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EU Soft Power: Why Serbia’s New President Shifted to the Center

By Elizabeth Pond

The good news from Serbia is that the president it elected last Sunday wants his country to join the European Union. The bad news is that as late as last year Tomislav Nikolic still proclaimed Greater Serbia—the goal strongman Slobodan Milosevic fought for and lost in the 1990s—as his "dream and wish."

Ironically, the outcome of Nikolic's split personality could help yank Serbia away from Milosevic's 19th-century yearning for Balkan hegemony and into 21st-century post-national Europe.

Here's the "cohabitation" scenario Western diplomats are betting on as they combine their congratulations to surprise-winner Nikolic with advice on how to be statesmanlike. Already the once ultranationalist Nikolic is projecting a conciliatory presidential persona, pledging to serve Serbs across the political spectrum and to help his nation become a "normal" European country.

The starting point in this scenario is that for the first time since the break-up of Yugoslavia two decades ago a huge majority of 73 percent of Serbian parliamentarians favors membership in the EU. The remnants of Milosevic's Socialist Party were the first ultranationalists to drop their bitterness after the West repelled the Serb conquest of a third of Croatia and two-thirds of Bosnia—and the attempted ethnic cleansing of the 90 percent Albanian majority in the former  Serbian province of Kosovo. In 2008, Socialist leader Ivica Dacic formed a government coalition with the moderate Democratic Party and approved the pursuit of EU accession.

Shortly thereafter Nikolic—who had served Milosevic as deputy prime minister from 1998-2000—defected from the Radical Party that long criticized Milosevic for not conquering more neighboring territory for Serbia. The issue he bolted on in order to form his new Progressive Party was the Radicals' adamant opposition to Serbian membership in the EU. (Alternative explanations of Nikolic's apostasy held that as deputy Radical leader, he finally rebelled against being the errand boy for the party's founder, Vojislav Seselj, who continued to micromanage the party from The Hague, where he was on trial for war crimes.)

In this May's parliamentary and presidential elections—for the first time since Serb ultranationalists hijacked the political agenda after the murder of reformist prime minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003—the decisive issue was neither chauvinism nor Serbia's loss of Kosovo. Instead, it was the economic hardship wrought by the global financial economic crisis that has left half of those under 30 unemployed and delayed wage payments for 80 percent of those with jobs. Nikolic got essentially the same number of votes he received when he ran unsuccessfully for president in 2004 and 2008. This time around, however, disillusioned former supporters of outgoing Democratic Party President Boris Tadic, blamed Tadic for their misery and boycotted the election, as the low 47 percent turnout showed. 

At this point the expectation in Belgrade and in the West is that Nikolic's Radicals will not be able to convert their 24 percent plurality in parliament into a government coalition. Already Dacic, who wants to run for president himself in the next election five years hence, has pledged the Socialists' 15 percent  vote to continue his coalition with the Democratic Party's 22 percent. Cohabitation between Progressive President Nikolic and a Democratic-Socialist coalition government thus seems predestined. Already Nikolic, unlike his predecessor, has resigned from his party's leadership and seems content with giving up partisan battles to stand above the fray.

Neither Serb nor Western observers expect Dacic or Nikolic to retract his conversion in dropping chauvinism to embrace EU membership. President Nikolic wants to be received in other countries as a statesman, and Dacic wants to polish his new moderate image in order to run for Serbian president himself five years from now.

Bigger stumbling blocks on the way to EU accession could be popular expectations, possible indiscipline in Progressive ranks, and the dearth of experienced Serbian bureaucrats and diplomats capable of instituting the reforms needed to qualify eventually for EU membership. Opinion polls still show that two-thirds of voters oppose EU membership if they have to give up their residual claims to Kosovo as a precondition. This might invite individual Progressive parliamentarians to revert to demagogy on the issue.

EU, German, British, and French officials are all pointing out to Belgrade, however, that no applicant for EU membership can be admitted that has a border dispute with a neighbor. Specifically, any satisfactory modus vivendi between Serbia and independent Kosovo must entail dismantling of Belgrade's "parallel" security-cum-smuggling structures in lawless Serb-majority northern Kosovo. Legitimate taxes must be paid to both Belgrade and Pristina from fuel and other contraband, and the sporadic low-level violence between Kosovo Serbs and Albanians must stop. This shift will require unprecedented finesse as the EU seeks to revive the faltering "dialogue" between Serbia and Kosovo.

If this scenario indeed plays out, it will give a needed boost to European Union self-confidence. The euro crisis played no role in the Serbian elections, except in its negative effect on Balkan economies that are so dependent on EU financial recovery. Yet if Serbia can now bring itself into the post-national European mainstream at last, this confirmation of the EU's soft power in transforming and democratizing its post-communist environs could help mitigate the EU's present self-doubt over the euro crisis.

And if the whole exercise closes the door on the terrible Balkan wars of the 1990s, so much the better.

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Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Endgame in the Balkans.

[Photo courtesy of Shutterstock]

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