A former cemeteries manager known as the undertaker stands his best chance of becoming head of state when Serbia votes tomorrow in a fateful presidential election.
To his many critics, the extreme nationalist Tomislav Nikolic will be digging Serbia’s grave if he repeats his first-round victory, plunging the pivotal Balkan country into renewed isolation, and halting the country’s slow recovery from the devastation of the Milosevic years in the 1990s.
Tomorrow’s poll is the most important since the toppling of the late Slobodan Milosevic almost seven years ago.
Nikolic, 55, of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, whose leader is on trial for war crimes in The Hague, is up against the incumbent president, Boris Tadic.
Nikolic is a pro-Russian nationalist who served under Milosevic and fought in the wars of the 1990s in Croatia, while Tadic is a pro-western liberal who hopes to hasten the country’s stumbling integration into the European mainstream.
Nikolic won the first round a fortnight ago by five points. Tomorrow’s contest is too close to call, with a reliable poll giving Tadic a lead of 100,000 votes in an electorate of 6.7 million.
"It’s totally unpredictable," said Braca Grubacic, a veteran Belgrade analyst. "It will come down to stupid things, like the weather."
If the sun shines on Tadic, the rest of Europe will breathe a huge sigh of relief. But Brussels is panicking, making last-minute offers to Belgrade to try to swing the vote.
"Will Serbia become the Belarus of the Balkans? Perhaps it will. Perhaps it needs to go through a period of rule by the [extremist] Radicals. It will set the country back five years," said an EU official dealing with the Balkans.
Nikolic underlined his pan-Slav appeal by campaigning this week in Moscow escorted by Milosevic’s brother, Borislav, and being treated to audiences with Russia’s present and future presidents, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.
"One path is open towards the Russian Federation, and the other, the thorny one, towards the European Union," Nikolic declared on his return.
Nikolic’s boss is the talented demagogue Vojislav Seselj who founded the Radicals’ Party, operated as a warlord in the 1990s and is being tried for war crimes at the tribunal in The Hague.
During the 1991-95 war in Croatia, Seselj promoted Nikolic for "showing by personal example how to fight for the Serbian idea."
Nikolic bragged about his role in the fighting in Croatia, but when Natasa Kandic, Serbia’s outstanding human rights campaigner, demanded an investigation of Nikolic’s possible role in the killing of Croatian villagers, Nikolic insisted he had "not fired a shot."
He professes loyalty to Seselj, but has sought to distance himself from Seselj’s extremism.
Nikolic’s main appeal tomorrow is not so much to Serbian nationalists nursing grievances about Nato bombs and lost lands, as to the many losers of Serbia’s transition to democracy angry at the country’s lawlessness and sleaze.
Brussels is particularly nervous because of the looming secession of Serbia’s southern province of Kosovo, which is casting a shadow over the election.
A Tadic victory will diminish the prospect of an ugly Serbian reaction to Kosovo’s breakaway. If Nikolic wins, he and the nationalist prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, are likely to unleash a more strident anti-western campaign over Kosovo.
No one expects a new Balkan war. But there are widespread fears that a Nikolic-Kostunica duo could destabilize the region with Russian support.
"There’s an expectation, without any certainty, that there won’t be any military action," said another European official.
A Nikolic victory is also certain to bring forward Kosovo’s declaration of independence.
The Kosovo Albanian leadership would declare independence as early as next week, said senior officials in Brussels, and then Slovenia, as current EU president, would call an emergency meeting of European foreign ministers to recognize the new state and dispatch a European mission of administrators to steer Kosovo towards fully-fledged statehood.
Kostunica is threatening to break off relations with the EU if it sends its mission to Kosovo and has demanded that Tadic take that position, too.
Ardently pro-European, Tadic refused, having to forfeit the prime minister’s support in tomorrow’s election.
That increases the undertaker’s chances of a famous victory, which will probably cause the Serbian government to collapse.
"There will definitely be no new war. But there will be lots of turbulence," said Grubacic. "The government will fall, there will be new elections. The Radicals have been the biggest party in Serbia for years, but never in power. This is the closest Nikolic has ever been."