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Serbia: The Rebranding Of Tomislav Nikolic

Nikolic came out on top in the first round (AFP) He's smiling more and sporting smarter suits. His family features prominently in campaign ads. He's speaking in a calm, reassuring cadence. And he's even trying to make nice to the European Union -- sort of.

Tomislav Nikolic, the hard-line presidential candidate from Serbia's ultranationalist Radical Party has undergone a wholesale rebranding. Gone is the fire-breathing rabble-rouser of old -- the man who would rant and rave against the West, threaten his political opponents, and generally make a spectacle of himself.

In his place is the new, improved Nikolic: a calm, sage, and kindly uncle pledging to set things right for this troubled and divided country.

"There is no doubt, if you look at the TV commercials, that he has been a kinder, gentler Tomislav Nikolic," says James Lyon, a Balkan expert with the International Crisis Group. "Occasionally he will snap, but by and large he's done quite a good job of sticking with his script."

That script, which local press reports claim was crafted by American consultants, calls for him to tone down his rhetoric over Kosovo, distance himself from his more controversial nationalist allies, and present himself as a nonthreatening alternative to Serbia's beleaguered pro-Western incumbent, President Boris Tadic.

During a televised debate with Tadic last week, the 55-year-old Nikolic accused the president of dividing Serbia and presented himself as the candidate of change and reconciliation.

"I want to make peace in Serbia," Nikolic said, before launching into an assault on Tadic. "You can make it hostile, divide us into groups -- first-class citizens who know everything, who know that they should vote for you; and then the rest of us who are poor, miserable, humiliated victims of your transition, and who are going to vote for change, for a better Serbia."

So far, the repackaging seems to be yielding results. Nikolic was the top finisher in the first round of Serbia's presidential election, winning nearly 40 percent of the vote to Tadic's 35 percent. Polls ahead of the decisive second round on February 3 showed the two in a virtual dead heat.

Jugoslav Cosic, host of the political talk show Poligraf on B92 Television, says Nikolic's strategy is to pull in enough swing voters who are disillusioned with Tadic -- but would normally be afraid of supporting a nationalist candidate. "He's not going to persuade most of the people," Cosic said. "Most of the people will not believe in this magnificent change. But the real question is: is he going to persuade enough to win the elections?"

Farewell To Lapel Pins

There's a sense of deja vu to the February 3 runoff. Four years ago, after all, Nikolic also beat Tadic in a first-round vote before ultimately losing in the second round.

In working to ensure that history doesn't repeat itself, Nikolic has made many changes to his image -- many of them small, but symbolically significant.

Until recently, for example, Nikolic was fond of wearing a lapel pin featuring Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj. An ally of the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, Seselj is currently on trial at the Hague tribunal for war crimes allegedly committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia in the 1990s.

Early in his campaign, Nikolic said that he would consider making Seselj his prime minister. He has since retracted this, and those once-ubiquitous pins have disappeared from his suits.

"By and large, all imagery of Seselj has been absent from this campaign," Lyon said. "Seselj has been mentioned sort of as a de rigueur exercise here and there, but there doesn't seem to be much excitement in it. It is sort of done pro forma."

Nikolic and the Radical Party have been consistently able to win about a third of the vote in parliamentary and presidential elections during the past eight years. That's enough to make them an influential -- and many would say disruptive -- force in Serbian politics, but well shy of what they need to take power.

But this election, voters are in a surly mood. Nationalists are angry about Kosovo's looming independence. Liberals are disappointed with the slow pace of integration into the EU. Working-class voters are hurting from a painful and protracted transition since the Milosevic regime was toppled in 2000. Young people are worried about the future. And nearly everybody is disgusted with what is seen as widespread corruption and economic inertia.

To pull in enough of these disgruntled voters, Nikolic needed to make himself look like a plausible president.

The incumbent, Boris Tadic

"For Serbs the visual of a president is very important," Lyon said. "In the campaign, Mr. Nikolic has been presenting himself very much as a serious, solid, respectable statesman, which is something Serbs desperately want out of their president. They want to have a president who they can look at and say this man looks presidential."

And it isn't just Nikolic's outward appearance that has changed. He has been widely seen as seeking to bring Serbia closer to Russia -- in contrast to Tadic, who would prefer to steer the country into the EU. Early in the campaign, Nikolic even proposed giving Russia military bases on Serbian territory. (He has since backed off that statement.)

Nikolic now says he is offering a middle path between Moscow and Brussels. During the January 30 debate, for example, he said that "Serbia will never be a Russian province, but it's also never going to be a European colony."

