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Europe

Surprise in Serbia

Serbian opposition leader Tomislav Nikolic beat incumbent Boris Tadic for the presidency, drawing almost 50 percent of the vote. Tadic won 46,7 percent - a bitter defeat.

At 45 percent, voter turnout was at a record low on Sunday in Serbia, a country where about 6.8 million inhabitants are eligible to vote.

But the trend worked in Nikolic's favor: supporters of his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) are known to be disciplined voters. It was a surprise triumph: political observers have repeatedly declared Nikolic politically dead. In 2004 and 2008, the opposition leader lost similar run-off votes to Tadic.

Analysts say Tadic paid the price of the difficult economic and social situation in Serbia, where one-in-four people are unemployed. Nikolic, 60, took advantage of the dismal situation in his election campaign, never tiring to point at Tadic as the man responsible for the crisis.

Transformation

While Boris Tadic has always presented himself as a pro-EU politician, former ultra-nationalist Nikolic shifted from being staunchly anti-western to making EU accession his political goal in 2008, the year he left Vojislav Seselj's far-right Serbian Radical Party (SRS) to form the SNS. Seselj is currently on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for war crimes committed during the Croatia and Bosnia wars of the 1990s.

Before taking that politically pragmatic step, Nikolic was SRS deputy leader for many years after party leader Seselj discovered the member of a Serbian paramilitary group at the start of the war in 1991. Nikolic was in fact elected SRS deputy three times, causing political opponents to dismiss him as an 'eternal runner-up'. "It's much more honorable to be second in the SRS than to be head of any other party," he said in 2008, just months before turning his back on the radicals.

European turncoat

At the helm of his newly-created SNS, Nikolic was transformed, a pro-European who wanted to see his country "anchored in the West and the East", just three years after dismissing the EU as evil. Then, he branded EU conditions for membership as "the chaos and democracy for the miserable states in transition." Today, he declares that having the status of EU accession candidate is "the most important pre-condition for comprehensive economic development in Serbia."

Boris Tadic and Tomislav Nikolic

The new and the former Serbian president

At the same time, Nikolic wants to continue to strengthen Serbia's traditionally good relations with Russia - he envisions Serbia as a "pillar for Russia in Europe."

The new president's rhetoric is reminiscent of remarks made in parliament in 2001: "I don't agree with having to act respectably in parliament," he said, frequently calling his political opponents morons and idiots. His penchant for tasteless remarks became legendary in February 2003, after Serbia's leader at the time, Zoran Djindjic, injured a leg. Nikolic joked that "if anybody sees Zoran Djindjic these next months, tell him that Tito [former Yugoslav president] had problems with his leg, too, before he died." 17 days later, Djindjic was assassinated.

Have your cake and eat it, too

Nikolic still regards the former province of Kosovo as a part of Serbia and has internalized Tadic's " EU and Kosovo, too"- policies. Should the EU demand that Serbia give up all claims to its former province, Nikolic will likely turn his back on Brussels, Tadic said.

Nikolic has said that Serbia would not "swerve from the path to Europe" but that he also must protect the Serbs in Kosovo.

Nikolic's 'Let's get Serbia moving' election bloc won 73 seats in Serbia's parliament while Tadic's election ticket won 67 seats and the Socialists came in third with 44 seats. Ahead of the run-off on Sunday, the Socialists agreed to renew their coalition government with Tadic's Democrats. Now, the pack must be reshuffled.

The election coalition group led by Nikolic's SNS is a peculiarity on Serbia's political landscape. The bloc includes the Bosniak People's Party, the Democratic Party of Macedonians, the Roma Party and the Vlach Unity Movement – unusual allies for a Serbian nationalist. Nikolic, it would appear, wasn't particularly insistent on principles or political convictions when he needed help to win seats in parliament.

Author: Sasa Bojic /db
Editor: Gregg Benzow

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