Serbian President Boris Tadic's has begun negotiations to form a coalition government that would keep out nationalists looking to turn their back on the European Union. But the outcome of the talks remains uncertain.
Tadic must try to get the Socialists on his side
While the parliamentary elections on the weekend gave a big boost to the pro-European parties led by Tadic, Serbia's fragmented politics mean the vote could still produce a nationalist, anti-Western government.
That would be a setback for the European Union, which invested considerable effort in influencing the election on Sunday, May 11, and urged the next government to pursue "a clear European agenda."
The future path of the country is now largely in the hands of the Socialist party, which was founded and once led by former dictator Slobodan Milosevic. The Socialists secured 20 seats in the election. If Tadic manages to woo Socialist leader Ivica Dacic to his side, the moderate bloc, which won almost 39 percent of the vote, would be able to form a fraught majority.
Socialists are kingmaker
But if Milosevic's successors side with the hard-line Radical Party, Serbia's nationalists will have 127 seats in the 250-seat parliament -- just enough to govern. The Radical Party led by Tomislav Nikolic, came second in Sunday's elections with 29.2 percent of the vote.
Serbia's Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic, will also be wooing the Socialists
So far, Dacic has not committed the Socialists to either side, saying only that the party could work with any partner interested in "territorial integrity and social justice."
As political leaders began coalition talks Monday, the stakes for regional stability, the EU and ordinary Serbs were high.
For Serbia's neighbors, including newly seceded Kosovo, an ultra-nationalist leadership in Belgrade would likely spell a new rush of tension.
For the average Serb, living on $500 (323 euros) a month, the prospect of joining the rich club of European Union nations has obvious appeal.
But the loss of Kosovo and anti-Western resentment rooted in NATO's 1999 airstrikes on Belgrade helped keep hard-line parties in the game. They want to steer Serbia away from the EU in protest at Western support of Kosovo's February declaration of independence.
Long, uncertain summer ahead
Already, Serbs are contemplating the prospect of a long, uncertain summer of bargaining to form the new government.
"It's about fifty-fifty," James Lyon, a Balkans expert with International Crisis Group, told German news agency DPA. "We could once again have a government that is very weak, very unstable and very much at the mercy of the natural parliamentary majority -- which is a nationalist majority."
Under the constitution, Serbs have a month to constitute the new parliament and three months after that to form a new government.
The EU was quick to hail the moderates' victory on Sunday, but as the main players now scramble to form a coalition, it is sounding a more cautious note.
"I hope that a new government can be formed rapidly, which would be strongly committed to reforms and to meeting the necessary conditions for further progress towards Europe," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said in a statement.
"The European Union would give such a government all its support."