Serbia's Socialists, once led by Slobodan Milosevic, emerged on Monday as potential kingmakers in the struggle between nationalists and pro-Western reformers to form a government following elections that have left the nation bitterly divided.
The jockeying is likely to revitalize the late Serbian autocrat's party, which foundered after he was toppled eight years ago in a popular revolt and was dealt a deep psychological blow when he died in 2006 while on trial for genocide.
The Socialists now appear to hold the key to whether Serbia continues to pursue its ambition of joining the EU or stakes an isolationist path in an alliance with Russia.
Serbian President Boris Tadic's pro-EU reformist coalition defied expectations to capture a big lead after Sunday's parliamentary elections, but did not garner enough support to govern alone. That has left both Tadic and his nationalist rivals scrambling to woo allies.
Both Tadic and the nationalists ??outgoing Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and his new extreme-right Radical allies ??on Monday opened negotiations with potential partners.
"Certain political forces who wanted to return Serbia to the 1990s are calculating now how to do it regardless of the people's will," Tadic said. "I am warning them not to do that."
Any alliance that can muster a simple 126-seat majority in the 250-seat parliament can govern. Tadic's coalition won 102 seats, against 77 for Nikolic's Radicals. If the ultranationlists join forces with Kostunica's bloc ??with 30 seats ??and the Socialists ??with 20 ??their combined strength would be 127 seats.
The pro-Western coalition's surprisingly strong showing came just three months after protesters outraged by Kosovo's Feb. 17 declaration of independence set fire to the US embassy in Belgrade.
That anger had stoked expectations of an electoral backlash and a Radical victory. But analysts said on Monday that voters apparently were more concerned about living standards than bruised national pride.
"The success of the pro-European forces has shown that the wish for a better life has prevailed over the anger over the loss of territory," the conservative Politika daily wrote.
Tadic's Western allies wasted no time rallying to his cause.
The US embassy in Belgrade said the Serbian electorate "has clearly demonstrated that its heart is in Europe." The EU, which signed a pre-entry aid-and-trade agreement with Serbia before the elections, called his coalition's success a "clear victory" by pro-European forces.
Both Tadic and Nikolic said they would open negotiations with the Socialists. Their leader, Ivica Dacic, said he would first talk to Kostunica and the Radicals ??but left the door open for discussions with Tadic.
"This is our great comeback on Serbia's political scene," Dacic said after the vote, reveling in his kingmaker role.
Analysts say joining the pro-Western bloc would be a shrewd strategic move for the Socialists, even though they share little ideological ground with the reformists.
The Socialists, former communists, ruled Serbia during the 1990s Balkan wars in the 1990s, but played a minor role after Milosevic's ouster.
"They would no longer be a party that is marked by its tarnished past," said Dragan Bujosevic, a political analyst at the independent NIN weekly.