“Serbia chose the past” is, unfortunately, an outcome of the Serbian presidential elections that I envisaged a month ago on this very page in the article “Serbia makes choice between past and future.”
I say unfortunately because I would, as well as many other people from the Balkans to the United States, be more satisfied if the opposite result had occurred. Former Serbian ultranationalist and now the populist Progressive Party leader Tomislav Nikolic became the new president of Serbia on May 20, after he succeeded in defeating Democratic Party candidate Boris Tadic, who had defeated him in two previous elections and had two presidential mandates. Nikolic’s triumph was perhaps the biggest surprise in post-communist Serbia’s elections. It was, in fact, a more crushing defeat to Tadic than a real triumph for Nikolic.
Many analysts point to two main reasons for the former Serbian president’s loss: first, the economic downturn, which resulted in massive job losses, inflation and corruption within the ruling elite, and second, that Tadic ruled for too long and concentrated all the power that he could into the presidential office. Those two reasons, however, might have been overcome and he could have received a new term if there was not a third reason: Tadic resigned before the end of his mandate, last April, causing an early presidential election in an attempt to help his party win the parliamentary elections on May 6. His party fared relatively well and Tadic narrowly won the first presidential round. After the first round, everyone, including Tadic, became convinced that an easy victory was awaiting him in the second round. The pre-runoff polls gave more than a 15 percent advantage to Tadic, supporters of his pro-European policy, academic background and even of his personality and public image, stayed at home last Sunday, while nationalist supporters showed their enthusiasm by casting ballots and helped their candidate Nikolic beat Tadic by a slight margin.
Low voter turnout as a determinant
The 54 percent of Serbians who did not vote -- a record low turnout for the country’s elections -- contributed heavily to Tadic’s defeat. In punishing Tadic, they punished themselves and Serbia as a whole. The country has been trying to rid itself of its evil past. Belgrade University professor and human rights activist Zagorka Golubovic, who announced in advance that she was not going to vote for Tadic, reacted emotionally when she heard that Nikolic won. “I am desperate that our people can elect [someone so] primitive for president. I am inclined to move out of this country,” she said.
From a purely political angle, Nikolic beat Tadic in a fair, democratic election. It was also fair for a politician who failed three times at running for president to finally get it. After the elections Nikolic appeared as if he didn’t believe he won. When a reporter asked him if he is going to talk to people who had opposed him, he replied: “Everybody was against me, many hated me, but I will talk with everybody because I now represent the entire country of Serbia.”
The problem with Serbia’s new president lies in his past political career and behavior. He dedicated 17 of his 20 years of political activity to the ultra-nationalistic policy of former Serbian leaders like Slobodan Milosevic, who died in the prison of The Hague War Crimes Tribunal before being sentenced for war crimes and genocide, or Vojislav Seselj, who is still on trial for war crimes. After quitting as the right-hand man of Seselj’s Radical Party and forming his own Progressive Party three years ago, Nikolic tried to distance himself from his former boss by proclaiming more pro-European policies and taking a more compromising attitude in parliament. He managed to attract many Serbian nationalists who were not directly involved in war crimes in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo in the 1990s, but who supported those responsible for committing them.
However, is it possible generally and especially in politics, that a man in his late 50s can change his life philosophy and manners? There are perhaps such cases, but it is hard to say for Nikolic. Even as the leader of his progressives, he recently attended the large rally in support of Gen. Ratko Mladic, whose trial at The Hague Tribunal just started. One can imagine how the Bosnian women whose husbands, sons and brothers were murdered in the Srebrenica genocide ordered by Mladic felt when that same man, in front of the Tribunal judges, made a characteristic move by putting his fist over his own throat, sending them a message that he would repeat his actions if he had the chance. When thinking about Nikolic’s political past, one can recall how he used to react in Serbia’s parliament when being questioned about his nationalistic attitude. During a live broadcast on TV he cursed the mother of a deputy, plus the deputy, adding at the end the word “sh*t!,” which in Serbian sounds even uglier than in English.
I can’t imagine a better or shorter comment about the outcome of the Serbian presidential elections than one made by Sonja Biserko, the president of the country’s Helsinki Human Rights Committee. “Serbia is entering a very unpredictable, unstable phase, and Nikolic is what he has been all these years,” she said. Srdja Popovic, the most popular Serbian lawyer, expressed his feelings in a similar way: “For a short term it will be worse because Nikolic is less capable, unreliable and has a terrible biography that should prevent him from appearing on the political scene at all. For the long-term, we know where we are, there is no make-up.”
Everyone in the region was surprised; the expected Tadic victory would have meant a continuation of Serbia’s European Union path and relatively stable relations with neighbors. Politicians declined from commenting on Nikolic as a person or his character, stressing that his election was the result of the choice of the Serbian people.
Being aware that Brussels and Washington wanted to hear certain statements from him, Nikolic, who once said he would like to see Serbia as a Russian province, after receiving confirmation of his win, stressed in his first statement to the media that “Serbia will not stray from its European road,” and “I wish to assure you that Serbia can be a modern, normal country.” Perhaps he sent similar assurances to Brussels in advance, because the congratulations from the heads of the European Council and the European Commission reached Belgrade three hours before polling stations were closed. Causing a small diplomatic incident, the message was withdrawn, and again repeated when the final confirmation of Nikolic’s victory came to the EU headquarters. The State Department announced mild US satisfaction with Nikolic’s first statements on his pro-European course, but The New York Times expressed the wider American feelings in the first sentence of its dispatch: “Tomislav Nikolic, a nationalist and former cemetery supervisor, was elected president of Serbia on Sunday, in a surprise victory that cast doubt on whether the country would remain on its path toward the European Union or look increasingly eastward toward Russia.”
The Balkan countries’ reactions to the Serbian presidential election, and its possible consequences, particularly on the Kosovo and Bosnian issues, need more reflection and time. The timing is even more important due to uncertainty regarding the formation of the new government in Belgrade. The president has to name a prime minister, but the naming has been complicated by the election results. Although Nikolic’s Progressive Party won the most seats in the May 6 parliamentary election, Tadic’s Democrats agreed in advance on an alliance with the Socialists that would give them a majority. “We’ll see what will happen,” Nikolic said after defeating Tadic. And he was right, because many things might happen.
In the last moments, there were some statements from the Socialist Party that it would support Tadic as a new prime minister. Tadic might reconsider his previous decision not to accept any new position in Serbia’s government not only from an understandable personal wish for revenge upon the sudden defeat, but because he could make the position of the prime minister more important than the presidential one. Due to the fact that the Serbian president does not have much constitutional authority, the former president might actually beat his successor by moving into the position of prime minister.
In the meantime, while it wouldn’t be fair to say that with Tadic’s defeat all liberal, democratic and pro-European Serbians have lost their place in Serbian politics, I will quote one of the bloggers who was disappointed that Serbia chose a president who swears in parliament. The blogger wrote: “The thing is, all the key players in the Serbian nationalist and genocidal politics of the ‘90s are back in parliament. All the former Milosevic allies are back. What message are the Serbian people sending to their neighbors?”
*Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey.