The Fifth Attempt

After four failed bids, one-time nationalist stalwart Tomislav Nikolic is finally Serbia’s president.

Perhaps the biggest concern accompanying Tomislav Nikolic’s election as Serbia’s president is his unreadability. The nationalist politician who said five years ago that he would rather see Serbia become a Russian province than a European Union member assured the West during the recent campaign that he would keep his country on the EU route. His first foreign trip in the days after his 20 May election was to Moscow to see Vladimir Putin; the first foreign politician he received was Miroslav Lajcak, the Slovak foreign minister and EU emissary.

Serbian and European politicians weren’t the only ones playing the guessing game as Nikolic took office at the end of May. The leader of the Serbian Progressive Party, a failed presidential candidate in 2000, 2003, 2004, and 2008, finished second to pro-European incumbent incumbent Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party in the first round of voting on 6 May but won the runoff two weeks later, 49.7 percent to 47 percent. Afterward, global rating agency Fitch said the result “brings uncertainty” to questions of Serbia’s economic direction.

 

WHO IS TOMA GROBAR?

Nikolic’s political adversaries thought they would have an easy task in turning back his fifth bid for the presidency: simply compare his past statements with the current, utterly different ones. But this did not influence the voters. Nor did his past connection with the Serbian Radical Party and its leader, Vojislav Seselj, who is facing war-crimes charges in The Hague.

“I have been in politics 22 years,” the 60-year-old Kragujevac native said. “Of course I’ve changed my political opinions during that time.”

Nikolic’s life story before politics is mundane. He graduated from a secondary technical school and got a job as a cemetery administrator, which bequeathed him the nickname Toma Grobar – Toma the Gravedigger. He later found work with a construction company in Novi Sad, where he earned degree in economics. After his studies he returned to Kragujevac and worked as a technical director with a utility.

He entered politics in 1990 when he joined the People’s Radical Party. He rose to the post of deputy president and played a role in the party’s 1991 merger with Seselj’s Serbian Chetnik Movement. The resulting Serbian Radical Party was the ideological base for the wars and ethnic purges of the 1990s.

Elected to the then-Yugoslavian parliament in 1992 – he is the longest-serving legislator in Serbia – Nikolic was a Radical Party stalwart, three times made the party’s deputy president, most recently in 2006. He was awarded the title of Chetnik Duke by Seselj, who in 2003 would voluntarily turn himself in to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

But Nikolic left the Radical Party in 2008 and soon afterward founded the Serbian Progressive Party which he has been leading since. The Radicals labeled him a traitor, accusing him of stealing most of their voters.

His history in high politics is reversals of fortune. Nikolic was appointed deputy prime minister in March 1998, but he resigned 15 months later, when the Serbian parliament approved the entry of foreign troops into Kosovo. In 2007, he became prime minister but was replaced in just five days. He lost four presidential campaigns, coming close to winning 2008, before finally prevailing this year, despite the Socialist Party’s support for Tadic, their former coalition partner.

There are two main reasons why Tadic lost. The first was low turnout – only 46 percent. The second was voter unhappiness with the worsening Serbian economy, which caused many to switch horses. Since the start of the year the dinar has fallen by more than 10 percent against the euro, and every fourth employable Serb is unemployed.

Nikolic won even in big cities that had been bastions for Tadic’s Democrats, like Belgrade, which the challenger carried by 2 percent. In areas where the government attracted major foreign investments, like Kragujevac, Leskovac, and Zajecar, Tadic still lost by more than 10 percent. The incumbent defended his position only in Novi Sad, capital of relatively prosperous and multicultural Vojvodina. In short, he won in places inhabited by minorities who are concerned about nationalism, even when dressed in the more polite robes of the Serbian Progressive Party.

 

VOTING IN KOSOVO

Nikolic’s overall winning margin would likely have been even greater if not for extremely low participation in Kosovo, where 110,000 ethnic Serbs were eligible to vote. Turnout there was 23.4 percent, according to OSCE.

Among those who did vote in Kosovo, Nikolic – who said on the campaign trail that he would decline EU membership if it meant Serbia entered the union without Kosovo – prevailed by 51.2 percent to 46.5 percent. Nikolic got 61.5 percent in northern Kosovo and the town of Pec, and 73.8 percent in the Zubin Potok region, whose villagers apparently believe he will miraculously re-attach the province to Serbia.

Gracanica, with its important medieval monastery, is the biggest Serb enclave surrounded by Albanian settlement. A visitor on 20 May would have little reason to conclude there was an election on. There was no rush to the polling station at local school. In the church, a priest was baptizing two children, with a Romani band playing for the occasion. Vegetable and milk merchants were hiding from the sun under umbrellas. But there were no KFOR troops guarding the monastery, as they had in the past, evidence of the improving security situation. Only Kosovo police watched over the surrounding streets.

“We are thankful to the Irish and the Swedish [KFOR soldiers] for protecting us. If the English had remained here like after the war, I guess we Serbs would have been forced to leave,” said Novica Markovic, until recently of the local Red Cross.

“I have three children and two hectares of land. Albanians would love to buy it but I refuse to sell,” Markovic said. “My son is 30 and unemployed. There are reserves of zinc, lead, tin, and even gold around here, but nobody makes use of them. What can we do?”

Markovic said that “with the support of America and other countries, enemies are trying to steal Kosovo, the cradle of Serbia.” Other older men on their way to the polling station make similar comments. It is easy to guess to whom they are about to give their votes.

“If we didn’t nurture the seed of hope that Kosovo was and will remain a part of Serbia, we would have left ages ago,” said another resident, Slobodan Noic. “Old people say, ‘Water takes everything, even wood and stones, but it does not touch the sand at the bottom.’ We are that sand – the Serbian inhabitants of Kosovo.” Asked if he feels repressed by Kosovar Albanians, he shook his head, but added that his son has been missing since the Kosovo war. “At least if his bones were found for his children to know where their father is,” Noic said, then went to the polls.

But an unpleasant surprise awaited people at the polling station. Their names, and those of hundreds of other locals, were not on the voter rolls. The reason remains a mystery, but despite such a defect OSCE considered the elections valid. Its greatest complaint was over media coverage.

“Except the weekly magazine Vreme, there were no print media that would criticize and offer serious analyses,” said Rastislav Kuzel, deputy head of OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. “Not only the public TV station RTS but also independent stations like Pink TV or B92 presented government activities in a very neutral or positive tone, which does not assist citizens in their orientation. I was working for the Slovak [media NGO] MEMO 98 during the Milosevic era and I can only add with sadness that the media worked much better then.”

The reality is that Serbia is not on its way to Russia but to the EU, and without Kosovo. President Nikolic will have to convince himself of this – and then, he will have to convince his voters.

This article was originally published in the Slovak magazine .týždeň