Serbia's Pro-Democracy Parties Agree on Coalition Government Without Milosevic Backers

Serbia's pro-democracy parties agreed Friday to form a new power-sharing government, excluding ultranationalists who supported late President Slobodan Milosevic and threatened to turn the troubled Balkan nation away from the West.

The United States and European Union were alarmed this week by the election of a Milosevic admirer to the position of parliamentary speaker — the No. 2 post in the country — fearing a resurgence of the ultranationalists who led Serbia to four bloody wars in the 1990s.

The Radicals are staunchly anti-Western and used to back Milosevic's aggressive policies in the Balkans, while their own boss, Vojislav Seselj, is awaiting trial at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. The Radicals also oppose the Western-backed U.N. plan for the Serbian province of Kosovo, which envisages internationally supervised self-rule.

But President Boris Tadic said in a statement late Friday that three pro-Western parties had signed the power-sharing agreement, ensuring the Radicals would not have a place in the government. He named current caretaker Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica as the premier designate, and said a parliament session to approve the new government will be held Sunday, state TV said.

Dusan Petrovic, a Democratic Party negotiator, said the agreement was reached during an overnight meeting between Tadic and Kostunica, and it includes an initiative to replace Tomislav Nikolic as parliament speaker during Sunday's assembly session. Kostunica's conservatives had supported Nikolic's election to the post on Tuesday.

Earlier Friday, Nikolic told The Associated Press that he would resign rather than be replaced. He also said he believed the power-sharing deal would not last long and the nationalists would triumph in the next general election in the country.

"The only thing keeping them together is pressure and blackmail (from abroad)," Nikolic said. "They do not share the same ideology. ... We will have another crisis soon."

If the government is not formed by Tuesday, new general elections would have to be called, which would benefit the Radicals who are already the biggest group in the parliament. A Jan. 21 parliamentary vote was inconclusive; no party achieved a majority to rule alone.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, attending a Balkan summit in Croatia, welcomed the power-sharing agreement, saying Washington supports "any democratic government that doesn't include the Radicals."

"I think it's very clear that if the Radicals come back to power, that would seriously harm relations of Serbia with the United States and with all of the European countries," he said.

The European Union Enlargement Commissioner, Olli Rehn, said that once the pro-democratic government is in place, the EU would "immediately" restart its pre-membership talks with Serbia.

"I trust the leaders of Serbia's democratic forces now realize their responsibility and choose a European future for Serbia, instead of letting the country fall back to its nationalist past," he said in a statement.

The talks were suspended a year ago due to Belgrade's failure to extradite Gen. Ratko Mladic, a wartime commander sought by the U.N. tribunal in The Hague for atrocities during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia. Rehn said the EU still insists on Mladic's arrest, adding that talks would not be completed without his extradition.

Nikolic said he believed the Tadic-Kostunica government would split over the fate of Kosovo — Serbia's historic heartland that would be granted supervised independence according to a Western-backed resolution to be voted on at the U.N. Security Council in the coming weeks.

Western nations support independence for Kosovo, rejecting Serbia's offer of a broad autonomy for the ethnic Albanian-dominated region. Russia, however, has sided with Serbia in the dispute, leading to fears of a standoff in the Security Council.

But Nikolic ruled out going to a war over Kosovo, saying "Serbia, of course, cannot start wars nor does it want to."

"But we have to tell the world that we will never accept independence for Kosovo and that we will forever consider it part of Serbia's territory," he added.

Serbia also took over the six-month Council of Europe chairmanship Friday. But questions prevailed over Serbia's suitability to run the continent's premier human rights watchdog because it has failed to meet its main obligation to the council — the arrest of Mladic.

Council of Europe chief Terry Davis defended Serbia's chairmanship, saying that traditionally every member state in turn gets to run the organization.