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Update No: 180 - (26/07/12)

Major changes on the political landscape have occurred in Serbia over the past two months. On May 20, Tomislav Nikolic, a former leader of the ultranationalist Radical party, whose last spell in government was under Milosevic, took observers by surprise by winning a presidential run-off, defeating Western-leaning incumbent Boris Tadic. 'Inconclusive' parliamentary elections were held on May 6, in which Nikolic's Progressive party and Tadic's Union Democratic Party gained the most votes, but neither received sufficient votes to govern alone. Ivica Dadic's Socialists came third. Six weeks of deliberations followed. Whilst Dadic initially showed willingness to form a coalition with the EU-oriented Democrats, following the presidential run off, the party expressed their preference for Nikolic's Progressives. This marks the first time the Socialists-Nationalist axis has returned since ultra-nationalist autocrat ruler Slobodan Milosevic, who led the Socialists, was ousted in a popular revolt in 2000.

The election of Tomislav Nikolic as President was has hardly proved uncontroversial. Known primarily as an ultra-nationalist, Nikolic was a protégé of Vojislav Seselj, the defiant founder of the Serbian Radical party, who is now awaiting trials for war crimes at the Hague. Whilst Nikolic split from Sesekj in 2008, and subsequently recast himself as a conservative who fully supports EU integration, his brief tenure as president has been marked by scandals so far. Nikolic's interpretation of the Srebenica massacre of 1995, a highly sensitive matter for all those who recollect the wars of the 1990s, has proved scandalous and provoked outrage. On June 8, Nikolic was quoted as saying that "my compatriots committed a horrible crime [at Srebrenica] and I will never justify that." But he nonetheless supported the stance of the Serbian parliament when they removed the word "genocide" from their 2010 declaration on the massacre. He apparently reiterated this point a second time in later weeks. Recognized by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the EU as genocide, the murder of 8,000 men and boys in the UN safe haven is highly inflammatory. The Muslim chairman of Bosnia's tripartite presidency Bakir Izetbegovic, automatically condemned the statement. Nikolic added insult to injury when he said that he would not attend the annual commemoration of the massacre on July 11, unlike Tadic who made a point of going each year in an attempt to demonstrate a desire for reconciliation and peace. European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde tackled Nikolic's revisionism on June 4 by stating "the European Union strongly rejects any intention to rewrite history."

It is not only the Bosniak community who have taken offence at Nikolic's comments. He also angered Croatia when he stated that Vukovar, a Croatian town destroyed by Serb forces during Croatia's war of independence in the 1990s, was in fact a Serbian city. In an interview with German journalist Michael Martens in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," he also spoke with nostalgia about the notion of a "Greater Serbia", the idea underpinning Milosevic's aggressive ultra-nationalist policies and the bloodshed of the early 90s. The new President referred to "greater Serbia" as his "unrealized dream". He stated, "My dreams, from the time when Yugoslavia collapsed and decisions were made about who would live where, unfortunately were not realized. And, as things stand, they will never be realized." Croatian President Ivo Josipovic replied tersely, "If Mr. Nikolic's statement means a return to the ideas of the '90s, I can say in the name of all Croatian citizens that those ideas will not be realized." Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic went further and called Nikolic's statements "shocking and absolutely unacceptable." Meanwhile, there was swift denial on the part of Nikolic's office about the comments, which were deemed a "treacherous lie. The policy of Tomislav Nikolic will be to build peace and stability in the region." Nikolic, who some have suggested is much more Russia-leaning than he would like to advertise, also angered Georgia by suggesting that Belgrade may join the small group of countries which recognize the independence of Georgia's two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It was scarcely surprising that his inauguration ceremony on June 11 was boycotted by the leaders of Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia and Macedonia. Meanwhile EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele, who did attend the inauguration, urged Serbia to remain on the path to EU membership.

Another move by Nikolic which raised eyebrows in the international community was his decision to appoint fellow nationalist Ivica Dacic as Prime Minister on June 28. The date is highly significant for nationalists as it is both St. Vitus Day for Orthodox Christians, and the date of the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, when Serbian forces were defeated by an invading army of Ottoman Turks. This date has been seen as integral to the mythology of Serb nationhood and a rallying point for those who wish to assert the integrity of Serb identity. Indeed in 1989 Milosevic played upon the emotive significance of the date by marking the anniversary with a provocative speech, which has been viewed in retrospect as one of the catalysts for the wars of the 1990s. Dacic's former political alliances have been viewed as suspect by liberals. He heads the Serbian Socialist Party that Milosevic founded and served as the late leader's spokesman in the 1990s. Observers were disappointed to see Boris Tadic, who had initially been tipped to become the Prime Minister, ousted, as his presence would have attenuated the nationalist tendencies embodied by the new ruling tandem. Nonetheless, Dadic, like Nikolic, has pledged a commitment to the European future of the country. He told the press: "I'm not interested in heavenly Serbia. I am interested in how Serbia lives today and how it will live tomorrow," Dacic said. "I will respect our past, but I am more interested in the future. This government -- and myself as prime minister -- will not allow a return to the 1990s. Had I wanted to do that, we would have done that over the last year. Anyway, all that I said and did was granted legitimacy in the [May parliamentary] elections."


