BELGRADE, Serbia – Serbia's new nationalist president and the liberal rival likely to be the next prime minister assured the country Monday that they could overcome deep differences and create a stable, pro-European Union government.
Tomislav Nikolic defeated his predecessor Boris Tadic in the presidential election earlier this month, and Nikolic's nationalist Progressive Party won the largest number of seats in the 250-member parliament. But because Tadic's Democrats gained enough allies to form the next Cabinet, Nikolic is expected to be forced to name Tadic as premier-designate.
The position of prime minister is stronger than that of the president, a largely ceremonial role that cannot draft laws.
The two bitter political foes met Monday, a day after Tadic announced the start of negotiations on the formation of a new government that would leave Nikolic without real power.
"We had very good talks," Tadic said. "This was a meeting not only about the transfer of power ... but about what Serbia's institutions should look like in the future."
Nikolic also sounded an optimistic note.
"We have one common goal and that is for Serbia to move forward so that its citizens can live better," the president told reporters. "I think that you can view Serbia's political stability in the future with much more optimism."
Prior to losing to Nikolic in the May 20 election, Tadic served as president for eight years. Tadic said he would not include Nikolic's nationalists in his new government, further diminishing Nikolic's role. The Progressive Party said that a future Serbian government that excludes them "will have a problem with legitimacy."
Tadic has said his goals include improving living standards for the impoverished population and fighting unemployment and corruption — problems that contributed to his loss to Nikolic. The new president, meanwhile, has claimed to have shifted from being staunchly anti-Western to pro-EU.
Serbia is struggling to evade recession, create jobs and cut spending in an economy that has a 24 percent unemployment rate, falling currency and mounting foreign debt. Tadic said the post of the prime minister "is now a very hot seat" because these are "very challenging times."
Nikolic said Serbs will be getting a stable country that will no longer have to choose between extreme pro-Eastern or pro-Western options.
"The citizens will no longer be afraid when elections come," Nikolic said after his meeting with Tadic. "There are no more bad guys in Serbia."
Associated Press writer Jovana Gec contributed.