Ultra-nationalist resurgence in Serbia

Ultra-nationalists are set to return to Serbia’s parliament in an April 24 election after an absence of several years, boosted by growing discontent with Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s pro-European Union stance and austerity policies.

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They include firebrand Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, whose popularity in Serbia was boosted by his acquittal last month of crimes against humanity by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Polls indicate Seselj’s Radicals and the right-wing Dveri grouping, which hold pro-Russian and anti-NATO views and demand an end to integration with the EU, will both get over the threshold needed to get into parliament and together could win about 25-30 seats in the 250-seat assembly.

While the ultra-nationalists are unlikely to challenge the prime minister’s strong hold on power, they will use the platform to attack his pro-EU course and fight any concessions he is forced to make during Serbia’s negotiations to join the bloc, which began in December.

Opinion polls suggest Vucic’s Progressive Party is on track to retain its parliamentary majority, but Seselj’s Radicals – who failed to win any seats in elections in 2012 and 2014 – could become the third-largest group in parliament.

Seselj, whose war crimes acquittal is being appealed by prosecutors, gives voice to the grievances many Serbs feel over NATO’s 1999 bombing of Serbia over the Kosovo conflict. Seselj was deputy prime minister at the time.

Seselj, 61, who has been battling colon cancer for several years, remains a fierce advocate of the “Greater Serbia” ideology that fuelled bloodshed in the 1990s Yugoslav wars.

His goal is to secure enough members of parliament – one third or 84 legislators – to block any attempt to change Serbia’s constitution if Belgrade comes under pressure during the EU negotiations to remove a constitutional reference to Kosovo being part of Serbia.

AUSTERITY FATIGUE

A sharp 2014 recession sent Serbia’s budget deficit soaring, forcing the government to seek a 1.2 billion euros ($A1.76 billion) loan from the International Monetary Fund, which demanded public spending and subsidy cuts, tax hikes and the privatisation of inefficient state firms as a condition.

EU membership will also require painful economic restructuring.

Analysts say austerity measures and an unemployment rate of 18 per cent have pushed voters towards the rightist parties.

Until two years ago, Suzana Arsic, a 52-year-old kindergarten teacher from Jagodina, voted for the pro-EU Democratic Party, but now she is changing sides.

“I’m going to vote for the Radicals this time. I didn’t like what I saw – plants were shut down, people lost their jobs and were pushed to expensive borrowing they couldn’t manage,” she told Reuters.

Serbia’s economy is set to grow 1.8 per cent this year, slower than its neighbours, the World Bank says. The average monthly wage of 357 euros is among the lowest in the region.

Many Serbs see little benefit from the country’s talks on joining the EU. A recent opinion poll found nearly 72 per cent of Serbs oppose joining the EU and NATO.

Vucic says joining the EU, Serbia’s biggest trading partner and investor, remains Belgrade’s No1 policy goal. The conservative leader is going to the polls two years early to seek a mandate for economic reforms needed to qualify for EU membership.

Vucic, who says Serbia will not seek to join NATO, warns of the dangers of rising nationalism.

“There can be no compromise with those who are pushing Serbia back in the past,” he said.

The ultra-nationalist resurgence is not causing great alarm in the EU for now because Vucic has ruled out a coalition with the right-wingers, diplomats say.

Many nationalist voters are not elderly Serbs nostalgic for the old Yugoslavia, but young people who remember little of the wars that accompanied Yugoslavia’s break-up.