European leaders breathed a sigh of relief after Serbian democrat Boris Tadic eked out a victory Sunday over ultranationalist Tomislav Nikolic in a divisive election held days before the expected loss of Kosovo, often spoken of here as the soul of ancient Serbia.
The Serbian presidency does not carry great powers. But the election won by the incumbent Mr. Tadic with 50.5 percent and a record turnout was seen as a psychological crossroads at a point of crisis – a referendum on reprising the chauvinist spirit of the 1990s and a pro-Moscow tilt, or moving toward Europe's economic and open-travel regime and a greater emphasis on civil society norms.
A radical Serbia is seen in many European capitals and Washington as a threat to Balkan stability. Yet Tadic's message of a bright future and rejection of brutal war years only narrowly triumphed over the Radicals, whose message of change was starting to sell.
Monday, the EU presidency, held by Slovenia, a former Yugoslav republic, said it "welcomes the fact that the Serbian people seem to have confirmed their support to the democratic and European course of their country." The lead editorial in Le Monde Monday was titled "Hope for Serbia."
Had Tadic, one of the few surviving leaders of the democratic forces that ousted strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, lost, his political life would have been over, analysts say. As it is, he will head a weak coalition whose principal partner, Prime Minister Voijslav Kostunica, refused to support him.
Amid fireworks and flag-waving vehicles honking in Belgrade streets Sunday, Tadic appeared in the window of his headquarters, telling crowds that "it is important that after the elections, Serbia is united and that we all together set to improve the lives of the citizens." One Tadic aide said, "We are aware that a large percentage of people didn't vote for us."
Tadic is seen as a champion of the cosmopolitan values of cooperation, listening, and respect – though his softer profile frustrated many supporters who felt it appeared indecisive at a time of great moment. After the vote, he reached out to Mr. Nikolic, asking for talks.
Nikolic, who got 47.7 percent of the vote, congratulated Tadic and thanked the voters who supported him, "because they realized that Serbia needs change." He said he had been the "target of a dirty campaign," and felt sorry that "fear rules" in Serbia.
Belgrade's atmosphere prior to elections was tense, with many democrats fearful of a return to power of a growing network of radicals and nationalists. "This election was like an IQ test for the whole nation of Serbia," says a former minister in the former government of Zoran Djinjic. "We look forward to a dull, competent administration that gets things done and moves us toward Europe. Serbia doesn't need anymore drama. I want my children to have a future."
Yet Nikolic's showing suggests the right will play a major opposition role. The Radicals have never scored so well, and Tadic's slim margin is attributed to the high turnout. "A strong second place is what Nikolic wants," says Dragan Mesovic, a Radical Party volunteer. "We are growing stronger and we can be more effective without the administrative duties of president."
Nikolic, whose Radical Party leader, Voislav Seslj, is on trial for war crimes at The Hague, ran what by all accounts was an sophisticated campaign. He was widely rumored to be using a US consulting firm, though this is unconfirmed.
After winning Round 1 on Jan. 28 on a Kosovo, pro-Russia platform, Nikolic took a tack called here "compassionate radicalism" – a populist message of high oil and food costs, and the problems of corruption.
Nikolic shifted in the final days between appearing mild-mannered and heavily nationalist. He appeared at one point to threaten Tadic personally. In a country whose popular liberal reform Prime Minister Mr. Djinjic was assassinated in 2003, the incident raised fears.
"A man who accused Tadic of being a traitor and an Ustashe [a Croatian Nazi paramilitary group in World War II], now wants to be the man for all Serb citizens. It [was] a very slick campaign," says Vreme columnist Dejan Anastasijevic, who adds, "Serbia is on the brink. Kosovo is pushing us into confrontation with the EU. Europe is not doing much on Serbia that we can see. Russia beckons, largely due to the construction in Serbia of a pro-Russian lobby in the form of radical nationalists."
EU officials have vowed to move quickly toward discussions on opening the EU to Serbian visas, a desire here especially among a younger population that has seen little of the outside world since the late 1990s.
Serbia has a "crucial role to play in the Western Balkans, and the people of Serbia are part of the European family," the Slovene EU presidency stated. "The EU wishes to deepen its relationship with Serbia and to accelerate its progress towards the EU, including candidate status."