PARIS — Serbia has stumbled again in its bumpy climb out of a bloody past, as the country's most aggressively nationalist party took the most votes in Sunday's parliamentary elections.
The Serbian Radical Party, an ultra- nationalist grouping allied with former Yugoslav president and indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, won almost one-third of the votes, according to unofficial results.
Though not strong enough to form a government, the Radicals are well placed to complicate efforts by the coalition of reformist parties that is expected to try to rule, Serb analysts predict.
"The most serious consequence is the total political uncertainty that we face now," says Nenad Stepanovic, a commentator with the weekly Vreme magazine.
The Radical Party is led by Vojislav Seselj, currently imprisoned in The Hague while he awaits trial for war crimes, though that did not stop him running for parliament. The party still espouses the "Greater Serbia" ideal that led to the Balkan wars in Bosnia and Croatia 10 years ago.
The election results "send an extremely bad message to our Balkan neighbors," worries Jelena Milic, an analyst with the Forum for International Affairs in Belgrade. "They say we don't want reconciliation, we don't want cooperation.
"In fact the whole election procedure, with indicted war criminals on the ballot, was an insult to our neighbors and to the international community," she adds.
Mr. Milosevic, who once ruled in an alliance with the Radicals, also ran for parliament from his cell in The Hague.
The Radical Party's success in Serbia follows similar recent victories by nationalist forces in Bosnia and Croatia, where post-Communist reformists have also disappointed their electorates.
The alliance of pro-Western parties that has ruled Serbia since Milosevic was overthrown by a popular uprising in October 2000 has been riven by disputes, tainted by corruption scandals, and rendered unpopular by the hardships brought on by free-market economic reforms.
The ruling coalition also suffered a blow when Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated last March, allegedly by the former head of a Serb elite police unit notorious for its brutality during the Balkan wars who feared being extradited to the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague.
The outgoing government had cooperated, if grudgingly, with the international tribunal - handing Milosevic over, for example - earning criticism from wide sectors of Serbian society who see the court as an anti-Serb tool of Western policy.
Western governments, keen to establish a stable, democratic, and reformist government in Belgrade, are not popular in Serbia, where memories of NATO bombing during the Kosovo war are still fresh. Nor does the prospect of economic prosperity as a member of the European Union hold much appeal.
"Most Serbs believe EU membership is too far away to be a practical political goal," says Predrag Simic, an adviser to former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, who took over from Milosevic.
"The election results are the typical reaction of the European losers' club," he adds. "Balkan countries see themselves nowhere near admission to the European Union, so pro-EU parties lack credibility."
Together, the four main democratic parties - led by Mr. Kostunica's moderately nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia, which came second in the election - could muster the parliamentary majority needed to form a government.
Such a coalition "is the single barrier to a return to the past," says Dr. Simic. But given the rivalries between the parties, "the question of how stable that coalition would be is the one everybody is asking," he adds.
Kostunica, for example, had said during the election campaign that he would not ally himself with the ruling Democratic Party, shaken by allegations of corruption. But he is likely to come under heavy pressure from Washington and European governments to change his mind.
"I am counting on international pressure to force (the reformists) to try something," says Mr. Stepanovic. "And I am counting on the leaders to be aware that if they fail, new elections could bring a new radicalization of the electorate."
That, say several Serb political analysts, appears to be the Radicals' plan, since they would be hard pressed to take power now and carry out campaign promises such as sharply reducing the price of bread or recovering "Serb lands" from neighboring states.
Instead they seem ready to bide their time, hoping a fragile reformist coalition would soon collapse and then call elections that would give the Radicals a chance to emerge victorious. "If that happened," says Stepanovic, "I dare not think of the consequences. Serbia would be stuck as a second-class country for the next 30 years."