May 09, 2007

Extreme nationalist elected speaker of Serbian parliament

· Acting PM deserts alliance of democratic forces
· Setback to EU hopes of pro-western government

Serbia lurched back towards the pariah status of the 1990s yesterday when the acting prime minister switched his support to an extreme nationalist, making Tomislav Nikolic the influential speaker of the Serbian parliament.

For the first time since Slobodan Milosevic was overthrown in 2000, the prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, ordered his MPs to vote for the senior figure in the extremist Serbian Radical Party, whose leader is a former warlord on trial at the tribunal in The Hague for war crimes.

The decision by Mr Kostunica to desert Serbia's pro-European Democrats in favour of anti-western nationalists who advocate an alliance with Russia and China and remain loyal to the legacy of the late authoritarian, Slobodan Milosevic, marked a watershed in the country's failing attempt to escape a disastrous last 15 years.

"Serbia faces new self-isolation, a drastic worsening of its relations with its neighbours, and hard conflicts," predicted the country's Social Democratic Union.

Mr Kostunica's decision to switch sides followed months of bad-tempered negotiations with the pro-western Democratic party over a new government coalition.

Although Mr Kostunica is acting prime minister, Serbia has been without a new government since elections last January. The bargaining collapsed at the weekend because Mr Kostunica, whose party came third in the ballot, insists on remaining prime minister and retaining control of the powerful security services and police.

His rival, President Boris Tadic, leader of the pro-European Democratic party, refused the terms and Mr Kostunica switched sides. If no agreement on a new government is reached by next week, there has to be new elections. The extremist Radicals are the biggest single party, but unable to form a government, and could emerge strengthened from a new election.

The drama in Belgrade comes as Serbia takes the chair of Europe's human rights body, the Council of Europe, with its parliament headed by a politician from a party led by Vojislav Seselj, the ex-warlord being tried in The Hague, and the security services sheltering the genocide suspect General Ratko Mladic.

"I am not a danger to Serbia or anyone else's children," said Mr Nikolic after a marathon parliamentary session that saw him elected speaker early yesterday.

Dusan Petrovic, the Democrats' parliamentary leader, said Mr Kostunica's decision to support the extremists marked a departure from the values of October 2000 when Milosevic was overthrown in Belgrade. The upheaval coincides with western efforts to establish independence for Kosovo, Serbia's southern province. Mr Nikolic has threatened violent resistance to Kosovo independence.

Last night the crisis was deepening with the democratic forces boycotting the election of other key parliamentary positions and committee chairs, meaning that all senior posts in the chamber could fall into the hands of extremists and nationalists.

The developments in Belgrade represent a severe setback to EU efforts to engineer a pro-western government in Serbia. "The election of an ultra-nationalist as Serbia's parliamentary speaker is a worrying sign," said the EU's enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn. On Monday, Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, said that President Tadic should gain control of the police and security services, seen as crucial to hopes of arresting Gen Mladic.


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