A NEW man? An erstwhile ally of Slobodan Milosovic, and later of another alleged war criminal, Vojislav Seselj, once a staunch, far-right Serb nationalist, friend of Russia, but latter-day convert to moderate europhile politics, Serbia’s new president Tomislav Nikolic is a bit of an enigma. And did the Serbs elect him because they believed and supported his conversion, or because they believed outgoing president Boris Tadic’s election claims that Nikolic is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, ultimately a dangerous unreconstructed nationalist? Was that his real appeal?
The answer, a matter of concern in both Belgrade and Brussels, may well be “both the above”, testimony to a populist’s ability to face two ways at once. It presages an uncertain road ahead, although in the wake of the election he promised to pursue EU membership.
Two months ago, after Serbia arrested its last fugitive war crimes suspect, Tadic, an enthusiast for EU accession, secured candidate status for the country. Nikolic’s challenge now is to get agreement on a start date for negotiations. That, Brussels insists, will require evidence of a willingness to normalise relations with Kosovo, an issue on which Nikolic has poor form (not least the fact that he was in government in 1999 when Serb forces drove a million ethnic Albanians from Kosovo before Nato intervened with air strikes). “Serbia wont give up its EU path, but it wont give up on its people in Kosovo either,” Nikolic said ominously on election night. There is also concern that he would prefer to sidle up to Russia – he once said he’d rather see Serbia a province of Russia than an EU member.
Uncertainty will be compounded by the challenge of now putting together a new government. Nikolic is expected to hand the mandate to form one to his Progressives, although a tentative ruling coalition had been agreed before the election between Tadic’s Democrats, in power since 2000, and the Socialists led by Milosevic’s wartime spokesman Ivica Dacic.
If the Democrats do form a government with Nikolic, it will face huge economic challenges, with unemployment running at 24 per cent and average wages as low as €400 a month. Despite election commitments to expand social programmes, Nikolic will need to introduce tough measures to bring the soaring deficit under control and to persuade the IMF to renew a $1.3 billion loan suspended in February because the country was not meeting its fiscal targets. An election victory that is perhaps something of a poisoned chalice.