NOVI SAD, Serbia (Reuters) - The elegantly renovated 19th-century buildings and lush parks give this town on the Danube the feel of a cosmopolitan resort, not a place run by one of Europe’s most hardline nationalist parties.
The Radical Party won Serbia’s second city in municipal elections in 2004, in a protest vote by young urbanites against the pro-Western politicians who failed to deliver on their promises after the fall of autocrat Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.
Seen as pariahs by the mainstream for their roots in the virulent nationalism of the 1990s, the Radicals took seriously their first chance to show they now have a more pragmatic approach.
“The city has changed a lot since the Radicals took over,” says Ivan Beljanski, owner of a Novi Sad printing house. “There is much more parking space, streets are nicer.”
It’s the practical touch that Radical leader Tomislav Nikolic hopes will carry him to victory in a February 3 presidential election against pro-Western incumbent Boris Tadic.
Tadic and the European Union see the vote as choice between progress and a return to the isolation of the Milosevic era.
Nikolic, who would prefer closer ties to Russia, retains his nationalist touch, mainly on rejecting independence for breakaway Kosovo, but increasingly campaigns on quality of life issues and promises a can-do attitude.
His supporters point to Novi Sad as their shop window. The city was heavily damaged in the 1999 NATO bombing that forced Serb forces out of Kosovo, and reconstruction is still going on.
It is the venue for EXIT, launched in 2000 as a summer protest event against Milosevic’s rule and now one of the biggest music festivals in southeast Europe.
The Radicals once criticized it as a hotbed of depravity, but on taking power saw its potential and even started financing it.
“I don’t see their policy as any different to any other party,” says Andras Balok, a resident from the city’s sizeable Hungarian minority. “Corruption remains my main concern.”
Local analysts say the Radicals are trying to focus on the practical and develop a more moderate image.
There is still the occasional nod to Radical roots. The city has given honorary citizenship to Russian President Vladimir Putin as thanks for backing Serbia on the question of Kosovo, an incendiary issue for Serb nationalists.
But in an international spirit, the city is twinned with others in Ukraine, Iran, Russia, Italy and Norway.
Novi Sad’s mayor, 44-year-old lawyer Maja Gojkovic, and her cabinet have tried to break the stereotype of the Radicals presented by their opponents: as backward peasants who approved of the killing of non-Serbs in the 1990s Yugoslav wars.
“We respect all religions here,” says Zoran Vucevic, head of the city council. “Many officials from Western Europe have already visited and were happy to cooperate with us.”
Mihajlo Brkic, local leader in Tadic’s Democratic Party, says the Radicals’ failing is not lack of cooperation, but long-term vision.
“Their policy is populist,” Brkic said. “Instead of thinking how to bring investment and train people so they can work, they keep utility prices low and provide financial assistance to poor families without giving them jobs to support themselves.”
Despite concerns about overspending, officials and citizens across the political spectrum say privately that the rule of the Radicals has been much better than expected.
“As a (minority ethnic) Hungarian I don’t feel any different than I did before they came into Novi Sad,” says resident Gabriela Nagy.
“But it is not pleasant to be aware of their previous nationalist rhetoric. Nikolic used the ‘soft variant’ in this campaign, but I think that is not their real face.”
Writing by Ellie Tzortzi; editing by Andrew Roche