Serbia's President Tomislav Nikolic listens during a press conference
on November 13, 2012 (AFP/File, Attila Kisbenedek)
BELGRADE — Serbia's new government, a deja-vu coalition of nationalists and socialists that led the country during the 1990s bloody Balkan wars, has surprised many with its pro-European moves, especially regarding breakaway Kosovo.
After winning a May general election, the once ultranationalists turned conservative populists of President Tomislav Nikolic's Serbian Progressive party joined ranks with the Socialists, the party of the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
The new government took over from the pro-European reformers who led Serbia for more than a decade through its uneasy transition from a once pariah nation towards a candidate country to join the European Union.
But as the new regime settled in some feared it would push Serbia back into the era when it incited conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia and triggered 1999 NATO air strikes over the Serb forces' brutal crackdown on the pro-independence ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo.
"The fear of a return to the 1990s was justified... but they have changed policies" after coming to power, said Antonela Riha, political editor of the influential NIN weekly.
What is motivating the government is the goal of joining the European club.
"They obviously intend to meet all EU-set conditions to start accession talks," Riha told AFP.
An improved relationship with Kosovo is a key condition for Serbia, an EU candidate since 2011, to obtain a date for launching accession talks.
In an effort to meet those conditions, Belgrade has removed all obstacles to Pristina's representation at regional meetings, which it had previously blocked after Kosovo unilaterally proclaimed independence in 2008, which Serbia still refuses to recognise.
There have also been higher-level meetings with Prime Minister Ivica Dacic holding EU-mediated talks with his Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci, a move unthinkable during the previous regime.
Belgrade's cooperation in managing the borders with Kosovo was praised by both Brussels and Washington, which have encouraged the new regime's attitude.
Even the government's political opponents acknowledge the signs of a pro-European path.
"I believe they will be granted the date for EU accession talks by next June if they continue this way," said Milica Delevic, head of the Serbian parliament's Committee for EU integration.
Delevic, a member of the opposition Democratic party, however warned that the authorities would have to "make more concrete steps in improving relations with Kosovo" to achieve that goal.
Besides Kosovo, still a sensitive issue for many Serbs, widespread corruption is another concern of EU diplomats, who have urged Serbia to root it out to get closer to Brussels the
Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic is heading a vast anti-graft initiative. Dozens have been arrested including the richest Serbian tycoon Miroslav Miskovic and two former ministers on suspicion of corruption and abuse of power.
If Serbia wants to move on, the new "government had to be much more responsible than anybody thought it would be," Vucic told AFP in an interview.
He said the government would introduce "key system reforms in 2013" to fight corruption and revive the ailing economy. In a country of seven million the unemployment rate has reached 25.5 percent and public debt has risen over 60 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
"If we manage all this... and obtain the date for EU accession talks, I believe that Serbia will really be on the right track," Vucic said.
However, analysts warn that the real anti-graft drive must not end with several "spectacular" arrests, but should include a systematic fight against corruption and a strengthening of institutions in accordance with EU standards.
"If he (Vucic) would make a step in that direction, not only should we applaud him, but congratulate him for what he has done," said Vladimir Pavicevic, a professor at Belgrade's Faculty of Political Sciences.
Riha said it was yet to be seen whether the authorities "have the capacity to reform (state) institutions.... This is a real challenge."
Western powers have openly supported the moves by Serbia's new regime despite the country's worrisome past. But they want to see results.
"As much as we welcome these moves, we hope they will result in successful outcomes," said a Western diplomat who requested anonymity.