By electing pro-Western reformer Boris Tadic, Serbian voters rejected Radical Party candidate Tomislav Nikolic and the ultranationalist past he sought to recover, giving Europeans a sense of relief.
After his first-place finish in the first round of voting two weeks ago, observers feared that a victory by Mr. Nikolic, the popular protégé of indicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj, would mark a dangerous return to a vision of "Greater Serbia." That goal that created the wars in Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s.
In a country where graffiti often praises Mr. Seselj as a hero, Mr. Tadic's narrow win gives renewed hope to reform-minded Serbs and fresh impetus to a troubled government that will now embrace the wider European community.
"This means the true rebirth of Serbia ... a triumph over dark policies of the past," Tadic said, referring to war campaigns during the rule in the 1990s of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and his Radical Party allies.
"Serbia can now safely continue on its path of European integration" Tadic said.
Crucial Western support to cash-strapped Serbia hinges on its cooperation with the Netherlands-based UN war-crimes tribunal, including extradition of suspects indicted for their role in the Balkan wars.
Nikolic had blasted the tribunal as politicized and anti-Serb.
Tadic's Democratic Party headquarters celebrated his win, with 54 percent of the vote, by blaring American R&B music.
Relatively high turnout - nearly 49 percent - was credited to a strong anti-Nikolic sentiment.
"There were still a lot of 'negative' votes," says Srdjan Bogosavljevic, director of the polling agency Strategic Marketing in Belgrade. "Probably people do not adore Tadic, but they don't like Nikolic."
The result was a relief to outsiders trying to work with Serbia. A Radical win would have spelled further isolation for Serbia.
"[Nikolic's] whole party and his comments from the past through the period up until now, was not something that Europe wanted to be shaping foreign affairs," says a European source in Belgrade. "Glorifying Seselj and everything he stood for was not something Europe was very keen on coming back to power."
Tadic's victory could also improve Serbia's chances of receiving about $30 million in US aid that Secretary of State Colin Powell canceled in March, citing lack of cooperation with the tribunal. Serbian authorities have yet to turn over indicted suspect Ratko Mladic, who's believed to be in Serbia.
But Tadic could have a hard time working with Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, head of the Democratic Party of Serbia. Both parties were part of the October 2000 "revolution" that ousted Milosevic. But over the past four years, the reformist coalition has been riven by interparty bickering and scandals, and economic reforms have sparked bitterness among Serbs, whose average monthly wage is $215.
The Kostunica government also snubbed Tadic's party after last winter's parliamentary elections, opting to join forces with Milosevic's Socialists.
"The government has been essentially drifting since the Dec. 28 elections," says James Lyon, director of the International Crisis Group's Serbia project in Belgrade. "It's not certain whether [Tadic's] election will bring any of that to a halt."
And then there's Kosovo. Kosovo is still under UN administration following the NATO bombing campaign in 1999 that drove out Milosevic's police and military. Serbs want the province to return to Serbian control; the majority Albanians there want independence. Kosovo's unresolved status gave rise to violent riots in March that forced thousands of Serbs to flee and left dozens of churches and hundreds of homes destroyed.
Tadic says he'll work with the international community to solve the problem. Mr. Lyon, however, is skeptical. "Reality and public statements here quite often have very little overlap," he says.
The Radical Party is expected to do well in Serbia's local elections in September, as Nikolic had a stronger showing in municipalities than Tadic. That will be the test, says Mike Staresinic, the Serbia director of Freedom House. "The antireform momentum has been stopped; we'll be testing it in September at the local elections," he says.
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.