Serbia’s New Leadership: Can President Nikolić Lift Serbia?

Athina Tesfa YOHANNES
12 June 2012
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Tomislav Nikolić’s strong showing in the first round of presidential elections forced a second round in which he garnered 49.8% of the vote, knocking out the potential-incumbent Boris Tadić, who led Serbia on a pro-EU platform for the last eight years. The win has thus shifted the makeup of the 250-seat National Assembly Parliament, with Nikolić’s SNS Party (1) gaining 73 spots, Tadic’s DS (2) party and coalition allied gaining 67, with the Ivica Dacic’s SPS (3) party and its allied mustering 44 seats.


Haunting Past: The Nationalist Factor?

Given the recent wave of far-right platforms that have risen to power throughout the EU, many regional watchdogs grew increasingly anxious with the news of Nikolić grabbing the presidency, particularly with Serbia’s darker past with nationalism. A former hardliner who once sympathized with the infamous Slobodan Milosevic, Nikolić once proclaimed his disdain for both the EU and NATO (given NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign on Belgrade). In 2010, his party did not join in legislation that would declare the Srebrenica massacre (where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed) in Bosnia as genocide, and has recently downplayed the ‘genocide’ aspect, instead marking the event as a ‘grave war crime[s].’(4) He has also refused to attend the Srebrenica commemoration event held every July, stating that it was unnecessary for him to do seeing that Tadić had attended the event the previous year.


In 2008, the president’s SNS party formed after breaking off ties with nationalist Vojislav Seslj, founder of the far-right Serbian Radical Party who is currently being tried in The Hague for war crimes committed during the 1990s. The contentious issue that fueled the split in parties was the Serbia’s EU accession path, which Nikolić supported, essentially paving the early path for the diminished nationalist-fueled rhetoric for this year’s May 6th elections. By distancing himself from the likes of politically charged figures from Serbia’s past, Nikolić has tried to reinvent himself a changed politician, but recent developments since his election victory have challenged his makeover.


A Revised Neighborhood Policy for Serbia?

Domestically, Nikolić is trying to organize a government ready to handle his proposed reforms, including the arrangement of coalitions and allocating seats in the country’s parliament. Talks have included speaking with the Serbian Orthodox church, which has always held significant political weight over many Serbian citizens. In Serbia’s immediate neighborhood, Nikolić has ruffled many feathers with several statements made during his first month after the presidential elections results. Nikolić has refused to meet with Kosovo’s leader Hashim Thaçi because of the pending criminal investigation against the Kosovan prime minister. Due to statements made on Srebrenica and town of Vukovar, Croatian President Ivo Josipović declined to attend Nikolić’s inauguration celebration on June 11th.(5) Not surprisingly, Bosnia’s Bakir Izetbegović also refused to attend the inauguration, along with Slovenia’s president Danilo Türk. While Montenegro and Serbia maintain good relations and Nikolić has affirmed recognition of the splinter republic, his statement about seeing not seeing the difference between Serbs and Montenegrins has drawn even more attention to Nikolić. Coupled with his statement in an interview with German paper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung stating that ‘greater Serbia’ as a ‘unrealized dream’ of his, Nikolić and his frank views regarding regional policy unfortunately come during a fragile political and economic time in the Balkans.


Outside of the Balkans, Serbia’s close ties with Russia have kept its economy afloat, with Russia investing nearly $1.4 billion in the form of loans for infrastructure projects and plugging the current budget leaks. On his first trip abroad as president last month, Nikolić visited Moscow to discuss further economic ties, along with solidarity on the issues of NATO (which he has reiterated that Serbia will never join) and Kosovo (which Russia also does not recognize as independent). Having once proclaimed that Serbia would be better off a province a Russia than the EU, Nikolić (who has since declared an EU path for Serbia) also discussed the possibility of recognizing the Republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, causing new problems in the Serbian-Georgian relationship. Although Nikolić has placed recognition of these contested territories in a different category to that of Kosovo, alignment with Russia and against the EU’s wishes (which doesn’t recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia) on territorial issues has placed Nikolić under further scrutiny.


