Serbian government faces deepening rift

07/02/2008

The Serbian government plunged into its gravest political crisis Wednesday, as the country's pro-European president and nationalist prime minster clashed over EU plans for their country and Kosovo's future.

(B92, Blic, The New York Times, International Herald tribune, The Guardian, Independent, Daily Telegraph, EurActiv - 07/02/08; AP, AFP, Reuters, DPA, Bloomberg, Euobserver, Beta, B92, Balkan Insight, VOA, Serbian government - 06/02/08)

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"I deeply regret the obstruction by certain politicians in Belgrade in blocking the signature," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said. [Getty Images]

Serbia's nearly nine-month old government was brought to the brink of collapse Wednesday (February 6th), as the country's nationalist prime minister blocked a new EU deal, supported by the pro-European parties in his coalition cabinet.

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica cancelled the government's regular Thursday meeting, which was supposed to approve the proposed interim political agreement with Brussels before its signing later in the day.

Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic has been given the mandate to sign the much more comprehensive Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU, but not the deal offered to Serbia ahead of pro-Western President Boris Tadic's re-election on Sunday.

A staunch opponent of Kosovo independence, Kostunica describes the 27-nation bloc's new proposal as a "deception" aimed at tricking Serbia into giving its consent to the province's secession.

Fearing that he would be outvoted by ministers from Tadic's Democratic Party (DS) and the G17 Plus, resulting in the EU deal being approved, the prime minister refused to call a cabinet session, insisting instead that the matter be first discussed at an emergency parliament meeting Monday.

DS member and Parliament Speaker Oliver Dulic turned down the prime minister's request, saying he would only schedule a session once the government has announced its official position on the signing of the political agreement with the EU.

Although Tadic is also opposed to Kosovo's independece, he believes that his country's future lies in the EU and has expressed support for the interim pact on political dialogue, free trade, visa liberalisation and educational exchanges. He urged Kostunica on Wednesday to call a cabinet session, so that a common position on the issue can be reached.

"To preserve the stability of the state, it is necessary that all state institutions do their job and no one is allowed to obstruct the work of state institutions due to their party positions," Tadic said in a statement Wednesday. "The government has to work in the interest of citizens," he added, reminding Kostunica that, under Serbia's constitution, the government is the one responsible for establishing and implementing policy.

"The work of the government of Serbia cannot depend on anyone's goodwill, nor can the parliament of Serbia replace the government of Serbia," the president said. "Everybody has its duties and authority defined by the constitution and the law."

Meanwhile, Djelic and 16 other government ministers signed a letter to Kostunica, requesting that the cabinet hold its regular meeting Thursday.

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A one-sentence government statement made it clear this would not happen.

Following Kostunica's move to block the signing of the deal, Brussels said it had decided to postpone it, but that the offer would remain on the table until Belgrade is ready to sign it.

"I must also say that I deeply regret the obstruction by certain politicians in Belgrade in blocking the signature tomorrow," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said in Brussels on Wednesday, announcing the bloc's decision. "In my view they have really failed to hear the voice of the Serbian people who voted last Sunday in favour of Serbia's European future, in favour of better lives, better citizens' rights. It is truly sad for Serbia if politicians continue to put power games ahead of their own citizens' interests."

Serbian analysts warned that the current institutional crisis could lead to the government's collapse and early parliamentary elections.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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