighbors,” Djindjic expressed in his characteristically optimistic style the hope that Serbs and ethnic Albanians can reach a maximum of common ground and build upon the common interest to join the E.U. If the countries of the Balkans choose the other path—chain disintegration of borders in the region starting with Kosovo’s independence—then they must suffer the consequences and say goodbye to Europe, warned the premier. Serbia needs reformists because they have the knowledge and ability to rebuild destroyed bridges and reconnect Serbia to her neighbors. For example, Djindjic’s team is working to build a southeastern-Europe common market to include some 50 million people in the region.


Unlike traditionalists who sing odes to the people in the hope of winning votes, reformists acknowledge that the way to Europe means having to change some Balkan ways. Djindjic pointed out that some 85 percent of Serbians support Yugoslavia’s accession to the E.U., but warned that the majority do not know exactly what that means and what sacrifices are needed to bring Serbia there. Serbia is for the first time dealing practically with a market economy and democracy. Djindjic compared reforms to a surgery—it is necessary, it hurts and people don’t like the pain. But he suggested that as a politician, he does not aspire to be loved, but respected. And that is part of a changing mentality that needs to take place in Serbia and in the region—the way people think, about politics and politicians among other things.

However, loved or respected, what will ultimately decide the fate of Serbian reforms are to a large extent which politicians get power. Serbia has indeed passed the Rubicon of democracy, but the current elections will to a large extent determine its pace. Will Serbia be an example of less successful transitions and stay in the East-West limbo of the past, outside of the major European streams for quite some time yet; or will it self-confidently get to work and catch up with the rest of Europe?

Serbia needs a victory. We don’t need charismatic leaders as presidents, we need programs and experts; that is what Djindjic and Labus represent, that is the modern Serbia I want to come back to. With the election results coming in, I hope Serbia sticks to that bicycle, pedals hard and looks straight ahead.

Ivana Tasic-Nikolic ’04 is a government concentrator in Cabot House. She is president of the Harvard Serbian Society.