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.
Seselj is currently under indictment at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague, for crimes against humanity and war crimes. In 2003, Seselj turned himself in at the UN tribunal, and Nikolic took over direction of the SRS. In addition to serving Milosevic and Seselj throughout their period of unimpeded aggression, Nikolic ran three times for the ex-Yugoslav and Serbian presidency, as the hardest-line aspirant.
The Nikolic victory comes at a bad time for Kosovo and the region. The area of Kosovo north of the divided mining town of Mitrovica was once inhabited by a mix of Albanians, Serbs, Slav Muslims, and others, but has been a rallying place for Serbian nationalists since 1999. Some of the latter live in Kosovo while others cross the unmarked and ineffectively-monitored frontier with Serbia. The Serbs have carried on an enduring campaign to expel Albanian residents of the northern enclave, and to prevent control of the border by the ethnic Albanian government in the Kosovo capital, Pristina.
Serbs support “parallel structures” in northern Kosovo – including a separate government and police – in defiance of the international administration in the country, which styles itself the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX). Putin’s Russia supplies aid to the Serbs in their northern zone, with regular truck convoys, while Serbian militias blockade traffic and commerce with the rest of Kosovo. NATO troops sealed the Serbia-Kosovo border in 2008 after local Serbs rioted to protest Kosovar independence and burned down customs and immigration posts at two villages, Jarinje and Bernjak, north and west of Mitrovica.
In July 2011, the Kosovo authorities attempted to reassign customs and immigration officials at Jarinje and Bernjak. A Kosovar Albanian border guard, Enver Zymberi, was killed, five others were injured. The Jarinje control station was burned down a second time by a Serbian crowd. Serbian and Kosovar media alike reported that EULEX officials assigned to administer Jarinje had fled when they saw the approach of uniformed, masked men. The border post at Jarinje was retaken by NATO Kosovo Forces (KFOR) troops led by U.S. personnel. As the moderate Pristina daily Express Zeri (Voice) noted, “Rescue Comes from the Americans.”
Through last year, control of the Serbia-Kosovo border posts fluctuated, with EULEX and KFOR attempting to maintain an official Kosovar presence. While barricading roads and assaulting the posts, Serbs also used uncontrolled roads to continue supplying their “parallel structures.” In September 2011, eight Americans and one German were attacked when they shut down one such route.
Northern Kosovo remains unsettled. In April 2012, a bomb planted at an apartment house in Mitrovica killed a Kosovar Albanian, Selver Haradinaj, 38, and injured his wife and four children. On June 1, with Nikolic in office in Serbia and increasingly issuing militant statements against normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, action by NATO soldiers to remove Serb barricades at Zvecane in northern Kosovo resulted in a day of clashes in which the Serbs shot at American-led KFOR troops, who responded with rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons.
NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen justified the action by KFOR as self-defense.