Tomislav Nikolic, who has been elected as the president of Serbia, has managed to politically transform himself from an ultranationalist into a pro-EU populist while maintaining some of his hardline rhetoric.
Nikolic, 60, twice lost to Boris Tadic in presidential contests in 2004 and 2008 before defying opinion polls and analyst predictions in Sunday’s runoff vote.
Nikolic, whose nationalist allies have traditionally aligned with Russia, claimed that his election was “a turning point for Serbia” and promised to keep the country on a pro-European trajectory.
“Serbia will not turn away from the European path,” he said.
Nikolic started his political career in the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), where for a long time he served as the second-in-command to Vojislav Seselj, the party founder whose long-running trial on war crimes charges is ongoing at The Hague.
Between 1998 and 1999 Nikolic served as deputy prime minister under Serbia’s wartime leader Slobodan Milosevic after the Radicals formed a ruling coalition with Milosevic’s Socialists.
In late 2008, Nikolic suddenly broke ranks with the SRS over the party’s anti-EU stance, forming the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), which ditched many of the SRS’s more extreme positions while drawing in many of its supporters.
Nikolic often projects a sullen demeanour, earning him the nickname “the Undertaker”, in part because he used to run a local cemetery.
Some suggest that the the married father of two and five-time grandfather conveys the image of a quiet, provincial bureaucrat.
His hobby is making traditional Serbian brandy, known as sljivovica, on his farm in the village of Bajcetina in central Serbia, where he also likes to pick wild mushrooms and herbs.
And he boasts on his website that he is a good singer.
But he is not a rousing public speaker, and he often makes what some consider reckless statements, once saying that Serbia “would be better off as a Russian province” than as an EU member.
Nowadays, he says that while he loves Russia – “it is in my heart and no one can take Russia away from me” – he has become a convert to the European cause, backing integration into the union.
‘Serbia will protect its people’
But Nikolic has said in the past he will not join the 27-member bloc at any cost, and has vowed to defend Serbian interests in the breakaway province of Kosovo, which declared independence from Belgrade in 2008 and is still home to a large Serbian minority.
“We want to join the EU. It has projects, jobs and investments for us,” he once told an election rally. “But if they say, you can join the EU, but Kosovo is not yours, (then) thanks a lot, good-bye.”
The European Union has made resolution talks between Serbia and Kosovo, initiated by Tadic, a precondition of any future Serbian membership of the bloc.
Although Nikolic largely dropped Kosovo as an issue in his winning campaign, choosing to focus on economic issues and corruption, he said after his victory that the vote showed Serbia “will protect its people in Kosovo”.
Despite winning the presidency, Nikolic’s party could still find itself excluded from government despite winning the most seats in parliamentary elections earlier this month.
Serbia’s Socialists, who finished third in the vote, said on Sunday that Nikolic’s victory did not mean they would renege on a coalition deal with Tadic’s Democratic Party.