[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Languages
Last Updated: Thursday, 15 April, 2004, 09:35 GMT 10:35 UK
Profile: Tomislav Nikolic
By Tim Judah
Balkans analyst

They call him the "gravedigger".

Tomislav Nikolic, the leader of Serbia's extreme nationalist Serbian Radical Party, once ran cemeteries in a small provincial town.

If he has his way though, he will soon be burying the Serbian government.

Tomislav Nikolic of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party
Nikolic's Radicals are the largest party in the Serbian parliament
Mr Nikolic, 52, well-placed to win Serbia's presidential elections on 27 June.

Serbia's embattled liberal, pro-reform and pro-European elite is aghast and Western policymakers charged with dealing with the Balkans have made no contingency plans as to how to react if he wins the poll.

Mr Nikolic has come to the helm of the Radicals because its founder, Vojislav Seselj, is currently behind bars at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

Mr Seselj stands accused of crimes against humanity including ethnic cleansing, torture, murder and the extermination of non-Serbs during the Bosnian and Croatian Wars.

Police return

Today though, Mr Nikolic is keen to play down fears, both at home and abroad, that his election would lead to a new round of bloodletting in the former Yugoslavia.

He is courteous to a fault. A tall man, he sports a large badge on his suit jacket which reads: "Seselj - Serbian Hero".

Last November, Mr Nikolic came within an ace of being elected president. He received 46.23% of the vote against 33.42% for his closest rival.

The stories I have heard that I am going to lead the Serbs to war are an attempt to prevent me winning
Tomislav Nikolic
But Mr Nikolic did not become president because less than 50% of the electorate voted, invalidating the poll. Now that rule has been scrapped.

As president, Mr Nikolic says his powers would be limited by the constitution. His main role would be to try and influence parliament and the electorate.

On Kosovo, Mr Nikolic is demanding that Serbian police and soldiers go back to the province. He points out that this is allowed under the terms of the UN resolution that ended the war there in 1999 and saw Serbian rule replaced by a UN administration.

According to him, the removal of more than 3,000 Serbs from their homes by Albanians during the upsurge in violence in Kosovo on 17 and 18 March would never have happened if Serbian security forces had been present.

So, he argues, if K-For, the Nato-led force in Kosovo, cannot do their job, then they should let Serbs do it.

"I am asking for the police and army to go back and protect Serbian homes, not to attack, but to defend," he said.

No to Nato

Mr Nikolic's argument is bound to attract voters. It is also bound to have no chance of success - the UN will simply not allow it - since the return of Serbian forces to Kosovo would, without doubt, unleash a new full-scale war there.

In his view, Kosovo should become, once more, an autonomous part of Serbia and the moves by its mostly Muslim Albanian majority to create an independent and, he says, "anti-Christian" state there, should be stopped.

Serbian woman with Nato forces
Mr Nikolic wants Serbian forces to return to Kosovo to protect Serbs
He says the politicians who have run Serbia since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000 have been "slavishly" pro-Western.

He is a sceptic on Serbia's chances of EU integration, blaming it for Serbia's current economic ills.

As for Nato, he scoffs: "We don't need it. It became a political organisation."

Partnership for Peace, a kind of waiting room for aspiring Nato members, is dismissed as "a fairy tale".

Mr Nikolic says his dream is a Greater Serbia, which stretches to the Adriatic Sea, now the coast of Croatia, but dismisses the idea that a Serbia led by him would go to war to achieve it.

He says: "The stories I have heard that I am going to lead the Serbs to war are an attempt to prevent me winning."

Several candidates have declared that they will run against Mr Nikolic, but so far only one is considered a serious contender. He is Boris Tadic, the outgoing Minister of Defence of Serbia and Montenegro.

Isolation

But Mr Tadic could only win if those from all the other parties who oppose Mr Nikolic vote for him.

So far, it does not look like that is going to happen. Serbia's Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has said he will not support Mr Tadic and will back a candidate from the governing coalition instead, Economy Minister Dragan Marsicanin.

Mr Seselj once threatened to gouge out Croatian eyes with a rusty spoon. Mr Nikolic does not go in for such language but still, there is every chance that if he is elected president, Serbia will drift back into international isolation.

Serbia's already stalled moves towards European integration would have little chance of reviving.

The Radicals are already the largest party in the Serbian parliament but they are not in government.

A leading party in Mr Kostunica's coalition has said it will leave the government if Mr Nikolic is elected. That could result in a new general election and an even stronger turnout for the Radicals.

That is exactly what Mr Nikolic wants. He says he believes that the lifespan of the current government is indeed destined to be "very short".

Tim Judah is the author of Kosovo: War and Revenge, and The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia published by Yale University Press.


SEE ALSO:
Serb turnout worst in past year
18 Nov 03  |  Europe
Serb Radical outlines ambitions
30 Dec 03  |  Europe
Ultra-nationalists top Serb poll
29 Dec 03  |  Europe
Ghosts haunt Serbian poll
27 Dec 03  |  Europe
'Third failure' for Serbia poll
16 Nov 03  |  Europe
Serbia vote: Parties and players
24 Dec 03  |  Europe


RELATED INTERNET LINKS:
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


PRODUCTS AND SERVICES

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific