Tomislav Nikolic, the former head of Serbia's Radical Party and loyal ally to its founder, indicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj, has until recently worn the brand of an ardent nationalist. But Nikolic has parted company with Seselj and the Radicals, and now describes himself as a "moderate" nationalist. In an exclusive interview with Ljudmila Cvetkovic of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service, Nikolic talks about his new political outlook, the fate of a Greater Serbia, and his continued conviction that former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic must never end up in The Hague.
RFE/RL: In early September, you split with the opposition Radicals, the largest single party in the parliament, after party hard-liners refused to back a key deal with the European Union. Since then, people have begun characterizing you as a modern, right-leaning politician, a reformer, and a pragmatist. Is this how you'd describe yourself?
Tomislav Nikolic: What's being said about me is simply one part of my political being, the part that I was able to express within the Serbian Radical Party. I believe that in the future it will become even more clear that I am democratically inclined. I tried to demonstrate that in my appearances as a Serbian Radical, but now there is nothing to prevent me from showing that side.
What has not changed, on the other hand, is my concern for Serbia, which now faces threats on several fronts -- above all, threats to its sovereignty, and then on the social and economic plane. So you may also call me a moderate nationalist. The sort of nationalist that all citizens of Serbia should be, a nationalist who at this critical moment is worried about his country. It's no longer necessary to worry first and foremost about the Serbian people; not in the sense in which that was necessary during the wars, when the [Serbian] people were under attack in all the regions where they happened to live. Now is the time to worry about all the citizens of Serbia, and the Serbian state.
Unfortunately, I wasn't successful in reforming the Serbian Radical Party sufficiently to make it acceptable to the majority, and to take over the functions of government. I was constantly impeded in my efforts because it did not suit Vojislav Seselj that the party should be in power while he was in The Hague. Even when he was finally ready to accept the possibility of a coalition, he insisted that someone from the other party should form a government, rather than one of his own people.
RFE/RL: You're in the course of forming your own party, the Serbian Progressive Party. Part of its platform puts forward the possibility of Serbia and Republika Srpska forming a single state, as long as it is done peacefully and reflects the will of the people. How should this possibility be interpreted?
Nikolic: Everything I used to say as a member of the Serbian Radical Party remains with me, because I've always refused to discuss things about which I have no opinion, or to talk about them in a way that contradicts the way I think -- unless I've been ordered to do otherwise. Republika Srpska is an entity within a country, Bosnia-Herzegovina, that simply cannot survive. That much is obvious. It's kept on life support by the fact that Serbs are outvoted, as well as by vetoes and foreign representatives.
Nations can be reconciled, but entities never. Republika Srpska cannot enter a union where it would once again be outvoted. In any case, how can anyone justify Kosovo's independence, while Republika Srpska -- which became a state as a result of the Dayton accords -- is being asked to give up all the attributes of statehood and to merge with something it already had been part of until 1992, in an arrangement that didn't work in the first place?
That's why I'm convinced that the citizens of Republika Srpska will one day have the right to self-determination. All of this can be achieved through a referendum; it would be self-determination, and the UN Charter guarantees all of this, and so I have the right to speak about it. I envisage Republika Srpska having not just close ties to Serbia, but some type of union with it. It would be silly to have two Serbian states next to each other.
The only question is whether that union would be a federation, a confederation, a unitary state, or some type of state in which the Serbian people would finally satisfy their state-building ambitions -- in all the territories in which it had once had a state, and had always been in the majority.
RFE/RL: Does that part of your party platform indicate that you haven't completely given up on the ideology of the Serbian Radical Party? Are you in fact still ideologically linked to the Radicals?
Nikolic: I don't think so. Even the Radicals know that that part of the program was written in 1990, when that particular scenario was possible and even realistic, and when Serbian armies -- the army of Krajina, the army of Republika Srpska, or the Yugoslav National Army -- were in fact controlling those borders.
Today we're only asking for the UN to recognize Kosovo as a part of Serbia, and within the borders already recognized by the UN. Croatia is already a UN member even with the Republic of Serbian Krajina, and so I cannot ask for Kosovo to be given to us, while the Serbian Republic of Krajina is taken from Croatia at the same time. I'm a man of principle. But I'm entitled to say all those things that we mentioned in our program: that we will never have good relations with Croatia as long as Serbs are prevented from claiming their property there, and until their safe return is guaranteed.
So if you ask me -- and I've tried to avoid this questions for years -- whether there should be a border that lets us take in the parts of Croatia where Serbs used to live, I would tell you that is my dream. I wish it had become a reality; I would love to live in such a country. But that dream will have to wait for another day, for a different balance of power in the world, and a different idea of a people's right to self-determination. One day we will also have that right, I'm convinced, and we will exercise that right first of all in Republika Srpska.
RFE/RL: You have twice been a serious contender for the Serbian presidency, in 2004 and again in 2008. Both times, the West appeared to rule you out as a potential partner. Now, however, there are rumors the West is looking at you as someone they might be able to work with. What's your reaction to that?
Nikolic: The only reason I lost the  election was because the West has enormous influence here. Nor am I happy with the way the West is behaving at the moment. Yes, we'd like to have dealings with [them]. But we are also people -- we are a nation, we're a state, and we're not going to kneel in front of them and look on approvingly as they take pieces of our territory. If that kind of behavior stops, then there's no reason we can't cooperate with the West.
We can get projects, capital, and investments from the West. In the East, we have markets, raw materials, and energy. That's the program I promoted for six years with the Serbian Radical Party, and no one complained. And now [the Radicals] accuse me of being a British spy, and then the British ambassador issues a statement thanking me for everything I've done. By doing that, he's of course making clear that there's no way I'm a spy, because otherwise he'd keep it a secret, he wouldn't reveal it so blatantly. But still, the two things don't sit well together, and it reflects badly on me, given that I would never think about being under anyone's influence, or take orders from anyone.
I'm prepared to talk to anyone. But such talks would not be supply and demand. I just want to make sure that the Russian Federation knows -- as the Russian ambassador himself understood perfectly -- that this division of the Radical Party has not made us enemies of Russia. I also want the EU to be aware that this division doesn't mean the opposite, that the breakaway half of the Radical Party has become a servant of the EU.
In this sense, nothing has changed. My stance toward the EU is the same now as it was when I led the Radical Party, and that is how I intend to lead the Progressive Party. The only thing missing will be the obstacles coming from The Hague. [Editor's note: This is a presumed reference to Seselj, who ordered Radical Party members to defy Nikolic on the question of whether to support a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU.]
RFE/RL: You and Seselj continue to exchange harsh accusations. But it seems as though you haven't distanced yourself from him in every respect. Do you still believe that Seselj is defending Serbia's national interests in The Hague?
Nikolic: To distance myself from him, I'd have to distance myself from my own self. How can I turn my back on the fact that we worked together closely for 18 years? I won't do it. It's not as if I was opposed to what we were doing but just kept it to myself. I won't say that. I can't. It simply wasn't like that.
RFE/RL: What about his policies during the 1990s, including everything that he stands accused of in The Hague -- war crimes, and crimes against humanity?
Nikolic: No matter how hard I try, I can't find any justification for a struggle as bitter as the one being waged by the Hague tribunal against Vojislav Seselj. If you already have killers, and it's been proven how many people they killed, and how many murders they ordered and organized -- and if people like that are being released from The Hague after two-three years, or even acquitted in some cases -- then it's impossible to keep Vojislav Seselj behind bars for six years for some story about how his speeches might have inspired someone, how he roused the people to rebellion, or that he took part in some criminal conspiracy in which people don't have to know or communicate with each other as long as they have the same ideas.
Vojislav Seselj is not a war criminal. Even he can't provoke me to say something bad about him -- except those things, which I've already mentioned, that have come between us -- even when he says that I am a traitor, that I lack moral credibility, and that I'm finished in every sense. Which really surprised me, by the way.
RFE/RL: Let us go back to The Hague for a moment. A precondition for signing the Stabilization and Association Agreement, which you support and which was the source of your disagreement with Seselj, is the handover of those who still remain on The Hague's most-wanted list, former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic and former Serbian Croat leader Goran Hadzic. Once, during a Radical Party press conference, you sent out a message to Mladic urging him not to surrender. In an interview with our radio in January 2008, you stated that Mladic was not in Serbia, and that if he was, he would be arrested. What kind of message would you send him now?
Nikolic: The same one. I'm terribly saddened by the fact that even Radovan Karadzic has found himself in The Hague, and he knows very well that he should not be there. That's the only way in which Republika Srpska could be undermined: if both [Karadzic and Mladic] were to end up in The Hague and were found guilty, and then so-called international law would be used to destroy Republika Srpska as a state created through genocide and war crimes. Such a state cannot survive.
If we live to see Radovan Karadzic, the former president of Republika Srpska, found guilty of genocide, and then Ratko Mladic, the commander in chief of the Republika Srpska armed forces, also found guilty of genocide, it will be the same as if Republika Srpska itself was found guilty. Both of them, as responsible people, should have known that.
It's one thing to hide from the authorities, but really, I naively believed that neither of them was in Serbia, especially Karadzic. Even the West wasn't claiming that Karadzic was here. In Mladic's case I was convinced...well, there's no juicier morsel for [Serbian President] Boris Tadic than to be able to hand over both Karadzic and Mladic. And so I was convinced that as long as Boris Tadic gets to decide who will be arrested that there was no way they were in Serbia, since he hadn't arrested them.
And then there's that stabilization agreement, although I'm convinced that they would have invented a new precondition -- the recognition of Kosovo -- that can't be fulfilled. I'll monitor what's happening very carefully. There are some indications and rumors in the media about the possibility that Mladic will be arrested, and when things like that start, the truth is never far away.
Who knows? Perhaps he is in Serbia after all. Maybe they're just waiting for the right moment to extradite him. I really don't know. I hope it's not true. But I can't accept that someone should put their own life ahead of the country. An ordinary person can say "I don't care," but a leader doesn't have that luxury.
RFE/RL: What are you implying?
Nikolic: I want to say that he must not allow himself to end up in The Hague, and both he and Hadzic are aware of that. If I were in their place, I would simply make sure that I never make it to The Hague. It's as simple as that.
RFE/RL: Please correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't you once say that Ratko Mladic should kill himself?
Nikolic: I know what you're trying to do -- to make me say it.
RFE/RL: And is that what you were implying, with your remarks just now?
Nikolic: I've told you already, and I won't say anything else, just in case someone quotes you on that later. I will only repeat that he should make sure he never gets to The Hague.
RFE/RL: If Mladic is arrested, can we expect you to organize the same kinds of protests you had after Karadzic's arrest in July?
Nikolic: Yes, certainly. Although the Radical Party will probably be under instructions not to do anything together with us, and that would require two separate protests -- which is impossible. Perhaps the Radicals should take the lead, and if they organize something, we won't. If they don't, then we'll take the initiative.
translated by Gordana Knezevic