Having defied expectations, Serbia now deserve all the help Europe can give.
"With their backs to the wall", perceiving the world as against them, is how Norwegian author Asne Seierstad describes the Serbs. In Sunday's parliamentary, provincial and municipal elections, moderate Serbs produced a classic 'backs-to-the-wall' performance.
Despite pre-election polls showing the nationalist Serb Radical Party (SRS) leading President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party (DS) by 3 to 4 percentage points, and popular fury over the western-backed secession of Kosovo, the results ended in victory for the pro-Western bloc and a snub to outgoing Prime Minister Kostunica who many thought would be the post-election king-maker.
With a turn-out of more than 60 percent, Mr. Tadic's Coalition for European Serbia, secured 38 percent of the vote, giving them 102 seats. Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) held about 11.3 percent, or about 30 seats with Tomislav Nikolic's ultra-nationalist SRS gaining 77 seats. A simple 126-seat majority in the 250-seat parliament is required to govern.
But despite the DS's strong showing - and sings that a majority-holding, DS-led coalition is taking shape - forming a government will not be straightforward. The three nationalist parties - DSS, SPS, SRS - have a two seat majority in the parliament, probably thanks to the votes of Kosovo's Serbs. In order for DS to form a government, it will need to bring in the national minorities and pick up at a coalition partner from the nationalist block, for example Slobodan Milosevic's party, SPS.
The nationalists, for one, are convinced DS will fail. Mr. Nikolic said there was "a great chance" for creating a government that excluded the DS. Already, Nikolic and Kostunica are said to have reached a coalition agreement and Kostunica is meeting SPS officials later in the week. The focus on any platform will likely seek to combine the dog-whistle issue of Kosovo with a pitch for a corruption-free government.
For SPS, run by Slobodan Milošević for more than a decade, the results are a welcome return to prominence after years in the wilderness. But which way will the party jump? SPS shares more with DSS and SRS, especially on Kosovo. Moreover, a deal with Kostunica and Nikolic will likely allow SPS to gain more ministerial posts than a coalition with DS and its partners. But on the other hand, a pro-European coalition with DS could bring with it the kind of rehabilitation experienced by Franjo Tudjman's nationalist HDZ in Croatia, which is now hailed as the country's European motor.
During the election, the European Union does appear to have helped the moderates. The signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) - and a subsequent deal between Fiat and the Zastava car factory, an object of enormous national pride - probably helped tip the balance.
Many commentators had thought it would be best for the EU to keep a low profile in the elections given the likelihood that the bloc's involvement could back-fire. Nobody likes outsiders telling them what to do and the EU's role in the Presidential elections was seen by many as problematic. The respected think-tank ICG went so far as to argue that the EU should "stop intervening directly in support of one or another political force."
However, in this case the fears turned out to be exaggerated. The EU now needs to build on the success of the moderate parties and make clear how it intends to help further. Before the elections, the EU agreed to ease travel restrictions for Serbs to many EU countries of the member states. But that will take months if not years, as Serbia first needs to meet strict EU standards on border controls, the fight against crime and issuing new forgery-proof passports.
The EU should publicly explain how it will support these projects - putting headline-grabbing figures on the aid to be offered - and, more generally, how it will assist a new pro-European coalition. The aim should probably be to persuade the SPS to join the DS and the smaller parties in government with the prospect of quickening the pace of European integration.
Even though this election was said to determine Serbia's European future, the results mean that the process of forging closer Serbia-EU ties cannot yet begin. Only if a moderate coalition is be cobbled together can it really begin. And even if that happens, a number of obstacles will still have to be cleared, including over Kosovo's status and Belgrade's non-compliance with The Hague Tribunal. But the EU should do what it can to help the DS form a government so the direction of travel, at least for the next few years, is assured.
Read more on: Wider Europe
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.