Nonetheless the timing of Dadic's appointment reflects a worrying reversion to type, say observers, particularly as it places the Kosovo issue (which is the sticking point in Serbia's hopes to reach the EU) firmly at the heart of Serbia's political affairs. Serbia's refusal to recognize majority Albanian Kosovo as an independent state has marred all attempts to further negotiations on EU accession. The dispute unfortunately also gives way to frequent scenes of actual violence. The aforementioned anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje saw ugly scenes break out between Kosovar police and Serbian nationalists who attempted to visit the site of the battle. Around 70 Serbs carrying banners reading "Kosovo is Serbia" tried to reach the site. Travelling in two buses towards Gazimestan, the police decided to stop them and send them back to Serbia as they were "very aggressive, drunk and were provoking both police and citizens". Clashes subsequently broke out, and Serbs accused the police of using live rounds on them, which, they claim, left one Serb fighting for his life. Prime Minister Ivaca Dacic quickly denounced the incident saying it was deleterious to the process of assuring peace and stability in Kosovo and pointed blame at international peacekeeping troops "who have an obligation to preserve peace and security ... All future talks (with Kosovo) must be based on the preservation of security." Peacekeeping troops certainly have their work cut out for them: on June 19, two grenades were thrown into the NATO barracks at the Brnjak crossing point. On June 1 it was reported that NATO-led troops clashed with ethnic Serb protesters who were trying to prevent NATO from removing a roadblock in Kosovo's Serb-dominated north, near the town of Aztecan. At least four Serbs and two NATO soldiers were injured. Clashes along the border are a relatively regular occurrence and the presence of peacekeepers resented by the Serbian locals. Vegan’s mayor, Drags Melodic, told Reuters that FOR had refused to allow Serb medical personnel to help wounded Serbs, and said: "A commander told me they have the authority to use deadly force on anyone who throws a stone or uses a weapon."

Unfortunately for the new administration, if it does wish to continue on the path to EU accession, having become an official candidate in March, progress must be made on the Kosovo issue. After meeting Nikola on June 11, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said the EU needs "clarity, transparency and predictability" from Serbia. He added that "One key priority is standing between Serbia and accession negotiations [...] that key priority [is a] visible and sustainable improvement in relations with Kosovo." EU President Herman van Rompuy seconded this thought when, on President Nikolic's first official visit to Brussels, he called upon him to "to play a positive and constructive role in words and deeds." Nikolic meanwhile said he was assured that the EU "will not demand from us to recognize Kosovo officially." Belgrade has so far made no change to the tradition of refusing to attend meetings where Kosovar leaders are present. The Serbian leadership did not surface at a regional summit in the Croatian town of Dubrovnik in a stand against Kosovan independence, making it the fifth year running. On June 15, At a Belgrade meeting of the South East European Cooperation Process (SEECP), a body set up in 1996 to promote member's EU integration efforts, the new Serbian president said his country would try to normalize ties with Kosovo but would never recognize its independence. As if proving the point made by Van Rompuy that there is a difference between word and deed, the SEECP meeting ended without a joint declaration as Serbia and Albania disagreed over the possible inclusion and representation of Kosovo in the regional grouping.

Nonetheless, Serbia continues to show its dedication to EU accession by bringing to justice of war criminals from the turbulent days of the 1990s. On June 19, Serbia's war crimes court convicted four former police officers of crimes committed against civilians during the 1991-95 war in Croatia and sentenced them to up to 20 years in prison. The four men, all Serbian nationals, were convicted on charges of killing at least six Croatian civilians in October 1991 in Beli Manastir in eastern Croatia. One week later, the court sentenced 14 former Serbian soldiers to prison terms ranging between four and 20 years for the killing of 70 Croatian villagers in 1991. Indeed the past months also saw Nikolic's former mentor Vojislav Seselj sentenced to two years' imprisonment after he refused to remove the names of several witnesses, granted anonymity from the court, from his website. This is the third time Seselj, who faces charges of inciting Serb atrocities, has been convicted of contempt of court.

Whilst Serbia has been praised for its turnaround in bring war criminals to justice, with a momentum that has considerably sped up the state's EU accession hopes, many fear that the new leadership, despite its apparent conversion to the West, may drag the country backwards into a quagmire of ugly nationalism. Some have offered cautious praise of Dadic, who apparently accounted for himself quite credibly as interior minister in the Democrat-led government. During this period, he reportedly played an important role in securing visa-free travel for Serbs in the EU and initiated a crackdown on organized crime and corruption. The problems Serbia faces as a state are not limited to a sense of nationhood readily exploited by politicians, in a way that proved deadly in the 1990s. It also faces economic problems, in the form of high unemployment and a spiralling budget deficit. An emphasis on previous political dynamics and anti-progressive rhetoric not only puts the country at risk of rolling backwards but averts its eyes from the structural and economic issues which affect the daily lives of citizens.

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