Most polls heading into Serbia's early parliamentary and local elections on May 11 had given the advantage to the right-wing Radicals. The party had good reason to be hopeful: the Radicals' front man, Tomislav Nikolic, had just come within a whisker of claiming Serbia's top government post in presidential elections in February. Pro-Western incumbent Boris Tadic needed a runoff to defeat Nikolic, and even then the 100,000-vote margin was uncomfortably thin for many observers.
The presidential vote came just two weeks before the Albanian-majority province of Kosovo declared independence; during the campaign, Nikolic was able to capitalize on his image as the reigning defender of Kosovo as a historic, integral, and permanent part of Serbia.
Since then, however, the landscape has changed. Few Serbs would suggest the door has been closed altogether on Kosovo and a romantic fixation on a 600-year-old battle. But they might acknowledge that, in the meantime, other, more practical, doors have been opened -- the kind that put bread on the table.
As Nikolic and other nationalists would have it, the people of Serbia faced a stark choice between two irreconcilable options on May 11: on the one hand, a future with Europe; on the other, an unyielding commitment to Kosovo. Undaunted, the majority of Serbian voters lent their support to the pro-European democratic coalition led by the Democratic Party and its leader, Tadic, who himself has suggested the Kosovo question is far from settled.
The Serbian president, who had headed into the vote watching the same polls as everyone else, could barely hide his surprise as the first unofficial results were announced in Belgrade. (Television anchors in the Serbian capital at times appeared similarly perplexed, having prepped for a Radical victory.)
"This is a great victory for Serbia," Tadic told a cheering crowd. "This is a great victory for Serbian democracy; this is a great victory for our European future!" At Democratic Party headquarters, a large bottle of champagne was opened to celebrate the thoroughly unexpected advantage of 10 percentage points over the Radicals.
A morose Nikolic, meanwhile, avoided the media, emerging only on May 12 with the defiant prediction that Tadic would not be able to form a government and that, perhaps in the end, the cabinet would comprise what many expected in the first place -- a coalition led by Radicals and the Democratic Party of Serbia of acting Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, whose fallout with Tadic over the Kosovo question prompted the early elections in the first place.
"We will either have a Radical, Kostunica, and Socialist cabinet or there will be no government, and we will be heading for new elections," Nikolic announced in grave tones. "The creation of a government without President Tadic's Democratic Party is a likely possibility." And he may be right.
With the champagne toasts behind them, the pro-European parties now have to step back and do the math. To form a government, they will inevitably need to forge an alliance with one of the right-wing parties close to Nikolic, or with the Socialists, the party once led by Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic.
The wounded Radicals will not be a pliable parliamentary group and they may look for any opportunity to stage provocations of various sorts. They may indeed push Serbia toward a new election, just as Nikolic predicted. So it is up to the pro-European forces to play their cards right and to gently tilt the balance of power in their divided country to their favor.
It's a delicate moment. But that didn't prevent a great sigh of relief from echoing through the capitals of Europe and among many of Serbia's neighbors. Ahead of the vote, the Radicals had threatened to declare null and void all documents signed with the EU until Kosovo was recognized as an integral part of Serbia. Many in the Balkans had worried that a Radicals win would have put their own European futures in peril.
Even with Tadic's surprise win, unanimous agreement on Kosovo remains a distant proposition. Washington-based Balkans expert Martin Sletzinger says no one in Europe expects a "dramatic change" in the Serbian position toward Kosovo. Rather, what's anticipated is a "slow evolution toward a solution."
These elections have made a few things clear. The value of the Kosovo card is falling. Kostunica is no longer a kingmaker, but he retains considerable influence within the army and the secret service -- two structures that have changed little since serving as the pillars of the Milosevic regime. As for the late dictator's former party, the Socialists are enjoying their best results since his death -- something analysts attribute to the fact that Milosevic supporters, after spending the past several elections at home, are finally venturing out to the ballot box.
The next show in Belgrade is hardly less contentious: the Eurovision song contest kicks off later this month. As the region continues its trip through the looking glass, one can only conclude that the Balkans has its Wonderland and there's no doubt its name is Serbia.