President-elect of Serbia Tomislav Nikolic is one of the most controversial politicians in Serbia, as he has gone from an ultranationalist to a fervent advocate of European integration.
By Igor Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 28/05/12
Serbia President-elect Tomislav Nikolic is a politician whom many reprimand for inconsistency. In less than two decades, he has gone from being best man to Hague tribunal indictee Vojislav Seselj to a champion of Serbia's European future.
Despite the past in which he fought as a military volunteer in Croatia, Nikolic founded his victory on May 20th over Democratic Party leader and Serbian President Boris Tadic on promises of accelerating European integration, as well as of promising to maintain a consistent fight against poverty, crime and corruption.
In his first post-victory address, he promised Serbia would not veer off the European path and that EU membership would be his priority.
Some in Serbia, however, are sceptical that Nikolic's transformation is fully authentic.
"I don't believe Nikolic has really changed that much, but as a good politician he realised what could bring him victory in the election. Now he will also have to prove with his actions that he is truly committed to the idea of European integration," former Serbian Ambassador to Germany Ognjen Pribicevic told SETimes.
Commenting on the announcement that his first action as president would be to request a reception in Germany, Pribicevic said it is doubtful that Nikolic will be judged by his nationalistic past.
"There is bound to be some prejudice against Nikolic, but he will be given a chance to prove his dedication to the principles he emphasised in the election campaign," said Pribicevic.
Nikolic first became involved in politics in the 1990s, when the multi-partisan system was introduced in Serbia. He helped form the Serbian Chetnik Movement, an ultranationalist group that later produced the Serbian Radical Party.
There he met Vojislav Seselj, now standing trial for war crimes in The Hague, and quickly became his right-hand man in the party. Nikolic was the Serbian deputy prime minister and then Yugoslav deputy prime minister during Milosevic's rule.
After the Milosevic regime collapsed in 2000, the Radicals acted as the opposition. Nikolic took over leadership of the party in February 2003, when Seselj turned himself in to The Hague tribunal.
The two went their separate ways in September 2008 when Nikolic took a radical turn, started arguing for European integration and took away a huge portion of the party from Seselj.
On Sunday, Seselj's party suffered a collapse, since it failed to enter parliament for the first time since its founding.
Third time was a charm for Nikolic in the presidential election, as Boris Tadic had beaten him in the previous two elections, in 2004 and 2008.
Sociology professor at the University of Belgrade Dejan Vuk Stankovic believes Nikolic won this time primarily due to the difficult economic and social situation in Serbia.
"It would have been odd if the Serbian citizens had not punished the ruling Democratic Party in the elections more severely, in spite of very difficult living conditions. When it became certain the Democrats would form government again, their Boris Tadic was left with the bag," Stankovic told SETimes.
He added that Nikolic has a very difficult task ahead of him.
"If Nikolic's victory doesn't turn out to be the reason for the Democrats' partners to change their mind and form a new government with the Progressive Party, he will have to achieve cohabitation with a government that doesn't favour him," Stankovic said.
Nikolic's election is being monitored closely in the region as well.
Four years ago, he said he could not co-operate with Croatian leaders.
"I would openly tell them, 'I cannot co-operate with you, because hundreds of thousands of Serbian citizens have been waiting for 12 years to be enabled to return to their homes like dignified human beings'," Nikolic said at the time. Now, however, he claims he is ready to visit Croatia and negotiate with its leaders.
The new Serbian president has also said in the past that he was ready to wage war for Kosovo.
"We will react in every way. We will wage war on the Albanians. They are ready, they say. Well, we should be ready too," Nikolic said prior to Kosovo's 2008 independence declaration.
During his recent campaign, however, Nikolic has only briefly mentioned Kosovo, saying that Serbia should protect its citizens there.
Predrag Simic, Belgrade University political sciences professor, said he does not expect Nikolic to drastically change the regional policy his predecessor led.
"Nikolic doesn't have much room for maneuvering. He promised European integration, which hinges on good regional relations. Tadic made a significant breakthrough in those relations and Nikolic certainly won't consciously take steps back, because Brussels will react negatively to that," Simic told SETimes.