Belgrade Torn Between Patriotism and Europe EU Fears Nationalist Victory in Serbian Elections

Brussels is eyeing Serbia nervously as May 11 parliamentary elections approach. Polls suggests the ultra-nationalist Radical Party may become the strongest group in parliament, which would mean a foreign policy nightmare for the EU and could exacerbate tensions with ethnic minorities within the country.

By Renate Flottau in Belgrade

An elderly supporter of the Serbian Radical Party kisses a picture of war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic during a pre-elections rally in Belgrade.

An elderly supporter of the Serbian Radical Party kisses a picture of war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic during a pre-elections rally in Belgrade.

The words "Toma, Toma" reverberate across the market square in Cacak, a small city in southern Serbia. The man on the stage, who is wearing a gray suit, accepts the crowd's homage with a modest smile, at most moving his wad of chewing gum a little faster around in his mouth.

The 56-year-old, gray-haired Tomislav "Toma" Nikolic embodies the opposite of what once made his Radical Party of Serbia so popular: its constant boisterousness, its politicians' habit of loudly insulting their political adversaries and threats by its chairman, Vojislav Seselj, to bomb the capitals of the West.

But Seselj has been in prison in The Hague for the past five years, where he is on trial for war crimes. Nikolic, his deputy and the party's deputy chairman, as well as a former close associate of deposed Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, has since guided the party into more moderate waters. Nikolic seems relatively unmoved as he gazes down at a sea of blue balloons and party flags, as well as signs bearing the words "Toma, Save the Starving People."

A group of folk singers tries unsuccessfully to enliven the crowd of a few hundred supporters. Only when it's time for the "Gravedigger" -- a nickname Nikolic acquired because of his former job as a funeral director -- to speak, does the crowd perk up. He will protect the poor if he wins the election, he promises to loud applause, especially from retirees, who have long since abandoned their hopes for a better future.

But then the speaker surprises even his fellow party members. Nikolic, who only recently invited Belgrade's Russian allies to set up military bases in Serbia, is suddenly seeking to distance himself from all major powers in shaping the future of the Balkans. "Our masters do not live in Moscow, nor do they live in Washington or Brussels," he calls out the crowd. "Only the Serbs," he says, will decide on their country's future.

Or at least those who plan to vote in the parliamentary election on May 11. Polls suggest that the Serbs could make the Radical Party the strongest group in parliament by giving them well over 30 percent of the vote. This would also make the ultra-nationalist party the strongest faction in the government, an outcome that EU diplomats are currently doing their utmost to prevent. They fear that if the Radicals came into power, it would not only be a foreign policy nightmare, but could also trigger a new wave of unrest among the country's ethnic minorities. They include, among others, a Hungarian minority in the Vojvodina region, as well as ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia's Presevo valley, both of which have been demanding greater autonomy for some time.

But after Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence, as well as recognition of the new country by the United States and many members of the European Union, the angry Serbs are practically traumatized by the notion that the West is doing its utmost to completely dismantle their country.

In fact, the Serbs are so suspicious that it is counterproductive for the EU's emissaries from Brussels to court -- as they have been doing to the point of embarrassment -- the relatively small group of pro-European politicians in Belgrade. The pro-European faction, led by Serbian President Boris Tadic, 50, and his Democratic Party, is pleased over an association agreement the European Union signed with Serbia on Tuesday of last week. For years, the EU had refused to sign such an agreement, because Serbia was stonewalling when it came to extraditing war criminals. But many Serbs see the Brussels overture as nothing but a symbolic gesture, because it will not be ratified until Belgrade hands over General Ratko Mladic, who has gone into hiding.

Map: Serbia

Map: Serbia

It almost seems as if the EU were conducting its own election campaign in Belgrade. By holding out the prospect of loosening visa restrictions, Brussels hopes to boost pro-European sentiments among young voters in particular. Billions in loans could help jumpstart the economy, which is not expected to grow very much at all this year. Brussels' big-spending diplomats have not even shied away from odd political handouts to promote their cause. For instance, Serbian milk producers were suddenly granted permission to export to the EU. The fact that this exceeds the capabilities of Serbia's dairy industry was merely a source of amusement for the public.

But few are impressed by such overtures. Tadic, the West's great hope, is still torn between demonstrative patriotism and charting a pro-European course. He comes across as a halfhearted messiah, whose message is only convincing to those who would have voted for him anyway.

A former male model whose first wife is now a novice in the Orthodox Pec Monastery in Kosovo, Tadic does especially well with female voters. To dispel doubts about his national pride, he promises voters that if he were forced to choose between Kosovo and the EU, he would clearly pick Kosovo.

But even if his Democratic Party were to do well in the election, it would still be dependent on coalition partners in a future government. The way things currently stand, his archenemy, current Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, 64, would be the most likely choice. Kostunica dissolved the last coalition government with the Democrats prematurely because of a lack of confidence.

But Kostunica now has better offers. Radical Party leader Nikolic has said that he "would not rule out" the possibility of the former law professor keeping his post of prime minister in a future coalition government, even if his party cannot expect to capture more than 15 percent of the vote.

Kostunica, for his part, is desperately trying to gloss over his increasingly tired performances with the image of a wise father of the nation, unflinchingly defending Serbia's claim on Kosovo -- even at the cost of isolating the country. If elected, he says, he will immediately have the parliament invalidate the agreement signed with the EU last week. His rival Tadic, says Kostunica, compromised himself, but not Serbia, by signing the document.

Despite Kostunica's anti-European stance, Brussels diplomats are trying to make a new coalition with Tadic and his Democrats palatable to the conservative nationalist prime minister. Concessions on the issue of Kosovo, which could help Kostunica save face, are being looked at behind closed doors. They include the possibility of an administrative separation of the hostile ethnic groups.

Also under consideration is a revamping of the proposal that German negotiator Wolfgang Ischinger presented before Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence. Under that proposal, an agreement between Belgrade and Pristina, modeled after the 1972 Basic Treaty between the two Germanys, would regulate the relationship between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo. Under their treaty, West Germany and East Germany managed to define their relations without the need for recognition of East Germany under international law.

However, both Kostunica and the Radicals continue to insist, at least until the election, on upholding Serbia's irrational maximum demand: There will be no talks over EU accession until Kosovo is once again part of Serbia.


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