Serbia's New President: A Nationalist, Yes, But a Democrat Too

A brief commentary on Serbia's newly elected President that my wife and I co-authored for The Montreal Review:

Serbia is headed down the drain-again. Or so the analysts would have you believe. The surprising defeat of Serbia's Western-oriented, pro-reformist President Boris Tadic (47.31%), by the former arch nationalist, Tomislav Nikolic (49.54%) in the presidential elections held on May 20, set forth the predictable tsunami of doom and gloom scenarios. Analysts have warned of a "political earthquake " wherein "the temptation for nationalist solutions will grow" and deep political "uncertainty" prevail. Nikolic, they say, will likely sound the siren call of ultranationalism and woo Serbs away from the West and toward a nationalist revival that could potentially destabilize the region. The analysts are wrong.

The victory of Nikolic -- though no doubt unsettling for anyone familiar with the Yugoslav wars -- was not the major story of Serbia 's recent spate of elections. Instead, it is this: for the first time in recent memory-and despite the rising tide of far-right parties across the European Union-Serbia's citizenry did not elect a far-right party into Parliament. After dominating Serbia's politics for close to two decades, the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party-spearheaded by the accused war criminal Vojislav Seselj-failed to win even one of Serbia's 250-seat parliament.

The significance of this defeat cannot be overstated. Serbia is now one of the rare countries in Europe whose parliament is not home-let alone held captive to-a xenophobic far-right minority. What's more, the party that for so long radicalized public opinion and gave voice to ultra-nationalistic aspirations, no longer has a government-sanctioned podium from which to spew its venom. That is no small feat, yet one frequently overlooked in the rush to lament Serbia's fate.

And then there is President elect Tomislav Nikolic himself. Though far from a repentant Serbian nationalist, Nikolic hardly embodies the anti-democratic fiend his critics assert. Since rising to prominence in post-Milosevic politics, Nikolic has successfully charted the course from authoritarianism to democracy, much as did the Croatian Democratic Union in neighboring Croatia. For almost a decade, he has played by the rules of the democratic game: admitted defeat in national elections; supported Serbia's democratic constitution; and even helped lower the electoral threshold required for ethnic minority parties to enter parliament.

Sure, it is tempting to question the depth of Nikolic's democratic credentials. Whether his decades-long support for the Greater Serbia project, his persistent refusal to back the independence of Kosovo, or his repugnant statements on Vukovar, Nikolic is hardly an alluring icon for a democratic Serbia. But then, how many politicians in Serbia are? Now heralded as Serbia's only hope, Boris Tadic was an imperfect democrat at best. His insistence on running for a third term at the Serbian presidency would be universally condemned were it not for his support from the international community. For all his accomplishments, Tadic did little to undermine the pervasive legacy of corruption and nepotism that took hold of Serbia in the post-communist period. To the contrary, he's largely fed into it-appointing friends as advisors, wheeling and dealing with war-enriched tycoons, and offering little leeway for capable young politicos to rise the ranks of Serbia's politics.

Most importantly, Tadic -- like all politicians before him -- has fed into the highly partified political system that has grown entrenched throughout Serbia over the past two decades. While Nikolic may not ameliorate this, he has promised to confront it. And in resigning as his party leader he has, at the very least, drawn attention to the dire state of party politics in Serbia. While his resignation may indeed be more symbol than substance, in a country where party politics is so pervasive and corrupt, it is-at the very least-a step in the right direction.

More than anything, however, a Nikolic presidency offers the prospect of change. After enjoying "almost universal power" in Serbia, Tadic will likely to have to share that power as Prime Minister with his rivals. And in sharing the reigns of power, Nikolic, too, will be forced to change-particularly if he stays true to desire to the join the European Union. In the coming months, he will no doubt be forced to grapple with his own nationalism and involvement in the Greater Serbia project. Perhaps in so doing, he will help all of Serbia grapple with its. As one Croatian politician recently remarked, Nikolic "will have to wash himself thoroughly from his Chetnik past if he wa...." He will have little choice but to wash Serbia with him. Indeed, just as it was only Nixon who could travel to China, perhaps it is only Nikolic who can at long last help Serbia navigate its own path towards repentance.

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Tags: nationalism, party, politics, post-communism, transition

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