EU urges Nikolic to keep Serbia on the path to membership


THE EUROPEAN Union has urged Serbia’s new populist president to continue his predecessor’s push towards membership of the bloc, amid fears about his ultra-nationalist past, his advocacy of close ties with Russia and his attitude towards Kosovo.

Tomislav Nikolic defied pre-election polls to oust Boris Tadic after eight years as president in Sunday’s run-off battle. With nearly all votes counted yesterday, Nikolic had 49.5 per cent and Tadic had 47.3 per cent.

Nikolic capitalised on Serb anger over rising unemployment, a stagnant economy, pervasive corruption and a sense that only a small elite was benefiting from progress made on the country’s long road towards EU accession.

After catching its last fugitive war crimes suspects, Serbia was given EU candidate member status earlier this year.

“In these elections, the Serbian people have given a very clear signal of support to the continued European orientation of government policy,” Herman van Rompuy and José Manuel Barroso, the respective presidents of the EU and European Commission, said in a statement.

“We strongly encourage President Nikolic to pursue this direction with particular determination in order to achieve the additional progress that would allow the European Commission to recommend the opening of accession negotiations . . . This will require a high sense of statesmanship,” they added.

Nikolic (60) is a former firebrand far-right ally of late nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic.

He was in government in 1999 when Serb forces drove almost one million ethnic Albanians from Kosovo before Nato intervened with air strikes.

He is also remembered for saying that he would prefer Serbia to become a province of Russia than a member of the EU, while last year he briefly went on hunger strike to demand early elections.

This month, he accused Tadic of vote-rigging – a claim that was not proved.

Many Serbs – and western diplomats – fear Nikolic’s unpredictability and expect him to seek closer links with Russia and China, potentially boosting their influence in Serbia and complicating Belgrade’s ties with Brussels and Washington.

He may also take a tougher line on Kosovo than Tadic who, while vowing never to recognise its independence, had allowed the start of talks on practical issues between the neighbours.

Nikolic, a former cemetery manager nicknamed “The Undertaker”, broke in 2008 with his mentor Vojislav Seselj – who is on trial for alleged war crimes – and sought to reinvent himself as a conservative in favour of EU membership and strong relations with Moscow and Beijing.

“Serbia won’t give up its EU path, but it won’t give up on its people in Kosovo either,” Nikolic said on election night.

Tadic’s Democrats had planned to renew their coalition government with the Socialists after the two parties came in behind Nikolic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) in a May 6th parliamentary election.

Those plans may be derailed by Nikolic’s victory, however, because as president he will now nominate a prime minister and give him the first chance to form a government.

He could nominate a member of the SNS, or Socialist leader Ivica Dacic, on condition that his party forms a ruling alliance with the SNS.

The horse-trading could take months, leaving Serbia rudderless at a time of economic uncertainty.

It could also lead to the creation of a government that is unwilling to make cutbacks stipulated by the International Monetary Fund, which in February froze a €1 billion credit line to Serbia because of its spiralling budget deficit.

Asked yesterday about the impact of Nikolic’s surprise victory, Dacic said: “Everything will certainly be more complicated.”