The EU Factor: Keeping Serbia Focused Requires Incentives

The EU must now offer further tangible rewards, much like the visa liberalization scheme granted last year, to the new Serbian administration with regards to the issue of Kosovo. With five EU members not recognizing Kosovo due to separatist fears within their own respective territories, Serbian administrations have yet to see guarantee of EU membership should they recognize Kosovo’s independence. Given that Kosovo and Metohija are “an integral part” of Serbia’s territory according to the country’s latest 2006 constitution referendum, releasing the province in exchange for tangible progress on the EU path would also require a constitutional amendment. Unlike Tadić, Nikolić and his party hold greater weight over Kosovo’s Serbs due to his anti-NATO stance and refusal to acquiesce a sovereign Kosovo for EU gains. Nikolić has also regarded the EU/US-aligned “four point plan” that Tadić had for Kosovo (6) with disdain, remarking that clarity about Kosovo’s status was not seen in the Tadić proposal. While a Serbia sans Kosovo would appease the remaining EU member states, it comes at the risk of Nikolić’s voting base which will have to weigh the costs and benefits of joining the economically struggling union at the time. Serbia is currently facing a nearly 24% unemployment rate and impending debt crisis due to inflation and a devaluating Serbian dinar. The declining economic status has been a primary impetus for the nearly 11,000 asylum applications filed in 2010 (and almost 14,000 in 2011) from Serbia once the country gained EU visa liberalization access. With the EU’s Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle set to meet with Nikolić during the inauguration period, the status of Kosovo and how Nikolic’s inflammatory statements will need to be further discussed to affirm European faith in Serbia’s new leadership.


Near Future: What Lies Ahead for Serbia

Serbia’s stability is paramount to cross-border relations within the Balkans. The elevation of Boris Tadić to Prime Minister (which he previously downplayed but has increasingly become a possibility) will form the balanced EU-Eastern perspective which Nikolić has so far launched. Knowing that Tadić was unseated primarily due to economic-based frustrations throughout Serbia, Nikolić will need to provide Serbia with the necessary economic reforms and investments during his first term. If Nikolić can muster a similar “five point” development plan for the nation (which included the EU path, improving the economy, investing in education, resolving Kosovo, and fight against organized crime) as proposed by Tadić, both Serbia’s neighbors and interactions with parties of the EU will greatly improve as a result of such faith-building initiatives. While many foresee that installing Tadić as the country’s new prime minister, as is expected, will hinder Serbia’s progress as a result of political stalemates in parliament, it could alternately ensure to Nikolić’s critics abroad that Serbia intends to follow a progressive path that includes the necessary internal reforms for Serbia’s future, whether or not it becomes a part of the European Union.


Endnotes

(1) Serbian Progressive Party; center-right.
(2) Democratic Party
(3) Socialist Party of Serbia
(4) In a recent interview with Montenegrin state television, he stated: “there was no genocide in Srebrenica. In Srebrenica, grave war crimes were committed by some Serbs who should be found, prosecuted, and punished.”
(5) Pavelic, Boris. “Croatic and Nikolic: Shock Mixed with Irony.” Balkan Transitional Justice, Balkan Insight. May 28, 2012.
Despite Nikolic’s denial, audio tape confirmed that he claimed Vukovar as a “Serbian town to which Croats should not return.” Vukovar was nearly destroyed due to heavy fighting during Croatia’s 1991 independence war, carried out largely by Serbian ‘chetniks’ or military forces, of which Nikolić was allegedly a part. Vukovar’s current population is currently 32% ethnically Serbian.
(6) The Kosovo-oriented “four point plan” outlined by Tadić ensures special guarantees and protection for Kosovo’s Serbian population, the existing Serbian Orthodox monasteries and churches in the region, and resolution to property claims made by Serbs within Kosovan territory.

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