Letter from Serbia

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The Serbian elections highlight the imperialist powers' scramble for influence. But, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica, neither the West nor Moscow will benefit ordinary Serbs.

After the first round of its presidential elections, held on 20 January, Serbia finds itself at a crossroads. The second round, due to take place as Socialist Review went to press, will decide whether Serbia chooses between speedier integration into the European Union (EU) or closer links with Russia. The first round runner up, Boris Tadić, is the candidate of the pro-Western Democratic Party and gained 35 percent of the vote. The winner, Tomislav Nikolić, of the pro-Russian hardline nationalist Radicals, polled just short of 40 percent.

According to Western commentators, Nikolić's high vote was due to his uncompromising opposition to independence for Kosovo. While it is true that Kosovo played an important part in Nikolić's campaign, just as it did in Tadić's, this was not the main reason for his vote. Instead it lay with Nikolić's appeal to the poor and the marginalised - the victims of Serbia's neoliberal transition, to whom he claims to offer order in a chaotic world.

Serbia has averaged a growth rate of 6.8 percent over the last three years by forcing people to work longer and pay more for public services. Large-scale privatisations have taken place with tax and social insurance contributions for investors among the lowest in central and eastern Europe. Unsurprisingly, the official unemployment rate is very high at 20.8 percent.

With no real left to speak of, it is the radical right that is capitalising on the resulting social discontent. Nikolić toured the collapsing industrial centres and stirred emotions, not with anti-Western diatribes about Kosovo, but with the message that the downtrodden had not been defeated and could get a job by voting for him.

Tadić had little to offer in reply. After all, he is closely associated with the neoliberal transition and its consequences. His overriding message was that he was the candidate of stability who was better placed than his rival to secure EU membership and negotiate over Kosovo.

Crucially, though, the election is taking place against the background of Russia's increasing influence in the Balkans. It has backed Serbia in opposing Kosovan independence, in what Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called a "red line" issue over which the Kremlin would not compromise.

But Russian support for Serbia has not come cheaply. Gazprom, Russia's state monopoly energy company, has offered to buy Serbia's state oil company at a lower price than could be obtained if put out to tender - an offer the EU has cautioned against. And just before the first round of Serbia's elections Putin visited neighbouring Bulgaria where he signed a deal to build a natural gas pipeline, a blow to the West's own plans to do so.

The key to victory in the second round lies with Serbia's prime minister, Vojislav Koštunica, who stands politically somewhere between Tadić and Nikolić, flitting from one side to the other depending on events. Although he shares government with Tadić's Democratic Party and so may back him, Koštunica has recently issued some defiant anti-EU statements, in particular over its involvement in Kosovo.

But whoever Koštunica backs, it is clear that for the immediate future political developments in Serbia will be defined by the dangerously competitive game that the West led by the US and Russia are playing in the Balkans over Kosovo, and the control and transport of energy resources. Both sides, including the Serbian candidates most associated with them, offer the same thing: more privatisation, more foreign control and less hope for a way out of the poverty and unemployment suffered daily by Serbs. Their only dispute is over which imperial power will get the greater share of the spoils. In the context of the possibility of a downturn in the world economy, this can be a very dangerous dispute indeed.

Real hope lies only in stirrings from below. Some 70,000 trade unionists marched in Slovenia last year. A similar march is expected in Croatia in March. In Serbia and Bulgaria students recently followed their Greek counterparts and mobilised against tuition fees. And Kosovo has seen several demonstrations for an immediate end to UN colonial rule, one of which was brutally suppressed. An organised solidarity network that can start to bring these struggles together against the region's ruling classes and their imperialist backers is now urgently needed.