It landed like a bombshell: The current Serbian president, Tomislav Nikolic, has not given up on reelection despite having seemingly stepped aside for his party colleague.
The news, coming just one day after Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic announced his own presidential bid, was initially reported by Russian state-controlled media outlet Sputnik. Both men's ruling Progressive Party (SNS) was widely expected to endorse Vucic on February 17.
Incumbent Nikolic's office would neither confirm nor deny his intention to run for a second term in the voting, expected in early to mid-April.
"I am still waiting to reach an agreement with Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic," Nikolic told the Belgrade daily Kurir.
Regional TV channel N1 reported that Nikolic had written to Vucic asking to be given a leading position in the Progressive Party and in the new Serbian government in exchange for endorsing Vucic's presidential aspirations.
Nikolic has never made a secret of his desire for a second term, and he previously expected the Serbian Progressive Party -- which he co-founded and led until 2012, when he left to assume the presidency -- to back him in the presidential election. Because it came well after indications that the Progressives would back Vucic, Nikolic's sudden hint at a bid for reelection was interpreted by some as a way to put pressure on Vucic and thus raise the price of the incumbent's withdrawal.
Moscow Keeping A Close Eye
Russian newspaper Kommersant has suggested that Nikolic would have had the support of Moscow but that "Vucic has ruined his plans." Under the headline Serbia Changing Its Presidential Orientation (a play on words to conjure up thoughts of sexual orientation, even in Russian), the paper speculates that change at the top in Belgrade is inevitable -- and goes on to insist that the best choice would be Foreign Minister and Socialist Party leader Ivica Dacic. According to Kommersant, "that would represent some kind of compensation in Moscow's eyes for the departure of Nikolic, since Dacic is considered to be no less pro-Russian than Nikolic."
On December 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a letter to Nikolic, delivered by Russia's ambassador in Belgrade, Aleksandr Chepurin. Belgrade media reported that Chepurin told Nikolic that Moscow would keep a close eye on the 2017 presidential campaign in Serbia, citing its interest in stability in the strategic partnership between the two countries.
Reacting to Putin's purported letter, Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) leader Cedomir Jovanovic said that it constituted "unacceptable interference in Serbian domestic issues."
'Stab In The Back'
The unconfirmed reports of Nikolic's candidacy provoked an avalanche of reactions in Serbia.
Pro-government analyst Vuk Stankovic declared that Nikolic's potential decision to run for a second term as Serbian president would be a "stab in the back" for Vucic. But he also indicated that he did not think Nikolic's challenge would succeed.
"There is no doubt that [Nikolic's] intention to run is a political assault on the Serbian Progressive Party and [an attack on] Aleksandar Vucic personally, but it also goes against Nikolic's own statements because, until yesterday, he had been insisting that he would do nothing in this election cycle to harm the interests of either Vucic or the SNS," Stankovic reportedly told Blic.
Vucic would not immediately comment on the reports of Nikolic's sudden about-face. Dacic did not hold back, though, calling Nikolic's move "shameful" -- if the reports of his reelection bid were true.
On the other hand, the leader of Radical party, Vojislav Seselj -- a former friend and party colleague of both Vucic and Nikolic -- has welcomed Nikolic's reported decision. Seselj has been a vocal critic of Nikolic but has suggested that turmoil inside the Progressive Party means the result is no longer a foregone conclusion; many have expected Vucic to win in a landslide, but Nikolic's candidacy -- dividing the Progressive Party vote -- could make a second round more likely and thus potentially boost Seselj's chances.
In fact, a split among Progressives might help any of a number of other candidates.
Former Serbian President Boris Tadic has called on the opposition to seize this unexpected opportunity because Serbia's people will pay the price if there is no change at the top. "This is a chance to correct the mistakes of the past, mistakes that we have also made, and for Serbia to consolidate and establish a functioning democracy, a critical public, and a free media," Tadic said.
Neither Nikolic nor the opposition candidates are seen as an insurmountable obstacle for Vucic.
But, if nothing else, Nikolic's intervention has suddenly made this one-horse race interesting again.