Russia's Putin tones down Serb rivalries

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The transcript of a discussion between new Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin appears to suggest that Moscow is preparing to work with a government led by Nikolić's rival, former President Boris Tadić, as Prime Minister.

Nikolić, a former ultranationalist, symbolically chose Russia as his first foreign destination, following his election victory on 20 May. Nikolić’s Progressive Party has a cooperation agreement with Putin’s 'United Russia' party.

According to the official Kremlin transcript of the discussion, held on 26 May, Nikolić told his host that the only candidate that could beat him at the Serbia election was Putin himself.

'We love you, Mr Putin'

“I am proud that I was leading a party, which cooperates with 'United Russia'. I am proud that I am going to I will lead Serbia in a way, which would serve the interest both of Serbia and Russia […] We love you in Serbia,” Nikolić told Putin.

Indeed, the vast majority Serbs are grateful for Russia’s support in the 1999 Kosovo war, which led the former Serbian province to unilaterally declare independence from Serbia in February 2008 (see background).

But not all Serbs agree to have Russia as the country’s main strategic partner. Boris Tadić, the outgoing President, has embodied the pro-Western camp among Serb citizens who want the country to join the European Union.

Surprisingly, Putin conveyed an unusual “best wishes” message to Tadić, adding that Moscow “impatiently” waited for a new Serb government to be sworn in.

“I have an unusual request," Putin said. "The former President of Serbia Boris Tadić is your former opponent. Nevertheless we have worked with him many years as partners. The singularity of my request is that I would like through you to convey to him my gratitude for their cooperation and wish him all the best,” The Russian President said.

In an interview with the Russian press, Nikolić said that he did not expect his country to join the EU in the next ten years. He also said that the process of EU integration could “stop” if Brussels pressed Serbia to renounce to Kosovo, which he called “a part of our territory”.

"Serbia will never join NATO, as this is the will of the majority of the Serbian people," Nikolić also stated.

Nikolić unable to form a coalition

Upon his return to Belgrade, Nikolić indicated that he would be ready to overcome his differences with Tadić.

"We have one common goal and that is for Serbia to move forward so that its citizens can live better," Nikolić was quoted as saying.

However, this development appears to indicate that Nikolić realises that the formation of a new government led by Tadić would leave him with little power. The position of Prime Minister in Serbia is stronger than the largely ceremonial role of the president.

After losing the 20 May election, Tadić said he would not be running for Prime Minister. However, on 27 May, he announced his decision to run for the position.

Nikolić’s parliamentary election ticket won 73 seats in the 250-seat Serb assembly, whereas Tadić’s Democratic Party-led ticket got 68. The Socialist party-led coalition of Ivica Dačić secured 45 MP seats.

The Progressive’s ally, Vojislav Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Sebia, won only 21 seats, not enough to form a majority. The only such option would be if Dačić’s Socialists changed their mind and abandoned the alliance with the Democratic Party, agreed prior to the second round of the presidential election.

But such a change of heart appears unlikely on behalf of the Socialists, who have invested a lot to cut short with their authoritarian heritage. Meanwhile Dačić abandoned his ambitions to become Prime Minister.

Tadić and Dačić met today (29 May) in Belgrade, BETA, EurActiv's partner agency announced. They made no statements, only announcing that they were in search of a third coalition partner.

Officials of Čedomir Jovanović’s Liberal Democratic Party (19 MPs) and Mlađan Dinkić’s United Regions of Serbia (16 MPs), which are considered to be potential third coalition partner, said that they have not been contacted, whether formally or informally.

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