Nikolic Celebrates
Nikolic CelebratesReuters

The defeat in the Serbian presidential elections of Boris Tadic by Tomislav Nikolic has produced a good deal of whistling in the dark in Europe.

In the various chanceries, they were rooting for Tadic, considered pro-European and a leader who had demonstrated his bona fides by extraditing three suspected Serbian war criminals to stand trial in the Hague.

Tadic had also proven flexible on the Kosovo issue as part of his desire to have Serbia join the European Union.

His opponent, Tomislav Nikolic, had previously been an associate of Slobodan Milosevic, who died while on trial at the Hague for war crimes.

The optimists note that Nikolic founded the Progressive Party that broke with the Milosevic approach and had committed to Europe. They added that perhaps it was preferable for the purpose of consensus that a former nationalist should put his stamp on the process.

They also said that while Tadic had elevated the presidency into a power center, real power actually resides in parliament and Tadic's Democratic Party would still be dominant in the cabinet in coalition with the Socialists as a result of elections two weeks ago.

The optimists also explained that the surprising victory by Nikolic was a protest vote against economic conditions in Serbia and the rampant corruption there, accounting for the low turnout and the spoiled ballots tactic of younger voters.

In other words, Nikolic should realize that his upset victory - despite the comfortable lead by his opponents in the polls - does not represent a mandate for a more nationalist approach.

They take heart from the post-election pledge by the victor: "Serbia will not turn away from the European path," Nikolic vowed. "These elections were not about who will take Serbia to the EU, but who will solve the economic problems created by the Democratic Party."

Pessimists claim that Serbia at best may be in for a rocky period of relations between the nationalist president and a more liberal cabinet.

This is under the assumption that the Socialists will stand by their pledge of forming a government with the Democrats. They also have the option of forming a coalition with Nicolic's Progressives and if the president gives the mandate to form a cabinet to his own party, the deal may be off.

They also point to another statement by Nikolic "Serbia will keep the EU path but also protect Kosovo. Serbia is a modern country – I will co-operate with everyone," said Nikolic.

In other words, Nikolic may prove to be the Serbian version of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, who will steer a middle course between the EU and Russia, cooperating with everyone. The reference to Kosovo, however, also signals a hardening of policy.