Serbia votes tomorrow. Some observers are casting this as a choice between Good (the EU) and Evil (wicked nationalism). Eh, not really. From the point of view of most Serbian voters, it’s more like a choice between “Not so great, stumbling along, more of the same” and “What the hell, this sucks, let’s try something different”.
This is not to say that electing Nikolic would be without consequences. It would be seen abroad as a thumb in the eye of the EU and a return to old-fashioned xenophobic nationalism (even if it isn’t, at least for most Serb voters). It would stop Serbia’s progress towards EU candidacy dead for at least the next year or two. Unless Nikolic starts barking at the moon — and I don’t think he will; if he wins the election, he’ll internalize the lesson that “acting moderate is good” — I doubt foreign investment will suffer much. That said, there will be a lot of people thinking a Radical President equals a return to the good old days of the 1990s. Nikolic would have to fend those people off, because any hint of a return to the cronyocracy of the Milosevic years will cause investors to run away fast.
There’s a small chance that a Nikolic win might cause the government to collapse, but I doubt it. PM Kostunica and his DSS party will see it as a victory, at least at first. President Tadic’s DS party will be very bitter, but probably not quite enough to walk out of the government. If they’re going to do it, they’ll do it in the first week or two; any longer, and they will have reconciled themselves. (Because, you know, elections are scary.)
Right now, the EU has a special deal for Serbia on the table, involving things like easy visas and financial aid. It’s special because it’s an ersatz/substitute for a Stability and Association Agreement (SAA), which is what Serbia should have. The Dutch and the Belgians have vetoed an SAA until Serbia starts cooperating with the UN’s Hague Tribunal on war crimes. Which will never happen as long as Kostunica is PM. Thus, the special agreement… which is supposed to be signed the week after the election; it’s a pretty blatant attempt to cajole Serbian voters. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that IMO. Dangling a carrot is not waving a stick.) Watch for this offer to be withdrawn “for further consideration” if Nikolic wins.
Oh, and Kosovo will declare unilateral independence within a couple of weeks. The Kosovar Albanians are, of course, cheering for Nikolic all the way.
I expect Nikolic would be a bad President. He’s a populist, but not in a good way; while he may have learned to act differently, he has a lot of old-fashioned evil assholes around him; and he’s pretty thoroughly addicted to the politics of gesture. But not a disaster; Nikolic is not stupid, he’ll like being President, and he’ll have no strong incentive to rock the boat. In any event, Serbia’s Presidency doesn’t have that much power.
President Nikolic wouldn’t get many diplomatic invitations in his first year, except to Russia and maybe Greece. But Serbia’s President holds office for five.. long… years. So at some point the EU would have to get over its attack of the vapors and start dealing with Serbia again. If Nikolic wins, and can resist the temptation to act out, watch for “former nationalist, crazy and evil, may now be reasonable man we can deal with” articles starting to appear sometime in his second year.
One long-shot possible outcome might be the formation of a Radical-dominated government. I very much doubt that, though. The Radicals and their Socialist sidekicks just don’t have the votes, and having a Radical President won’t help them that much. Alo, nobody but DSS would ever join a coalition with them… and Kostunica is just bright enough to realize that being PM over a rickety, fractious coalition is better than being junior partner to the Radicals.
Also, if Nikolic wins? Within six months Kostunica will hate him just as much as he hates Tadic now.
And if Tadic wins? Eh, more of the same. The government will stand — DS has already made clear that it will stay in the coalition. The special arrangement with the EU will be signed. Kosovo will still declare independence, but after a face-saving interval of perhaps a couple of months. Kostunica will sulk, but will still be PM. Same old, same old.
We’ll know in a couple of days.