BELGRADE, Serbia – Serbia is still likely to get a government that hopes to join the European Union despite the election of a pro-Russian nationalist as the country's new president, officials said Monday.
Tomislav Nikolic, a former ultranationalist ally of the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, beat incumbent Boris Tadic for Serbia's presidency on Sunday. The result could slow down the Balkan country's attempts to join the EU and reconcile with wartime foes, including the former province of Kosovo that declared independence in 2008.
The state electoral commission said Monday its near-complete vote count showed Nikolic won 49.5 percent of the vote against Tadic's 47.3 percent.
The outcome was a sign of the fading allure of the EU, which is plagued by a debt crisis, and voter discontent with Serbia's weak economy. Tadic is one of many politicians in Europe who have recently lost elections because of the continent's financial crisis.
Tadic built his presidential bid around pro-EU policies, but his biggest problem was Serbia's economic downturn and corruption within the ruling elite. With Europe's debt crisis slowing down much-needed foreign investment, Tadic's government has presided over massive job losses and plummeting living standards.
Despite the election loss, Tadic's Democrats are likely to form a new government with the Socialists led by Ivica Dacic, leaving Nikolic without real power as a figurehead president.
Dragan Bujosevic, the editor in chief of the main Serbian newspaper Politika, said Nikolic's victory only represented a punishment of Tadic, since his party will be a key part of the next Serbian government.
"It's a paradox," Bujosevic said.
Nikolic, who narrowly lost two earlier presidential votes to Tadic, claimed to have shifted from being staunchly anti-Western to pro-EU. But that change was widely believed to be a ploy to gain more votes. Nikolic has close ties with Russia and has in the past even envisaged Serbia as a Russian province.
"Serbia will not turn away from the European path," Nikolic said in his victory speech but he gave no indication who he would propose for prime minister.
The EU urged Nikolic on Monday to pursue the course of membership and to continue to seek reconciliation with Kosovo, the former province considered by nationalists as the cradle of the Serbian state and its religion.
Herman van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso, two leading EU officials, said in a joint statement "it will be essential to see the momentum of reforms continuing" if Serbia hopes to start accession negotiations.
Kosovo's President Atifete Jahjaga urged "the newly elected president of the neighboring country of Serbia, to do what his predecessors have not done, to find the courage and to take steps to establish good and peaceful relations with Kosovo."
Nikolic has vowed to keep alive Serbia's claim over the predominantly ethnic Albanian region. Serbia, supported by Russia, has rejected Kosovo's declaration of independence.
Associated Press writer Nebi Qena contributed from Kosovo.