How to deal with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic

Leaders from Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia (FYROM) do not attend Nikolic’s inauguration but e.g. former Croatian President Mesic suggested that Nikolic should be given time to coordinate his politics.

Question:

Would you say that the inauguration’s boycott is helpful or they are better ways how to communicate with Nikolic?

Answers:

Natasha Wunsch, Associate Fellow, German Council on Foreign Relations

The intended boycott of Nikolic’s inauguration by a number of regional leaders is understandable given the problematic past of Serbia’s new President. Nikolic was openly in favour of a Greater Serbia and has maintained that this is still a dream, if unrealisable at present. Yet, it may be that Nikolic needs time to adjust to his new presidential role after his long years being in the opposition. I found Croatian President Ivo Josipovic’s moderate reaction to Nikolic’s remarks in the German newspaper FAZ admirable and I agree with Mesic that it would be advisable to other regional leaders to grant Nikolic the benefit of the doubt at the beginning. This is more likely to contribute to a moderation of his positions than an open confrontation at the occasion of his inauguration.

Eric GordySenior Lecturer, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

Mr Nikolić comes into office greeted by concern, because of his association with the Milošević regime and, until 2008, with an extremist political party with a programme that threatened neighbouring states and a record of association with crime. The breakaway party he formed four years ago has adopted a different set of positions, but there is suspicion that Mr Nikolić remains closer to the politics he grew out of than the one he stepped into.

His early statements on Srebrenica, on Vukovar, on territorial disputes involving Russia, seemed to confirm people’s fears. They may indicate an intent to reawaken old disputes, or they may simply represent the inexperience of a person who has done a lot of campaigning but has never held a position of public responsibility before. Regional leaders are avoiding his inauguration to give a symbolic warning that they do not want the fragile stability they have built over time interrupted.

On the one hand, their refusal to attend the inauguration sends a strong message and could well encourage Mr Nikolić to be more temperate in his comments. On the other hand, there is the risk of encouraging resentment in Serbia, which could lead some politicians to conclude that there is domestic profit in international confrontation. I would say that on balance the unified position of the leaders in the region is useful. It demonstrates a shared interest and it could encourage the new government to keep Mr Nikolić under control. But this public gesture will only help if it is accompanied by private communication that leads to a gesture of reconciliation.

Kristof Bender, Deputy Chairman, European Stability Initiative

The absence of many heads of state of Serbia’s neighbours from Nikolic’s inauguration is a clear sign that some of his recent statements have not gone down well in neighbouring capitals. All this is not surprising. No one expected that relations between Nikolic and his counterparts in the region would be easy. But I would not overestimate the importance of who attends this ceremony. More important for regional relations will be how Nikolic will act as president in the coming months. Especially important will be if he will show enough pragmatism to tackle – together with the government – Serbia’s remaining regional problems, in particular Kosovo.

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