After four failed attempts, Tomislav Nikolic finally did it: on 20 May 2012, after the second round of the presidential elections, he defeated Boris Tadic and was elected president of Serbia for a five-year term. Nikolic’s victory came as a shock to those keeping tabs on Serbian politics.
The man who came in from the political cold
This article title is, perhaps, the most condensed version of possible answers to this question and the most common perception of Tomislav Nikolic abroad. Certainly, his political biography gives plenty of evidence for such conclusions. From 1991 until 2008 he was the famous “number two” of the far-right Serbian Radical Party led by its president Vojislav Seselj (indicted by the ICTY for Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes in 2003). He shared and supported Seselj’s political endeavours, looked up to him and publically praised him. Nikolic, following his party leader Seselj, was an “ultranationalist”; he criticised the Milosevic’s regime (when the regime was not “patriotic enough”), but also participated in it when proved convenient. He was the only MP in the Serbian Parliament elected continuously since 1992. He also was the Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia (1998-1999), the Deputy Prime Minister of FY Yugoslavia (1999-2000), and, for only five days, the President of National Assembly of Serbia (2007). While member of the Radical Party, he was a prominent advocate of anti-EU policies and stronger alliances with the Russian Federation.
However, in 2008, he resigned from the Radical Party leadership and only a month later, he formed his current Serbian Progressive Party. The break-up with his former party leader, a friend and a political role-model seemed abrupt. Nikolic stated that the reason for his leaving the Radical Party was a disagreement with Vojislav Seselj regarding the European Union and Serbia’s signing of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement.
Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) is an accord which constitutes prerequisite of any further assessment of a country’s prospects for the EU membership. Initially, Serbia’s path to the EU was blocked until December 2007 by poor cooperation with the court prosecuting those responsible for the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The accord had been initially signed in 2008 but frozen due to a veto by the Dutch side, who reiterated that the capture of Ratko Mladic, Army commander of the Serbs from Bosnia and Herzegovina, indicted for genocide in the 1995 massacre in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica and currently standing trial at the International Criminal Tribunal, was crucial to the accession. The country officially applied for the EU membership on December 22 2009, and on March 1 2012 it was officially confirmed as a candidate country by the European Council.
Nikolic clearly changed his political course, which is now in line with that of the Democratic Party. The key issue in that change was embracing the pro-EU course as the only viable future for Serbia, as opposed to his former anti-EU stance. Moreover, the presence of the former New York City Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, in the election campaign of the Serbian Progressive Party, spoke loudly about the Nikolic’s party and their intentions to seek allies in the West as well and not only in Russia. Did Nikolic conclude that the EU aspirations are the right path for modern Serbia, or he simply realised that it was unpopular to advocate anti-EU policies in Serbia and thus unlikely to gain him broader public support, it is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, this reformed Tomislav Nikolic became a frequent visitor of foreign embassies in Belgrade and the EU diplomatic circles. This brought him angry condemnation from his former party; however, it, perhaps, increased his chances in the elections.
On the eve of the presidential elections, Serbian political landscape was dominated by Democratic Party (DS) and its leader, Boris Tadic, who has held the Serbian presidency for the past eight years. Their firm grip of the state institutions and the media did not seem to give much space to any other candidates. DS’s aggressive election campaign insisted on a mock portrayal of Tomislav Nikolic: lack of university education and his recent “purchase” of university degree, multiple losses in the previous elections, grotesque hunger strike some time earlier and more.
All the facts from that portrayal, even if they were somewhat theatrically exaggerated for purposes of the political campaign, were, for the biggest part, true. Yet, they were the “old news”. They did not contribute to any change in public perception of Nikolic, but rather spoke about the DS’s attempt to divert the attention from the real problems in Serbia.
Democratic Party was counting on Tomislav Nikolic’s poor public image; however, they did not count on a negative popular sentiment towards Democratic Party, which had been building up for quite a while. High corruption rates, deteriorating economy, general dissatisfaction with growing power of the DS and a severe drop in Tadic’s popularity, accompanied by rising apathy towards the elections, created the circumstances in which such campaign seemed to be serving more as a boost to the DS’s moral rather than a persuasive tool to gain public support.
Prior to the presidential race, Serbian electorate was largely disappointed in the fate of Serbia’s democracy almost 12 years after Milosevic’s fall. One of the prominent political commentators went as far as to compare Tadic and his ruling of Serbia to Milosevic’s era. The voters felt that none of the parties that participated in “democratic revolution” against Milosevic’s regime was up to the challenge. Democratic Party, as the strongest one, was perceived as a huge failure. There was no real choice. Therefore, some simply boycotted the elections; some opted for a “blank vote”. The only voters, motivated, eager and angry enough, were Nikolic’s supporters. And, perhaps, those who just wanted to punish Tadic. Even if the only way to do that was to vote Tomislav Nikolic.
The “unexpected” victory was not that unexpected after all.
Challenges for a new president
Nikolic will have to do some serious diplomatic manoeuvring in making himself welcome in the neighbouring countries where he is still perceived as the enemy. Of all eight Serbian neighbours (that is, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Republic of Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro), only Filip Vujanovic of Montenegro, attended the presidential inauguration ceremony of Nikolic, held on the 11 June 2012. Also, it is highly unlikely that he will change his opinion regarding the recognition of Kosovo’s independence in exchange for the membership in the EU. Nikolic told media that if the EU made Kosovo’s recognition a precondition to the EU accession, it would mean “breaking off negotiations [towards EU membership] at that very moment”.
However, if the negotiation over the future Serbian government end in Tadic’s becoming Serbia’s new Prime Minister, the Serbian political course will not significantly change.
All in all, those who expected nothing more than a “dent in Democratic Party’s armour” are happy. Those in Serbia, who expected some “radical” changes, will probably be disappointed