The largest Serb election turnout since voters tossed out Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 has set up a dramatic runoff for Feb. 3 between a radical pro-Russia nationalist whose mentor is at The Hague for war crimes and a pro-European Union moderate who has favored trade, reconciliation, and even NATO status.
But that was then, and this is now, experts say. Since 2004, Serbia's political and emotional mood has shifted to the right, favoring nationalists like Mr. Nikolic, experts say, who garnered 39 percent of the Round 1 vote, versus 35 percent for Mr. Tadic.
In 2004, moreover, Nikolic was a political novice, the status of Kosovo was not the highly wrought issue it now is, and Tadic was backed by current Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. That backing is no longer certain.
Significantly, the February runoff takes place days before the ancient Kosovo heartland of Serbia declares independence. With losing Kosovo as the main issue, the election is seen to be a crossroads for Serbia and the Balkans – and has major implications for a Europe that is soon to send 1,800 police to Kosovo to keep the peace.
The Serbian Radical Party was formed in the early 1990s by Vojislav Seselj, whose notorious paramilitary groups fought in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Mr. Seselj was a close ally of Mr. Milosevic, who died in 2006 while on trial at the international tribunal at The Hague, where Seselj remains today, charged with ethnic cleansing, torture, and murder.
In the 2004 elections, as Seselj's protégé, Nikolic steadily invoked the names of Milosevic and Seselj in the national elections campaign, arguing that their trials were a farce.
"In 2004, Nikolic was only a front for Seselj, who was a party leader running the campaign from his cell," says Jacques Rupnik a Balkans specialist at Sciences Po in Paris. "Nikolic is no longer a front. He hardly talks about Seselj; he is running on his own steam; he has 'grown' as a politician.
"With Kosovo the main issue now, with all [Serb] politicians agreeing on this and just disagreeing on the levels of vehemence and nationalism," he adds, "the context favors nationalists like Nikolic. Emotion is the greatest element."
Former US diplomat James Hooper, managing director of the Public International Law and Policy Group, says that NATO member states have played a role in creating a nationalist, Kosovo-embittered context in Serbia through a lack of resolve after the NATO bombing campaign of 1999 that drove Serb forces out of the 90-percent ethnic Albanian province.
"Round 1 shows how the political spectrum in Serbia has shifted to the right as a result of Kosovo," Hooper states. "The failure of the international community to act decisively on the independence of Kosovo years ago and remove it as a factor in Serbia – that delay has enabled the nationalists to recast the political debate in Serbia as anti-Western and anti-Europe."
Albanian Kosovars boycotted the Serbian elections, as they have in the past. The Albanian leadership in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, are preparing to declare independence in February or March at the latest, sources say. Some 20 of 27 European Union states, and the US, are preparing to recognize Kosovo shortly thereafter. But this does not play well in Serbia.
"Anything the Europeans now say will only help the nationalists," says a senior European diplomat. "Lets see what happens on February 3."
A nationalist at the helm could place Serbia much closer to Russia, further outside the European political orbit. Diplomats here worry that a Nikolic-led Serbia might create incidents in Kosovo and Bosnia that will destabilize the Balkans region. In recent days, though, Nikolic has made statements that sound more conciliatory.
Serbia watchers are now focusing on Prime Minister Kostunica, who was the kingmaker in 2004 and may well reprise that role in 2008. Mr. Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia is regarded as a necessary ally in forming a ruling coalition in the Serbian parliament.
Tadic and Kostunica are known to be "bitter rivals," says James Lyon of the International Crisis Group in Belgrade. Kostunica in the past year has come out as a much harder-edged nationalist than many European politicians had initially regarded him – espousing views that are closer to those of Nikolic than those of Tadic.