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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 May 2007, 16:25 GMT 17:25 UK
Political uncertainty stalks Serbia
By Nick Hawton
BBC News, Belgrade

German peacekeepers in Kosovo
The uncertainty coincides with a crucial time for Kosovo

When the insults had stopped flying and the dust had settled there was one simple fact.

Serbia's politicians had elected a hardline nationalist to fill one of the most important and powerful positions in the country, that of parliamentary speaker.

Tomislav Nikolic, deputy leader of the Serbian Radical Party, whose leader is in The Hague facing war crimes charges, humbly took up his post promising not to be "a danger to Serbia".

It is the first time since the authoritarian days of ex-President Slobodan Milosevic that a hardline nationalist has held such an influential position.

President Boris Tadic described the development as "very harmful to the state".

The election of Mr Nikolic is a result of the political crisis that Serbia is experiencing.

There is still no government three months after the general election, and a new election may have to be called.

The pro-democracy, pro-reform parties have failed to form the coalition government many had expected.

There is political deadlock in parliament and there is a danger of a political vacuum as the crucial decision on the long term future of the UN-administered province of Kosovo nears.

Paramilitary unit

It all seemed so different not so long ago.

The fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 heralded a new beginning with democratic parties taking power.

With their irregular uniforms and nationalist rhetoric, the scene was all too reminiscent of the 1990s

War crimes suspects were gradually sent to The Hague, relations with neighbouring countries began to improve and the path towards the European Union seemed to be opening.

But now the future seems less certain. The Radical Party does not yet form part of the government, even though it holds the most seats in parliament, but no-one knows what is going to happen next.

In the corridors of power, deals can be done. If there is an upsurge in violence in Kosovo for instance, the nationalists could benefit.

Tomislav Nikolic,
Hardline nationalist Nikolic vowed not to endanger Serbia

If no government is formed in Serbia by 14 May there has to be new elections.

These would come at a critical time, just as a final decision on the future of Kosovo is expected.

The UN is discussing a proposal to give Kosovo a form of independence that its majority Albanian population demands. Serbia has said it will never accept such a plan.

There could be a power vacuum in Belgrade as the UN makes a final decision.

The consequences of that are unknown but there are obvious dangers if it is not clear who is in charge and if no lead is given to Serbs living in Kosovo.

Already in the wings there are ominous signs.

A group of former Serb war veterans formed a paramilitary unit recently called the Guard of Prince Lazar after a former Serb leader who fought in Kosovo more than 500 years ago.

Members of the unit say they would be prepared to fight for Kosovo should it become independent. With their irregular uniforms and nationalist rhetoric, the scene was all too reminiscent of the 1990s.

But in the meantime there are still a few days to go before the deadline for the formation of a new government expires.

The reform-orientated parties in Serbia's parliament can, in theory, still muster a majority and form an administration. But no-one knows if they will.


SEE ALSO
Q&A: Serbian election
18 Jan 07 |  Europe
Country profile: Serbia
10 Nov 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Serbia
16 Dec 06 |  Country profiles

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