Analysis: Nikolic looking both east and west for a saviour for Serbia

HE’S A pro-Russian nationalist and former ally of the late Serb potentate Slobodan Milosevic, who vows to keep breakaway Kosovo part of Serbia. Yet Serbia’s new president, Tomislav Nikolic, also aims to keep Serbia on the path towards joining the European Union.

The paradoxical Nikolic, 60, a former deputy of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, beat the incumbent Boris Tadic in elections on Sunday by a narrow margin. Tadic’s Democrat’s are now likely to form a coalition government with the Socialists.

Nicknamed “Grobar” – “The Gravedigger” – because he formerly ran a cemetery, the hulking Nikolic presents himself as a man of traditional Serbian values, distilling his own plum brandy, picking wild mushrooms and herbs in his home town of Bajcetina, in central Serbia, and declaring firm allegiance to Russia.

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The paradox is that while his heart looks east towards the Slavic Motherland, Russia, and he vows to keep the breakaway former Serbian province of Kosovo part of the Serb homeland Nikolic also pledges to keep Serbia on a path towards the European Union.

“Serbia will not turn away from the European path,” Nikolic said in his victory speech. But the EU is keen that Serbia tries to forge stronger and more cordial bonds with Kosovo, where atrocity-prone Serb forces conducted a counter-insurgency campaign against Kosovo Albanian separatist rebels from 1997-99, finally being forced to abandon the battle to regain the province after a Nato bombing campaign.

Indeed, as the EU’s Herman van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso stressed in a joint statement “it will be essential to see the momentum of reforms continuing” if Serbia hopes to start accession negotiations.

And Kosovo’s political leaders asked Nikolic “to find the courage and to take steps to establish good and peaceful relations with Kosovo”.

Although Nikolic largely dropped Kosovo as an issue in his winning campaign, choosing to focus on economic issues and corruption, he said after his victory that the vote showed Serbia “will protect its people in Kosovo”.

Nikolic started his political career as an ultra-nationalist in the Serbian Radical Party, where he served as the deputy to Vojislav Seselj, the party founder who is on trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. And between 1998-99, he was deputy prime minister under wartime president Slobodan Milosevic, after the Radicals formed a ruling coalition with Milosevic’s Socialists.

But Nikolic then broke away from the Radicals in 2008 and formed the Serbian Progressive Party, which eschewed much of the Radicals’ extremism in favour of a more pro-EU stance. However, one of Nikolic’s less well-thought-out political statements was that Serbia would be better off “as a Russian province”.

These days, he is keen on saying that he loves Russia – “it is in my heart” – but that he has converted to the cause of the EU, which he says holds out a beacon of economic stability for impoverished Serbia.

“We want to join the EU. It has projects, jobs and investments for us,” he once told an election rally. “But if they say, you can join the EU, but Kosovo is not yours, [then] thanks a lot, good-bye.”

However, the EU has made resolution talks between Serbia and Kosovo, initiated by Tadic, a precondition of any future Serbian EU membership.