Once the fiery spokesman for Serbian president Slobodan Milošević during the breakup of Yugoslavia, Socialist Party leader Ivica Dačić is set to become the Balkan nation’s next prime minister.
After the election of former deputy prime minister Tomislav Nikolić to the presidency last month, Serbia would have two Milošević loyalists heading a government of nationalists and Socialists — the very coalition that supported Milošević in the 1990s.
Dačić’ Socialists placed third in May’s parliamentary election and had expected to form a government with former president Boris Tadić’ liberal Democratic Party, which lost its plurality to Nikolić’ nationalists. The nationalists and Socialists more than doubled their seats at the expense of the liberals and fringe parties.
Under Dačić’ leadership, the Socialists have welcomed young and moderate members into the party and joined Tadić’ pro-European coalition in 2008. The old party cadre has remained unchanged to appease the elderly and formerly communist electorate.
During Dačić’ tenure as interior minister, Belgrade arrested and handed over to The Hague Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić and his military chief Ratko Mladić to stand trial for war crimes.
Within the former coalition, the Socialists controlled the state-run energy and gas monopoly Srbijagas and secured funds and close ties with Russia through a partnership with Gazprom. Now that they will govern with Nikolić’ nationalists, a deepening of relations with Moscow at the expense of Brussels is likely.
During his first foreign trip as president, Nikolić told his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, that Serbia is on a “long and uncertain” path to joining the EU. He insisted that Belgrade will not give up its claim to the breakaway province Kosovo for the sake of membership, even if that’s not a condition.
Dačić has already made two trips to Russia since May’s elections and said that the Kremlin pressured him to form a coalition with the nationalists.
The Serbian-Russian relationship is one of common values and interests. The two countries share an Orthodox heritage. It was Czarist Russia that helped the Christian peoples of Southeastern Europe liberate themselves from the Ottoman Turks. Russia and Serbia still have troubled relations with modern Turkey.
During the breakup of Yugoslavia, Russia criticized NATO’s bombing campaign. It has refused to recognize independent Kosovo whereas most European Union member states as well as the United States have. Moscow considers the Serbs a brotherly Slav people and sees an opportunity in the rise of two old Milošević allies to stem the expansion of both the EU and NATO into Eastern Europe.
Dačić and Nikolić insist that Serbia aspires to join Europe regardless of warming ties with Moscow. It’s safe to assume that policymakers in neither Brussels nor the Kremlin believe them.