BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Former ultranationalist allies of Slobodan Milosevic may return to power in Serbia, 12 years after the late Balkan strongman was ousted by pro-Western forces seeking European Union membership.
The first-round vote on Sunday for president, and votes for a 250-seat national assembly and local councils pit pro-EU democrats against nationalists who have gained in popularity with the EU's own economic troubles, which have dimmed the bloc's allure for many Serbs.
The two leading contenders are the Democratic Party of Boris Tadic — who had been president until he resigned so the triple vote could be held together — and Milosevic's former ally Tomislav Nikolic, whose right-wing populist Serbian Progressive Party has Russia's support, though he has lately claimed a shift toward the EU.
The eventual outcome could determine whether Serbia abides by EU-demanded economic and social reforms after being an isolated pariah nation under Milosevic in the 1990s because of his warmongering — or turns to its traditional Slavic ally Russia instead.
It also will show whether Serbia continues to reconcile with its neighbors and wartime foes of the Balkan conflicts, including the former province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.
Recent polls have suggested that the pro-EU camp slightly trails the nationalist bloc in the parliamentary race, but with the democrats having better chances of persuading smaller parties to form the next coalition government — just as they did after the previous elections four years ago.
A presidential runoff is expected on May 20, as both Tadic and Nikolic are unlikely to get more than 50 percent of the first round vote that includes 12 candidates.
In March, Tadic led Serbia's bid to gain EU candidate status, which was conditional on the arrests of fugitive war crimes suspects Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. His government turned over the two wartime Bosnian Serb leaders to a U.N. tribunal in the Netherlands to face genocide charges for their part in the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
However, Tadic's popularity among Serbs has fallen because of the country's economic downturn. Faced with the global financial crisis, which slowed down much needed foreign investments, his government has seen massive job losses and plummeting living standards.
Nikolic has gained the support among voters for criticizing widespread social injustice and corruption, and for promising jobs, financial security and billions of dollars in foreign investments if he and his party win the elections.
Recent claims by Nikolic — who has narrowly lost two consecutive presidential votes against Tadic — that he has shifted from being staunchly anti-Western to pro-EU are not taken at face value by many Serbs, as well as by Western officials.
The former far-right politician, who is a self-declared "Russia lover," only a few years ago said that he would rather see Serbia become a Russian province than an EU member, and has hailed Mladic and Karadzic as "Serbian heroes."
"Of course I had to change, I've been a politician for 22 years," said Nikolic, nicknamed "Toma the Gravedigger" for running a cemetery in the 1980s. "The people of Serbia have changed," he said during the campaign.
Nikolic, who has split from the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, was in Milosevic's government during the violent crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists in 1999 that prompted NATO to bombard Serbia for 78 days until Milosevic pulled his troops out of the province.
Tadic told a campaign rally this week that "those who have shamed us" must not be allowed to govern Serbia. He said the voters have a choice to continue with "progress and development" or risk "the uncertainty."
Polls indicate Nikolic would not be able to come to power without the help of a small conservative party led by former president and prime minister Vojislav Kostunica, which is staunchly anti-EU and promises €10 billion ($13 billion) in Russian "development loans" if Serbia turns to Moscow instead.
Tadic has had the support of the Socialists, the party founded by Milosevic in the 90's, but which has now switched to a pro-EU stance. The Socialists, who are likely to become kingmakers by placing third in the vote, have been noncommittal about which side they will support after the elections.
Milosevic died in his prison cell during his U.N. war crimes trial in 2006.