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Milosevic ally gains key Serbian post

Tomislav Nikolic, the leader of the extreme-right SRS-Serbian Radical Party, laughs during a session of Serbia's parliament that convened Monday, May 7, 2007, in Belgrade, amid a deadlock in talks on the formation of a pro-democracy government and indications that ultranationalists may return to power in the troubled Balkan country. The assembly is to elect the parliament speaker, who holds a highly influential post and is the third-ranked official in the country after president and prime minister. The choice will be between ultranationalist Nikolic and Milena Milosevic of the pro-Western Democratic Party. Tomislav Nikolic, the leader of the extreme-right SRS-Serbian Radical Party, laughs during a session of Serbia's parliament that convened Monday, May 7, 2007, in Belgrade, amid a deadlock in talks on the formation of a pro-democracy government and indications that ultranationalists may return to power in the troubled Balkan country. The assembly is to elect the parliament speaker, who holds a highly influential post and is the third-ranked official in the country after president and prime minister. The choice will be between ultranationalist Nikolic and Milena Milosevic of the pro-Western Democratic Party. (AP Photo/Srdjan Ilic)

BELGRADE, Serbia --Serbia's new right-wing parliament speaker said Tuesday the Balkan country should quit striving for closer ties with the West and turn to Russia, hours after he was elected to the post in a move that signaled the return of ultranationalists to power.

Tomislav Nikolic, a leader of the Serb Radical Party and admirer of the late President Slobodan Milosevic, was elected to the highly influential position -- second in line behind the president -- thanks to the votes of the conservative party of outgoing Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.

"Russia will find a way to bring together nations that will stand up against the hegemony of America and of the European Union," Nikolic told the 250-seat parliament. "I hope that a majority in Serbia will strive for membership in such an organization, not in the European Union."

His remarks reflected a rising anti-Western sentiment here, fueled by the EU's decision last year to suspend pre-entry talks with Serbia over its failure to capture a war crimes suspect, and the possibility of the Serbian province of Kosovo gaining independence under a U.N. plan. Serbia has won Russia's support in trying to prevent Kosovo's secession, which is backed by the West.

After the vote, Russian Ambassador Aleksander Alexeyev congratulated Nikolic on his victory, saying Russia is "always ready to cooperate with Serbia and strengthen ties on all levels."

Liberal and moderate lawmakers expressed dismay over Nikolic's win, but were still unable to agree on a coalition government that would keep at bay the increasingly popular Radicals.

"Nikolic epitomizes war, isolation and misery," said Cedomir Jovanovic, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Following elections on Jan. 21, there was a chance that pro-Western Democrats -- led by pro-Western President Boris Tadic -- and the moderately nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia led by Kostunica would join forces and form a new Cabinet.

But Kostunica sided with the Radicals, enabling Nikolic to become the speaker. Tadic criticized the move and challenged Kostunica to declare the extremists his new political partners.

He demanded they come up with a candidate for premier by Friday, or face fresh elections.

May 15 is the deadline to form a government or hold new elections, in which the Radicals -- already the largest parliamentary group with 81 seats -- could gain even more.

At stake is whether Serbia would restart pre-entry talks with the EU or return to the isolation policies of Milosevic, who died last year while on trial on genocide charges at the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The EU has expressed concern over Nikolic becoming the parliament speaker, but held out hope that pro-Western groups might be able to form a government.

Serbia's entry to the EU and NATO remains blocked due to Belgrade's failure to extradite Gen. Ratko Mladic, a wartime commander sought by a U.N. tribunal for atrocities during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia. Capturing Mladic depends on who controls security services in Serbia.

The Radicals and other nationalists regard the elusive commander as a war hero and refuse to even try to locate him, let alone hand him over to the U.N. tribunal in the Netherlands, where the Radicals' founder and the nominal chief, Vojislav Seselj, awaits trial for his alleged role in the 1990s Balkans wars.

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Associated Press writer Jan Sliva in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

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