Serbian Transition Worries West

The new Serbian president's nationalist politics and checkered past worry Brussels and Washington. Why they should take a pragmatic approach.

On his fourth try, Tomislav Nikolic won Serbia's presidential election last week, defeating incumbent Boris Tadic by a narrow margin. Turnout was low. The number of ruined ballots was high. The electoral mechanism appears to have worked smoothly, freely and fairly.

Nikolic's victory in this second round of the presidential election comes on the heels of his party's victory in the parliamentary polls, which gave it the largest number of seats.

A majority of Serbs were fed up with a leadership that had failed to deliver jobs, economic vitality, Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo or sufficient progress in Serbia's efforts to gain membership in the European Union or Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo.

Nikolic is an ethnic nationalist with a history of support to Slobodan Milosevic and close ties to more radical nationalist and war crimes indictee Vojislav Seselj, from whom Nikolic broke in 2008. Accusations that Nikolic committed war crimes in Croatia in the early 1990s have not been taken tocourt, and he won a related defamation suit in 2009.

Since breaking with Seselj, Nikolic has taken a more pro-Europe line, while maintaining promises of never recognizing the independence of Kosovo. In this, he is no different from Tadic, who convinced Brussels and Washington of his bona fides. American and European officials will be nervous about Nikolic, whose recent moderation they worry could be tactical.

How should Europe and the United States react to Nikolic's election? Calmly and purposefully. The purpose should be to bring about genuine and deep reform in Serbia, which has failed in the more than ten years since Milosevic's fall to purge fully its security services, investigate high-level involvement in war crimes and in hiding indictees, give up its control of northern Kosovo or support the establishment of a viable Bosnian central government. Washington and Brussels have put up with this, fearing that a tough line would undermine Tadic at the polls and strengthen nationalists like Nikolic.

The coddling of Tadic has not worked. He sought credit with nationalist voters by promising to recover Kosovo and support the Serb entity in Bosnia to the hilt. Its increasingly radical president campaigned openly for Tadic, but to no avail. Tadic failed for years to provide the kind of support to expensive international efforts in Kosovo and Bosnia that would make them successful.

Some in Brussels and Washington will still want to play their hand in formation of the new government by pushing for Tadic's Democratic Party to lead the majority in parliament. That may be the way things turn out, even though Nikolic's party won more seats. But there is no reason to believe that a Democratic Party-led government coalition under a Nikolic presidency would prove better from an American or European perspective than the outgoing Democratic Party-led government under Tadic. Making Nikolic's party fully responsible—at both the presidential and governmental levels—would be a far clearer outcome.

Alternation in power is an essential feature of truly democratic systems. It has now happened in Serbia for the first time since the fall of Milosevic. Europe and the United States should recognize in these elections a clear expression of the will of Serbia's people: like others in Europe, they wanted a change. In Serbia, the only viable alternative was of the more nationalist, less pro-European variety.

What Brussels and Washington need to do now is draw clear red lines that both can support wholeheartedly. Once the new parliamentary majority is formed and the government appointed, they should ask Belgrade—which will seek a date to begin negotiations for European Union membership—to end its resistance to Kosovo's independence, push the Bosnian Serbs toward full acceptance of the Sarajevo government and begin deep reform of the security services. There is no reason to coddle Nikolic, who in the past has proven himself pragmatic when faced with clear and forceful requirements.

Daniel Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He blogs at www.peacefare.net and tweets @DanielSerwer.

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