Tomislav Nikolić

The Serbian Radical party is splitting over a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the European Union. Defeated by the party's more extreme faction, Nikolic, who served as leader after Seselj's arrest, leaves and plans the creation of a new party. A crisis, which has brewed for months, finally explodes

11/09/2008 -  Danijela Nenadić Belgrado

"The Serbian Radical Party does not exist any more," stated Tomislav Nikolic, the man who led the party after Seselj's departure to The Hague. "The curtain falls on a party. Perhaps it will rise to reveal two parties, or a single new one. But what was once the Serbian Radical party (SRS), does not exist any more." said a clearly tired and disappointed Tomislav Nikolic in Parliament on September 8.

Nikolic formed a new group of MPs called "Forward Serbia" which has 11 members. He said he had not called anyone, nor had he planned to form the group, but that he was asked by those who "could not take part in a group of MPs which is under the imposed command of Dragan Todorovic and Vjerica Radeta."

The recent events inside SRS have marked the beginning of an open fight for dominance, and the first division from the very creation of this party. The Radicals have always represented a party of exceptional homogeneity and unity, which since its founding in 1991 could not be shaken by anything, not even a decisive electoral defeat or the departure of its leader Vojislav Seselj to The Hague.

The rupture of the Radicals, however, was not a big surprise. The ex-mayor of Novi Sad, Maja Gojkovic, took the first step by declining to obey Seselj and thus setting the path for the transformation of the party. At the time, Gojkovic was in the minority; close party circles rumoured that Nikolic opposed her exclusion from the party, but that he could not fight the orders of Seselj who would not accept any "de-radicalisation" of the Radicals.

The second cause of tension was the decision to remove Seselj's image from the presidential campaign badges, when Tomislav Nikolic was the Radicals' candidate for president. Guided by advice from his marketing team, but also by his own pragmatism, Nikolic decided the Radicals should be presented in a new light and distance themselves from Seselj's politics. Nikolic then clearly achieved the best result in the history of SRS by coming within 100,000 votes of the winner, Boris Tadic, in the presidential elections.

After the presidential vote, the Radicals promptly reinstalled the badges with Seselj's face. The unity was, however, only superficial. After the national elections, differences again came under public scrutiny upon the disclosure that, from The Hague, Seselj proposed an alliance with the "People's Block" (Democratic Party of Serbia - New Serbia) to support Vojislav Kostunica as candidate for prime minister.

Nikolic refused to accept this directive, arguing that nominating a prime minister during the political negotiations to form a coalition was a sign of weakness, and that the Radicals should have received the prime ministry. According to news reports, Nikolic then asked Seselj permission to lead the party according to his own decisions, but the answer was negative. Allegedly, Nikolic then resigned, but Seselj begged him to stay as vice-president of the party and to conduct the election campaign and the post-electoral talks, until problems would be resolved.

By summer, the two had clearly stopped collaborating. Many talked of the two streams inside the party, the so-called reformist of Nikolic, and the hardline of Seselj.

Nikolic openly said he no longer had direct contact with Seselj and that Dragan Todorovic and Vjerica Radeta communicated with Seselj.

The party's final division occurred over the most improbable issue: Serbia's negotiation of Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the European Union. When Serbian Parliament finally convened in the beginning of September, the SRS parliamentarians spewed a series of insults and curses in parliament. Those who could hear the insults understood that Natasa Jovanovic, Vjerica Radeta, and Gordana Pop-Lazic from the SRS leadership were not cursing the Serbian president Boris Tadic but the leader of their parliamentary delegation, Tomislav Nikolic. Above all, however, they were cursing all those who showed willingness to cooperate with the Tadic, the "traitor of Serb interests".

Many did not know then that the Democratic Party and Tadic had made a deal with Nikolic to have the Radical MPs support the SAA when proposed by the Liberal Democratic Party. (The SAA was ratified by the parliament on September 9.)

The Radicals quickly announced a proposed amendment, this amendment was accepted, and subsequently Nikolic said the Radicals would support the SAA. Dragan Todorovic confirmed the news and also said Seselj had approved of the action. The Radicals' amendment demands that the legislation ratifying the SAA contain a provision stating that Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia.

A few hours later, however, there was a turn. As reported by Novosti, Seselj sent orders from The Hague that the Radicals should not support the SAA in any way. Todorovic communicated the change of position to the press, after having said that the media had it wrong and that the Radicals never had the intention to support the SAA.

The same day, Friday, September 5, Tomislav Nikolic resigned as leader of the SRS group in Parliament and from the post of party vice president. Nikolic stated for B92 that he decided to resign since he was instructed the Radicals must not vote for the SAA. "It is true, I have resigned because I acted according to the principle - ethics is one thing, the given word another." Nikolic stated that the inside the party bodies, the decision had been made to accept the SAA if the assembly would accept the amendment, he then had given his "word the Radicals would vote for the SAA."

According to informal channels, the final split began on September 8 when the Radical MPs met. After hard words and bitter messages, they elected a new leader, Dragan Todorovic, which meant the final dominance of the hardliners.

Todorovic was elected with only one opposing vote, and Vjerica Radeta was elected as his deputy with the votes of all the Radical MPs. The secretary general of the Radicals, Aleksandar Vucic did not attend the meeting, because, as said by the party, he was not an MP. Vucic had not signed up yet with the new party but it is uncertain if he would join Nikolic or stay loyal to Seselj.

By forming the new group of MPs "Forward Serbia", Nikolic challenged his party colleagues. Speaking to journalists Nikolic said that "not everything can be decided at The Hague" and that he would call an extraordinary party congress. Nikolic stated that neither he nor the deputies who decided to support him would leave the party, but that he expects the party to decide on this.

Bozidar Delic, who stood by Nikolic, was even more dramatic. With a broken voice, sighing, and almost in tears, Delic said that he would give everything for Seselj, even his life, but that if he had to choose between Seselj and Serbia, he would always choose Serbia.

After the new group formed, Dragan Todorovic stated that the party informed Seselj of the developments, and that he was not surprised. Todorovic added that the MPs who joined the new group were no longer members of the SRS and their expulsion from the party would be requested. "This will not stop us, it will give us new strength and will to persevere in the struggle and in helping Vojislav Seselj," said Todorovic to the press.

Interestingly, Nikolic has "lost" the sealed resignations by the MPs, and he does not know where they are. "Nobody can revoke the mandate of any radical, because Todorovic does not have them, and I have lost the ones I had and don't know where they are. We should find new ones," he stated to the daily newspaper Politika.

Most party members avoid comments on the events inside SRS and emphasises that it is an internal party issue. Analysts are not willing to make grand predictions either. Sociologist Vladimir Vuletic commented for Politika that what happens in SRS "is not a defeat but a great fiasco for the rightwing." Vuletic adds that the Serbian rightwing has come to lack ideas about the future of the country. In his view, "The hardcore nationalists propose ideas which are not grounded in reality."