The current president of the soon-to-be-defunct Yugoslav Federation, Vojislav Kostunica, has won the initial stage of Serbia’s presidential elections, the first held since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic almost exactly two years ago.  Kostunica garnered 31 percent of the vote, with Miroljub Labus—the “pro-Western, reformist” candidate supported by the “international community”—coming in second at 28 percent and the nationalist veteran Vojislav Seselj unexpectedly winning 22 percent.  Kostunica will face Labus in a runoff on October 13.

The turnout, estimated at 56 percent, was low, partly because of unseasonably miserable weather.  Since voter turnout in Serbia is traditionally lower by 10 to 15 percentage points in the second round, less than one half of all registered voters (the constitutional threshold for a valid election) will likely vote in the runoff.  If that happens, Serbia will be plunged into a constitutional crisis.  If the whole electoral cycle were to be repeated, it is uncertain that a greater number of Serbia’s impoverished and disillusioned voters could be induced to go to the polls.

This would be good news for Zoran Djinjic, Serbia’s kleptocratic prime minister and Labus’s mentor, who fears that Kostunica would call an early parliamentary election if elected, thus depriving Djinjic of the mandate that he won thanks to Kostunica’s endorsement in December 2000, in the aftermath of Milosevic’s downfall.

This would be bad news for the nation, however.  “My heart hopes that we’ll have a winner, my mind is telling me that the second round will fail,” says a senior Western diplomat in Belgrade.

It is somewhat ironic that both Kostunica and Labus still occupy their posts.  This reflects the general lack of confidence in the proposed rearrangement of the Yugoslav federation under the European Union’s tutelage, which should be completed by the end of the year.  

Some Western analysts noted that the combined vote for “nationalist candidates” (Kostunica and Seselj, as well as Arkan’s heirs, who won just under five percent) exceeded two thirds of the vote and deemed it alarming: Serbia stubbornly refuses to be “de-Nazified.” They do not mention that Labus’s defeat was even more significant in light of the massive support he received from the media.  Serbia’s television and press are flashier than a few years ago—Politika, under its new German ownership, has color photos on the front page—but they are also more depressingly uniform (“transition,” “free market,” “international community,” “reforms,” “entering Europe,” etc.) and more rigorously guided by Djindjic’s cronies than at any time under Milosevic.  The pro-Labus bias of Serbia’s state television and a dozen leading national and regional “independent” channels supported by Western NGO money (Studio B, B-92, etc.) was sometimes embarrassing, often tasteless, and always blatant.  The source of the massive funding for the Labus campaign remains unknown, but it is unlikely to have come from domestic sources.

The U.S. ambassador in Belgrade, William Montgomery, who now acts like an imperial proconsul in an unimportant but subservient satrapy, was another Labus aficionado.  (His lecture on Serbian politics at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., last summer was filled with the kind of anti-Kostunica rhetoric that would have warranted a quick recall if a “real” country had been in question.) The continuing preference of the Bush administration for Djindjic’s camp, however, is puzzling.  As James Jatras, former senior analyst with the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee, noted recently,

However justified Washington’s preferences might have been in the past, they have long since become anachronistic in the post-9/11 era.  Today American priorities must mean weeding out radical Islamic and organized crime elements in the Balkans with al-Qaeda links, and protecting the security of U.S. and allied forces.  Here Serbia is not part of the problem but—under the right leadership—can become a significant part of the solution. . . . Far more important to U.S. interests than hauling the next indictee to the Hague would be Belgrade’s following Bucharest’s example in agreeing to exempt American personnel on Serbian soil from the International Criminal Court. . . . Working with Serbian enlightened patriotism, rather than crushing it, is a far more promising path to solid security and economic integration into the Western community.  The same factors of moral stature and personal integrity—including strong support in the Church and the Army—that made Kostunica the only candidate in 2000 with a possibility of unseating Milosevic should today make him Washington’s preferable prospective president of Serbia.

It should, but it did not.  The results, nevertheless, indicated the limits of propaganda.  In the end, it was the tangible effect of Labus’s IMF-dictated brand of shock therapy—two thirds of Serbia’s eight million people are at or below poverty level—and his perceived link with the hugely unpopular Zoran Djindjic that outweighed Western agitprop.

The real trouble for Serbia is that, even if Kostunica is reelected on October 13, he may be unable to halt the collapse of Serbia’s economy and society, which was already under way before the anti-Milosevic popular revolt on October 5, 2000, thanks to the joint efforts of the old neocommunist regime and the Clinton administration; by now, it may be irreversible, unless a strong leader emerges who can inspire the nation and confront the kleptocrats.  Kostunica’s inability to do so thus far, his good intentions and personal integrity notwithstanding, is as disheartening to the nation he should lead as it was predictable to those who know him.