Another war is brewing in the Balkans. Recently, Serbia’s voters elected a new president. Ultranationalist Tomislav Nikolic narrowly defeated the liberal, pro-European Union incumbent, Boris Tadic. Mr. Nikolic’s victory means the Balkans may be plunged into ethnic violence again.
Mr. Nikolic won on his appeal as a crusading populist and hard-line Serbian nationalist. He campaigned against the rampant corruption and economic mismanagement that characterized Mr. Tadic’s government. Serbia faces an economic and social crisis. It is plagued by massive high unemployment, stagnating growth, soaring debt and rising poverty. Mr. Nikolic vowed to tackle the country’s problems and impose honest government. In particular, he has pledged to stand up to Serbia’s venal ruling class – a promise that struck a chord with many Serbs.
Mr. Tadic is to blame for his defeat. His regime’s plutocracy and pillaging of state assets alienated much of the electorate. His drive to have Serbia enter the EU at all costs triggered a nationalist backlash.
Mr. Nikolic says he no longer opposes EU membership, arguing that “Serbia will not stray from the European road.” This is false. Mr. Nikolic is portraying himself as a born-again center-right leader in order to prevent Western sanctions and Serbia’s international isolation. It is a cheap, cynical ploy. The 60-year-old former cemetery manager is a neo-fascist, who wants to restore a “Great Serbia.”
Mr. Nikolic embodies the worst forms of Serbian nationalism, whose ideological roots go back to the “Chetniks” – the term for Serbian royalists – of World War II. Led by Drazen Mihailovic, the Chetniks formed a racist far-right-wing movement that sought to forge an ethnically pure Great Serb empire incorporating Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, most of Bosnia and large chunks of Croatia. Allied to Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy, the Chetniks engaged in murderous ethnic cleansing, slaughtering tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims, Croatians and Kosovar Albanians.
As Yugoslavia disintegrated in the 1990s, Belgrade launched brutal wars of aggression against Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. More than 250,000 were killed and nearly 2 million ethnically cleansed. Mr. Nikolic openly championed Serbia’s power grab and territorial annexations.
In Croatia, he served in notorious Serbian volunteer units where, dressed in Chetnik uniforms and espousing ultranationalist ideology, they engaged in systematic murder and destruction. The city of Vukovar was razed to the ground. Just outside of Vukovar, Serbian paramilitaries, aided by the Yugoslav army, erected the infamous Ovcara death camp. Croatian civilians were butchered. More than 50 mass graves, containing nearly 2,000 bodies, have been exhumed around the area. Many of the victims were elderly, women and children. That Mr. Nikolic boasts of having participated in such a ghastly campaign should be an embarrassment to the Serbian people. He was part of military units that committed unspeakable war crimes.
In Bosnia, Serbian forces conquered nearly 70 percent of the country. Their goal: to expel all Croatians and Bosniaks from Serb-held lands. They erected a network of concentration camps. The worst was the Omarska camp. More than 4,000 non-Serbs were slaughtered; countless others were beaten and tortured. The Rev. Stipo Sosic, a Catholic priest, managed to survive Omarska. In his memoir, “The Road to Hell and Back,” he recounts the horrendous atrocities that took place.
“Omarska was a factory of crimes. There were people dying of hunger, children were thrown into a burning oven, fingers, ears and noses were cut from men,” he writes.
Mr. Nikolic supported Belgrade’s genocidal project. In fact, he became the deputy leader of the Serbian Radical Party, run by the odious Vojislav Seselj and his band of nationalist fanatics. It called for the expulsion of all non-Serbs from Kosovo and large swaths of Bosnia and Croatia. It sought to unify all ethnically cleansed Serbian territories along with Macedonia and Montenegro into a Great Serb state. The Radicals were the heirs of Mihailovic’s Chetniks.
In 1999, Mr. Nikolic served as the deputy prime minister to Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. As NATO bombed Serbia, Mr. Nikolic and his fellow Radicals sought to implement their final solution: the annihilation of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. He helped unleash a sweeping military invasion of the southern Serbian province. He also enabled Milosevic to crack down on domestic dissent, including murdering journalists and imprisoning anti-war activists.
For years, Mr. Nikolic has railed against the West – especially the United States. He blames America for Serbia’s woes and wants to diminish Washington on the world stage. He is an Orthodox Slavophile who seeks close ties with Moscow. An admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Nikolic hopes to emulate the Kremlin’s rule. He wants to expand Moscow’s influence in the Balkans. In the past, he has suggested that Serbia become a province of Russia.
In short, he is not some flinty Serbian patriot but a radical nationalist whose election threatens the region’s security. Mr. Nikolic has not abandoned the dream of a Greater Serbia. He claims, however, that he wants to achieve it “peacefully.” He demands that Kosovo be restored to Belgrade’s control; that the Bosnian Serb Republic secede from Sarajevo; and that Croatia relinquish areas claimed by Serbian revanchists. No wonder nationalists celebrated his victory, unfurling Chetnik flags and symbols, including the skull and bones.
Yet his policies will lead to only one outcome: war. He is challenging the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia’s neighbors. Mr. Nikolic is a political thug with delusions of grandeur. Serbia is eerily reminiscent of Weimar Germany. Defeated, humiliated and sliding toward an economic abyss, Serbian voters have opted for a neo-Nazi. He is not their savior. Rather, he is leading the Serbs – again – to doom and disaster.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute.