On May 20, Tomislav Nikolic was elected president of Serbia in a second-round runoff against incumbent Boris Tadic. Tadic, who sought a third term, and his Democratic party, have been described as victims of Serbian populist opposition to European Union financial austerity. Nikolic, candidate of the Serbian Progressive Party (SPS), calls for Serbia to join the EU but favors economic coordination with Russia instead of Western Europe. Tadic now seeks the prime minister’s post.
The victorious Nikolic went to Moscow on May 26, before his inauguration, to confer with Vladimir Putin. While there, Nikolic commenced a series of public remarks that should have had, to say the least, a clarifying effect among Eurocrats and others. For Nikolic and his party, nationalist grievances outweigh investment issues. He announced that along with trade cooperation with Moscow, Serbia would adopt a “neutral” posture and would not apply to join NATO.
The new Serbian president further declared from Moscow that he would not “trade” Serbian claims that Kosovo remains its territory, to gain entry into the EU. He added that Serbia might recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the regions of Georgia occupied by Russia in 2008, as separate countries, in retaliation for international support to independent Kosovo. The Republic of Kosovo proclaimed its sovereignty in 2008, and its status has been accepted by 91 nations, including the United States, but not by Serbia.
Nikolic had served in the regime of dictator Slobodan Milosevic during the 1999 NATO intervention that freed Kosovo from domination by Belgrade. But he had been flattered, in the months preceding Serbia’s elections, by Western media. They described him as a politician who, while long associated with extremist Serbian ideology, had cast his past record aside. The “new Nikolic” was said to place Serbian entry into the EU ahead of other goals. European officials have, nevertheless, stated consistently that accession to the EU must be based on regular diplomatic relations between Serbia and Kosovo.
With his return to Belgrade, Nikolic resigned as head of the SPS, and was inaugurated on May 31. But Nikolic reinforced the conviction that his new political costume concealed a zealotry unmitigated since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. He described his aim for Serbia to become “an equal member of the EU” but without giving up Kosovo. In his first week in office he told state television in Montenegro that the Serbian massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 – which led to U.S. and NATO action to end the Bosnian war – was “not genocide.”
While campaigning between the first and second electoral rounds in May, Nikolic was interviewed by the authoritative German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He defended the 1991 Serbian siege of the baroque Croatian city of Vukovar on the frontier between the two states. In the assault on Vukovar, much of the town was damaged and numerous innocent civilians, including injured patients at the local hospital, were murdered by Serb irregulars. According to Nikolic, Vukovar was a “Serb town” to which Croats had no reason for returning.
None of this should have been surprising considering Nikolic’s prior career. From the collapse of the former Yugoslavia until his foundation of the “pro-Europe” SPS in 2008, Nikolic was a prominent disciple of Vojislav Seselj, head of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and the most unrestrained inciter and organizer of ethnic violence in the group surrounding Milosevic.