His transformation has been aided by Serbia's moderate nationalist prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, who has refrained from backing either candidate but has mischievously remarked that of the two, he can't tell who's more pro-European.

Professional Strategy

Nikolic's campaign has been so slick that it's sparked rumors in Belgrade about who's really behind its strategy -- and provoked adamant denials from one U.S. firm that it's behind the new and improved Radical candidate.

"He hasn't been my client, he isn't my client, he will not be my client. Nor will his political party, nor anyone involved in his campaign," said Jack Quinn, the co-chairman of the Washington-based public relations firm Quinn Gillespie and Associates, in an interview with RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service.

Quinn Gillespie -- which lists the Republic of Macedonia and Republika Srpska, one of two political entities that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina, among its clients -- was named by the Serbian daily "Blic" as advising the Nikolic campaign.

The report, citing anonymous sources, said the firm advised Nikolic to "be softer on numerous issues and not to raise tensions over Kosovo and the EU." Widely picked up by Serbia's broadcast media, the report also said Nikolic was advised to "appear as often as possible surrounded by members of his family, avoid mentioning Vojislav Seselj at any cost, and remove badges with Seselj's image."

Regardless of who is behind the campaign, analysts say it has been hugely successful at drawing new voters into Nikolic's camp. Dragoljub Ackovic, a 56-year-old journalist and Roma rights activist, told RFE/RL in Belgrade that despite a history of voting for democratic parties, this time he will be casting his ballot for Nikolic.

"I decided this time to vote for the Radical Party because our so-called democratic parties were giving us a lot of promises, but delivered nothing," said Ackovic, adding that his decision was influenced by the presence of a Romany candidate on the Radicals' party list for the 2007 parliamentary vote. "This means that democrats are telling us one thing and doing another. So I will vote this time for the party that is doing what it says it will do."

Cosic of B92 adds that Nikolic has even succeeded in winning over many young voters, once a key part of Tadic's base." There are professionals behind this strategy, and day by day it shows how good they are," he said. "They have reached more people than I would say even Nikolic even dreamed of. They have done a good job. Is it going to be good enough? We will see on Sunday."

Cause For Alarm?

So does any of this offer any clue how Nikolic would govern should he win? Is the new Nikolic just a cosmetic makeover, a clever marketing trick? Would he move Serbia into Russia's orbit? Would he stir up trouble in neighboring countries like Bosnia-Herzegovina?

Some analysts point out that the Radical Party has been in government at the local level in Serbia for sometime now, and given little cause for alarm.

"The Radical Party in real life, when it is out there in municipal government, in elected government, seems to be a somewhat more moderate version than what we had come to expect in the Milosevic era," Lyon says. "The Radicals have also taken power in Novi Sad and in a large number of municipalities throughout the country. And many of these are multiethnic municipalities with large minority populations. And in almost every instance, the Radicals have been able to create coalition governments with minority partners and gotten along very well with them."

But Lyon and other observers point out that how politicians behave in municipal government, which is dominated by local concerns like trash collection and parking, is not necessarily a reliable indicator of how it would act nationally, on weighty issues like European integration, arresting war crimes suspects, and dealing with the future of Kosovo.

On Kosovo, Nikolic still staunchly opposes statehood for the ethnic-Albanian-majority breakaway province, which is expected to declare independence from Serbia days after the election. But he has considerably toned down his rhetoric.

In the past, Nikolic had threatened to break off premembership talks with the EU over the issue -- and even talked of using force to keep Kosovo inside Serbia. Now, Nikolic says he can reason with Brussels.

"We have to talk straight with the EU. After seven years of their cooperation with Mr. Tadic's regime, what is stopping them from respecting us as a state and as a people?" he said in the debate.

He added that he was open to European integration, albeit on his terms.

"I have never asked for Serbia to go in one direction. In this campaign I have mentioned several roads. There are at least two -- one, completely inclined toward the Russian Federation, and the other, on which we can find many obstacles," Nikolic said. "These obstacles should be removed in cooperation with the European Union -- that's the road leading toward the EU."

The obstacles Nikolic is referring to, of course, are EU demands that Serbia arrest wanted war crimes indictees like Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. The EU is unlikely to withdraw those conditions, and a Serbia with Nikolic as president and moderate nationalist Vojislav Kostunica as prime minister is just as unlikely to adhere to them.

(RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service contributed to this report.)

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RFE/RL Balkan Report


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