Then came last Sunday's improbable, unbelievable, and completely unforeseen vote: Serbs defied all expectations and polls to cast ballots decisively for the pro-Europe party of Boris Tadic, the main democratic voice in Serbia – and against the Radical Party, whose nationalist ranks indulged in 15 years of war in the Balkans.
In Europe and the US, the surprise question this week is whether there is hope for a peaceful future for Serbia after all, and whether history in the former Yugoslavia must always hew to the tragic.
To be sure, Mr. Tadic must within 90 days find a coalition partner to form a government; the nationalist parties together scored nearly the same number of seats in the Serb parliament. But the elections indicate a side to the Serbs that defies their profile as fatalistic victims unwilling to let go of ancient myths, say a number of diplomats and analysts.
"Serbia has been the most regressive and eastward-looking place in the Balkans," says Marshall Freeman Harris, a former State Department Balkan expert. "But this election may show things aren't as black as they seem. The US and Europe will recognize there is still hope."
A defeat of 'policies of aggression'
Though the win was muted by news of natural disasters in Asia, Tadic heralded it as a victory for integration with Europe and a defeat of "the policies of hatred and aggression."
The victory by the democrats in Serbia, at least in the popular vote, may vindicate those in Europe who argued that Belgrade deserved a steady diet of positive assurances and "carrots" – rather than the tough love and "sticks" policy to keep Serbia in perpetual isolation until it hands over accused war criminals like Gen. Ratko Mladic.
Just prior to the election, EU officials in Brussels voted to give visas to Serbs for €40 ($62) – a popular move among young Serbs, a generation that has complained of being trapped in Serbia, unable to travel or go abroad for study or exploration.
As Belgrade prepares to host the finals of Eurovision, an American idol-style European singing and talent contest on satellite TV, the city is abuzz with anticipation - and younger voters are reminded of their proximity to cosmopolitan Europe. [Editor's note: The original version gave the wrong date for the Eurovision finals.]
"These elections were critical, and now nothing will remain the same" says Vladimir Goati of Transparency Serbia, an anticorruption watchdog in Belgrade. "Serbia has chosen to join the European family. This is a watershed election. It's interesting that no-one was able to predict it."
Serbia is considered the most important strategic state in the region – the heart of the Balkans. In recent months, neighboring states such as Croatia and Albania were given NATO membership – in a bid by the West to "hedge" the Balkans with an ever greater set of Europeanizing areas.
Some analysts say that Serbs may have been prideful about joining institutions like the EU; but with its economy in shambles, many Serbs may be looking around their neighborhood and seeing "the handwriting on the wall," as one Western diplomat put it this week. "Serbs are smart and pragmatic," argued the diplomat.
The vote for Tadic may well have come from a sudden and quiet rise of the same grass-roots forces in Serbia that ousted President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Only weeks ago both Serb and independent foreign polls showed the radicals winning a decisive victory.
In the 1990s, Mr. Milosevic stoked nationalist sentiments in the midst of a collapsing Yugoslavia, trying to form through bloody paramilitary warfare a Greater Serbia that would link Serb ethnic areas in Bosnia and Croatia to Belgrade. Milosevic's bid for regional greatness came to an end in Kosovo as NATO states decided that Serbian ethnic cleansing in the 90 percent Albanian autonomous region could quickly become a genocide.
The climate in Serbia has forced Tadic and the democrats to vigorously oppose Kosovo statehood and independence. Yet there is a tacit understanding among democrats that Serbia will not go to war to regain Kosovo. The Radical Party, were it to receive a flood tide of support, could substantially back militias and mayhem in the Serb-held Kosovo region of Mitrovica.
In Kosovo, there is widespread relief among Western officials that what they see as the nightmare coalition of the ultranationalist Radical party and Vojislav Kostunica's DSS party looks unlikely to be formed. Last week, when the pro-European parties' chances of forming the next government were being written off by pollsters and pundits alike, officials in the breakaway province privately admitted they were concerned at the prospect of dealing with a nationalist government in Belgrade.
The May 11 elections were called by outgoing Prime Minister Kostunica in March after huge differences arose in his cabinet over whether joining the EU meant giving up Serbia's claim to Kosovo. Members of Tadic's DS party insist that EU membership is the best way to oppose the independence of Kosovo, while Kostunica believes that membership should only come after the 27-member bloc recognizes Serbia's claim to the territory.
But while the result has prompted relief among European leaders, nationalist forces point out that the combined vote of nationalist-leaning parties is almost 50 percent and that they can attract the coalition partners to secure a majority of parliamentary support.
Tadic is wooing a pro-Europe wing of the old Socialist Party, improbably the party of Milosevic. Such are the Balkans, experts nod.