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Nikolic At Center Of Serbia's Nationalist Meltdown

Tomislav Nikolic, a Radical no more?
Tomislav Nikolic, a Radical no more?
Seven months ago, few Serbs could have predicted that Tomislav Nikolic would attempt to redefine himself as a political moderate.

But in a year that has seen an independence declaration in Kosovo, the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, and a slow-but-steady show of support from the European Union, a political makeover for the onetime Radical may be less of a surprise than it seems.

As 2008 began, Nikolic was the public face of what might be called "old Serbia" -- a firebrand nationalist running for the presidency on a platform that emphasized stronger ties with Russia, strong EU skepticism, and a refusal to let Kosovo escape from the Serbian fold.

In January, he won 40 percent in first-round voting against his "new Serbia" opponent, the pro-Western incumbent, Boris Tadic.

Even then, however, Nikolic showed signs of mellowing. His once-angry rhetoric had grown more temperate during the presidential campaign. Gone were the baggy gray suits, as well as the lapel pins bearing the likeness of his mentor, Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, currently on trial at The Hague tribunal for war crimes allegedly committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia in the 1990s.

Break With Tradition

Most astonishing of all, Nikolic had begun to accommodate the notion of warmer ties with the European Union, suggesting in campaign speeches that Serbia could act as a bridge between East and West. And that, Nikolic suggests, is where the trouble began.
Vojislav Seselj continues to call the shots from his cell in The Hague.

"I was criticized for the first time when, in the middle of the campaign, I said that we had to be open to both the East and the West," Nikolic said at a recent press conference. "At that point, I was told that it could only be East."

The person doing the telling was none other than Seselj, whose relocation to a holding cell in The Hague has not infringed on his fundamental control of the party he created in 1990. Seselj and Nikolic had been lockstep allies for years.

Nikolic served as Seselj's best man during his wedding to his wife, Jadranka; more recently, he even briefly toyed with the idea of appointing Seselj as his prime minister if his presidential bid proved successful.

But after Nikolic's second-round loss to Tadic in February, and the successful formation of a pro-Western government coalition (including the Socialists of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, clearly undergoing a political transformation of their own), Nikolic sought to soften the Radicals' stance on EU integration.

Backing The EU Path

Specifically, Nikolic urged the Radicals -- the largest single party in the parliament and a formidable opposition force, with 77 of 250 seats -- to join the ruling coalition in backing a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU, a deal seen as a key step toward EU membership. Serbian officials had hoped a show of unified support would help bolster their standing with Brussels, and Nikolic's decision was seen as a breakthrough in the usually divisive world of Serbian politics.

Seselj, however, disagreed, calling on party hard-liners to abstain from a vote backing the SAA. On September 5, Nikolic and a small band of loyalists resigned their party posts in protest. Serbian lawmakers successfully ratified the SAA four days later, but both the Radicals and Nikolic's splinter group were absent from the vote.

Nikolic, who has since moved to form his own pro-European group, Forward Serbia, says Seselj's stranglehold on the Radicals may prove their undoing.

"When I look at the Radical Party now I don't even recognize it," he said. "And [Seselj] has forgotten what he told me at the airport as he was leaving for The Hague. He told me to run the party and not to listen to him. He said his perception would be twisted. And it's that perception that is doing the decision making for party members now."

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

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