Serbia haunted by Milosevic's ghost

By: AP
By: AP

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) -- Serbia is haunted anew by the ghost of Slobodan Milosevic.

Eight years after the late Serbian strongman was toppled in a popular revolt, and a little more than two years after his death while on U.N. trial for genocide and crimes against humanity, his former loyalists have never been closer to regaining power.

On the eve of Sunday's parliamentary elections, experts warned that nationalists who have tapped into widespread outrage over Kosovo's independence may ride an unprecedented wave of anti-Western sentiment to victory.

"People here just can't shake the feeling that Europe isn't fair and just toward Serbia," Braca Grubacic, a prominent political analyst, said Saturday. "Serbia is not like it used to be, but the problems and the political agenda are the same as they were during the Milosevic era."

A pro-democracy movement ousted Milosevic in 2000, and the man who presided over the bloody 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia died in March 2006 in a prison cell in The Hague, Netherlands, where a U.N. tribunal was trying him for atrocities in the Balkans.

Milosevic is gone, but he's far from forgotten.

The ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party - whose leader, Tomislav Nikolic, proudly proclaims himself even more of a hard-liner than Milosevic was - clung to a slim lead heading into Sunday's vote.

Although President Boris Tadic's pro-Western coalition was running a close second, potential kingmakers included nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's conservative coalition and Milosevic's Socialists. One - or both - were expected to team up with the Radicals to form a new government with a pronounced anti-Western and pro-Russia stance.

"Our time has come. We have to get rid of the Western stooges, who have brought us nothing good," said Radmila Mihajlovic, a 75-year-old Radical supporter and self-proclaimed former Milosevic follower.

Nikolic and Kostunica have capitalized on an acute sense of betrayal felt by many Serbs after Kosovo declared independence in February and gained formal recognition from the U.S., Canada, Japan and key European powers.

Serbs see Kosovo as the heart of their ancient homeland and Serbian Orthodox faith, and their bitterness has nudged the country toward ultranationalists promising to restore bruised national pride.

The nationalists also have exploited disenchantment with 30 percent unemployment, rising prices and corruption.

Under dictator Josip Broz Tito, who died in 1980, many Serbs had enough extra cash to travel the world. Today, most struggle mightily just to make ends meet on a monthly salary that averages just euro450 ($690).

Tadic, who opposes Kosovo's independence but wants to steer Serbia toward the European Union, has received death threats. He also has been publicly denounced as a traitor for signing a pre-entry aid and trade pact with the EU - a deal that Kostunica and Nikolic contend amounts to blood money in exchange for giving up Kosovo.

Nikolic, meanwhile, has basked in a growing sense that his day has come.

Over the past five years, the Radicals have steadily gained power and influence in Serbia. In the last three elections, they won a majority in the 250-seat parliament, but were unable to govern without the support of Kostunica's bloc.

It remains unclear exactly what combination of parties will join forces to form a government - but a Kostunica-Nikolic alliance has become increasingly likely.

"It would be a nightmare for the West," said Grubacic, the political analyst. "But you have to integrate these Radical voters into the political system. If you want to get rid of Radicals and that mentality, you have to give them a chance to show they're bad."

Both Kostunica and Nikolic have said Serbia should shelve its proclaimed goal of joining the EU, and concentrate instead on establishing close political and economic ties with Russia.

Some Serbs are understandably skittish about the possibility that their country could revert to nationalist or even ultranationalist rule and slide deeper into instability and isolation.

"God help us if those Radicals come to power with the help of Kostunica," said Zorica Katanic, a 22-year-old economics student.

"I could not live through that nightmare once again," he said.

But Charles Ingrao, a Balkans expert at Purdue University, insists the world shouldn't fear a reprise of Milosevic-style bloodshed.

"The days of Milosevic are gone," he said. "Serbia can no longer project power beyond its own borders like it did in the 1990s. I don't know what we're afraid of. Times have changed."

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Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report.

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