Serbia's 'Obama' woos voters

Cedomir Jovanovic is urging a new brand of politics ahead of the May 11 elections.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    'Cedo': Last week, opposition leader Cedomir Jovanovic laid flowers before a plaque that commemorates Serb attacks on Sarajevo in 1992.
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Fans compare him to Barack Obama, but Cedomir Jovanovic's youthful calls for change are not nearly as popular in his native Serbia – especially since he accepts Kosovo's independence.

Though popular among trendy urbanites, Mr. Jovanovic and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have so far mustered only 6 to 7 percent support nationwide, according to polls.

But he's no stranger to altering the course of a nation: A leader of the 1990s student protests against former President Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, he helped negotiate his surrender in 2001.

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So "Ceda," as he is known, has no illusions about toppling the government in May 11 parliamentary elections. Rather, he's settling in for a long battle.

"We are not strong enough now for big changes, but [the party] is getting bigger and bigger," he says, riding recently on his campaign bus. "Right now, the state is a threat to its citizens. We need to develop society to change the state."

One of Jovanovic's key goals is to pursue membership in the European Union – something that more than 70 percent of Serbians support.

All major parties profess to share this goal, but acting Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party (DS) both seem willing to sidetrack Serbia's pursuit of membership in order to regain Kosovo.

Jovanovic argues that the country needs to move on from Kosovo and pursue EU membership unfettered.

"This is a campaign about European values," he says. "Right now we are held hostage by values of the past. This will change."

Jovanovic formed the LDP in 2005 after splitting with Mr. Tadic's DS after Tadic agreed to cooperate with Mr. Kostunica's DSS, which is expected to form a governing coalition with the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, whose leader is on trial in The Hague for war crimes.

"For me," Jovanovic says, "Kostunica is the new Milosevic." He doesn't discount future cooperation with Tadic, however. "I cannot understand Tadic, but I can understand his supporters," he says.

And while the LDP poses little threat in the short term, Tadic desperately needs coalition partners.

James Lyon, a Balkans expert with the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Serbia's capital, Belgrade, says Jovanovic is the "only person coming out and calling politics as they are." He adds, "Ceda is everything Tadic is not."

"If the DS wants to be in power, their only chance is to make a coalition with basically everybody else," says the ICG's James Lyon.

A coalition deal could bring a Cabinet position to Jovanovic – and add another platform for his reformist rhetoric.

Tadic was quoted as being open to cooperation with the LDP, but remains insistent that the party change its position on Kosovo.

Jovanovic says he has no plans to compromise on this issue.

"Through our approach to Kosovo, we signify our capacity for real change," he says. "We have always had a completely different kind of campaign."

Parliamentary and local elections are slated for May 11 to replace a coalition government that fell after Kosovo's Feb. 17 declaration of independence and Serbia's pursuit of EU membership.

"This is the last chance for the country to take this situation and make a better society," says Pedja Jovanovic (no relation), a LDP volunteer from Vranje who joined the party as a student in Belgrade. "The past cannot win the future."

"I support LDP because of Ceda Jovanovic," said Sladjan Konstantinovic, a medical worker from Golemo Selo, a place with a name translating as 'Big Village.' "This is the party of the future. They are the most honest of the politicians."

And in Kosovo, people are taking note.

"I wouldn't say that people are supporting him, but this party attracts some interest," says Krenar Gashi, Kosovo editor for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. "I mean it is like a revolution. Well, not a revolution, but something."

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