But on Monday Tomislav Nikolic pledged to keep Serbia on a course to membership of the European Union after the nationalist won a shock election victory as president.
Serbian liberals were shocked by the defeat of the moderate President Boris Tadic who had held power since 2004 and had done much to slay the ghosts of Slobodan Milosevic’s destructive rearguard battle against the break up of Yugoslavia.
Mr Nikolic was a leading figure in the far-Right Serbian Radical Party (SRS) in the 1990s.
The 60-year old earned a gruesome reputation as ‘the undertaker’ for his role in organising recruitment to Serbian paramilitaries to fight in Croatia and Bosnia. By the time of the Kosovo war in 1999, Mr Nikolic was a deputy prime minister in Milosevic’s regime.
However he split with the hardline factions in 2008, rebranding his politics as the Serbian Progressive Party. Facing Mr Tadic for a third election in a row, Mr Nikolic fashioned a sufficiently reassuring message to pip the centrist by 49.5 per cent versus 47.4 per cent.
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.
However, European leaders said they expected Belgrade to continue its rehabilitation by implementing reforms required for accession to the EU.
Mr Nikolic has not cut off ties to the Kremlin but he promised to maintain progress on the EU bid. “Serbia will not turn away from the European path,” he said.
Timothy Ash, global head of emerging-market research at the Royal Bank of Scotland, said voters support for pro-European policies would keep the new president in check. “Nikolic will, I think, be eager to prove—both to the electorate and the international community—that he and (his party) are now ready to govern, in a moderate manner,” he said.