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Serbian Nationalist's Surprise Presidential Win Raises Uncertainty

Serbian President-elect Tomislav Nikolic (foreground) celebrates his election victory with supporters in Belgrade.
Serbian President-elect Tomislav Nikolic (foreground) celebrates his election victory with supporters in Belgrade.
Serbian political parties are expected to start tough negotiations on the formation of a new government following the surprise win of nationalist Tomislav Nikolic in a presidential election on May 20.

Nikolic narrowly beat the pro-Western Boris Tadic, breaking his almost 12-year hold on power. Most preelection polls had predicted a comfortable win for Tadic.

The 60-year-old Nikolic had lost to Tadic in two previous presidential elections. But this time, voters punished Tadic for the country's economic troubles, plummeting living standards and what many Serbs denounce as rampant corruption among the ruling elite.

Low turnout at the poll contributed to Nikolic's victory as nationalist voters tend to vote actively.

EU, OSCE reaction to Serbia's presidential election

The win by Nikolic, a former ultranationalist ally of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, throws Serbia into fresh political uncertainty.

"It's an open game," says German-based Balkans analyst Frantz-Lothar Altmann. "It will not be easy for Serbia in the coming months because Serbia is trying to begin [various] negotiations, it has to reenter talks with Kosovo. So it will be a very difficult time under extreme uncertainties."

Coalition Deal In Doubt

Nikolic may now seek to form a new government, casting doubt on an existing coalition deal clinched between Tadic's Democratic Party and the Socialist Party -- founded by Milosevic -- following May 6 parliamentary polls.

Under the Serbian Constitution, Nikolic has the right to task his Progressive Party, which won the most seats in the May 6 vote, with forming a new government.

But analysts believe he faces an uphill battle: "The probability that he succeeds in forming a government that is on his side is rather limited," says Altmann. "So what seems will come out of it is a cohabitation between a government with the [Democratic Party] and the Socialist Party [versus] Mr. Nikolic.

"And that could become difficult, because Nikolic has a rather strong party that will support him as opposition in parliament."

WATCH: Serbian election analysis by RFE/RL's Balkan Service Director Gordana Knezevic

Although the horse trading is only just beginning, the Socialist Party -- founded by Milosevic and led by his wartime spokesman Ivica Dacic -- said on May 20 that the coalition deal with the Democrats would stand regardless of Nikolic's win.

EU Setback?

The election result has also cast doubt on the Balkan nation's drive to join the European Union.

Nikolic pledged that Serbia would not "turn away from the European path," but critics say the president elect has a history of political U-turns and could easily shift back to being staunchly anti-EU.

Nikolic enjoys close ties with Russia and has suggested in the past that Serbia become a Russian province.

Despite his connection with Milosevic and his once fierce anti-Western rhetoric, analysts say European leaders are unlikely to snub Nikolic.

"Though it's true that Tadic was most welcome in Europe and had a good rapport with the Europeans, it's also true that he had failed to resolve the contradictions," says Daniel Serwer, a professor of conflict management at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in the United States. "I think Nikolic will be judged by what he does, not by what he says."

Kosovo will nonetheless remain a major stumbling block in Nikolic's dealings with the European Union.

The majority-Albanian territory declared independence in 2008, but Belgrade still effectively controls a small territory in the north.

Like Tadic, Nikolic has said he will never recognize Kosovo's independence. His predecessor, however, had been ready to negotiate on loosening control of Kosovo's north and improving relations with Pristina.

Written by Claire Bigg based on reporting by Dragan Stavljanin
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues.

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    Dragan Stavljanin

    Dragan Stavljanin is the foreign affairs editor of RFE/RL's Balkan Service. He has published numerous articles and written two books, The Cold Peace: The Caucasus And Kosovo and The Balkanization Of The Internet And The 'Death' Of The Journalist.