With government coalition talks on a knife-edge and barely hours after being inaugurated, it seemed an odd time for the new Serbian president, Tomislav Nikolic, to cast aside his carefully honed pro-EU image and upset the country's neighbours by making some retrograde remarks about the Balkan wars that were more in keeping with his ultranationalist past. So why did he do it and what might this tell us about his presidency?
Perhaps, say some, it's merely a new take on an old adage: that you can take the Serb out the ultranationalist party, but you can't take the ultranationalist out the Serb.
Certainly, the comments were a blast from Nikolic's past; until four years ago, he was the right-hand man of Vojislav Seselj, the head of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party who is currently mouldering in a cell in The Hague. "There was no genocide in Srebrenica," Nikolic said in a TV interview just hours after his inauguration on May 31, held 11 days after his surprising second-round win over the previous holder of the office Boris Tadic, who had been expected by most polls to win.
Although Nikolic prefaced his comments by calling the Srebrenica massacre, in which Bosnian Serb forces killed an estimated 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995, a "grave crime", this wasn't good enough for the EU, whose foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, condemned the remarks. "The EU strongly rejects any intention to rewrite history," she said, referring to the fact that the International Court of Justice has concluded that genocide occurred in Srebrenica.
The US State Department on June 5 called the remarks unhelpful, saying Nikolic has the "opportunity to set a constructive tone within the region, but such unfounded statements about Srebrenica and other war crimes are counterproductive to promoting stability and reconciliation in the region."
The remarks also drew an angry response from Sarajevo, where Bakir Izetbegovic, who shares Bosnia-Herzegovina's presidency with a Croat and a Serb, warned in a statement that the denial of genocide in Srebrenica "will not pave the way for cooperation and reconciliation in the region, but on the contrary may cause fresh misunderstandings and tensions."
A few days earlier, Nikolic had infuriated Croatians with reported comments to a German newspaper, later denied, that Vukovar "is a Serbian town". Vukovar, located in northeastern Croatia, was the site of particularly nasty event during the Balkan wars when Serb militias massacred over 200 mostly Croatians, including civilians and POWs, in a hospital. Croat President Ivo Josipovic warned Nikolic he had to change such stances if his soon-to-be EU member state will cooperate with EU wannabe Serbia.
Aleksandar Vucic, head of the Serbian Progressive Party, the party that Nikolic created after splitting with the Radical Party, explained away the comments away with a rather ambiguous: "Tomislav Nikolic used to say this, but it is not what he is saying today."
The not-so-shocking conclusion, therefore, is that Nikolic was merely guilty of saying what he actually believes. Few are under any illusions that Nikolic underwent a Damascene conversion and is an ardent pro-European (his first visit after winning the election was to Moscow). Rather, he is a pragmatist, and his move to the centre is one that he believes will benefit Serbia (and his party) in the longer run. And in comments to bne before he was elected, he hove to the pragmatic line over Kosovo, saying that "the use of force in order to create a new and different reality on the field cannot represent a good alternative to mutual agreement, mutually accepted by Serbian and Albanian people". Instead, he said, "with goodwill, the mediation of the international community and probably uncomfortable concessions on both sides, it is possible to come to sustainable solution acceptable for both sides."
Given this, it begs the question of why now he has chosen to say the unmentionable out loud?
Some have noted the timing of Nikolic's comments, coming as they did just as tensions in the Serb-dominated northern part of Kosovo heat up. Northern Serbs have erected dozens of barricades since July 25, blocking roads in reaction to a Kosovan government police operation aimed at seizing border crossings in the north. This culminated in a June 1 operation to remove roadblocks that resulted in a peacekeeper from Nato's Kosovo Force, KFOR, being wounded.
Gerard Gallucci, a former UN peacekeeper in Kosovo, speculates on his blog that, "the order for KFOR to upset peace and calm in Kosovo must have come from some cabbadost somewhere within the Quint [France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the US] who has not yet learned the lesson that force won't subdue the Serbs."
"It may also have been that these Quint 'thick-heads' thought it a good thing to teach the new Serbian president a 'lesson' just as he takes office," Gallucci goes on to say.
An aide to Nikolic tells bne that the recent actions of KFOR and comments from Nikolic are merely political "foreplay" before new talks between the EU and Serbia start, which promise to be tough, not least because the ongoing crisis in the EU has meant the bloc has lost its sparkle to many Serbs and Nikolic is going to be a much tougher person to deal with than Tadic ever was. Indeed, Nikolic seemed to say as much when he asked rhetorically: "If Boris Tadic has already been to Srebrenica, if he condemned the crime in Srebrenica, if the Serbian parliament has done the same, then why would I revive that issue again?" (A statement that was rather undermined by him going on to do just that.)
Assuming it's mostly political posturing, the Nikolic aide concludes: "I do not expect that these tensions go beyond classic politics and low level tensions on the ground in northern Kosovo."
As such, the recent furore is not expected to distract Nikolic from the main task at hand, which is to play mid-wife to the formation of a new government following the May 6 parliamentary election that was narrowly won by his Progressive Party.
The Progressive Party won 73 seats in the 250-seat parliament, but without a majority and no ally large enough to form a majority with, the next government was looking to be a repeat of the old one, made up of Tadic's Democratic Party with 67 seats, the Socialist Party with 44 seats, and a third partner that would give them the 126-seat parliamentary majority.
However, things have not proved so straightforward, so Nikolic on June 4 announced he would launch talks with all of Serbia's main parliamentary parties to reach a compromise, "due to the difficult economic and social situation the country is in."
Indeed, the uncertainty over the country's political direction plus a lack of talks over the renewal of a $1.3bn international bailout loan has caused the dinar to fall further, which is now down 11% against the euro so far this year. Worse is ahead, as the country's Fiscal Council, a three-member body monitoring budget performance, said on May 30 that Serbia faces the threat of a debt crisis after the budget deficit rose to 7-8% of GDP and public debt approached 50% of GDP.
Sources say there are two most likely combinations for a coalition and one less so: the most probable outcome at the moment is still a coalition of Tadic's Democratic Party, the Socialist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party; or getting more likely as time passes is a coalition of Nikolic's Progressive Party, the Socialist Party and the (confusingly named) Democratic Party of Serbia.
A technocratic "grand coalition" of the Progressive Party, Democratic Party and Socialist Party might be the best for Serbia, but like many things in this part of the world where inat rules hearts (a self-evidently counter-productive action done precisely because it is self-evidently counter-productive, in order to display defiance), such a compromise is unlikely.
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