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President Boris Tadic is stealthily transforming Serbia, formerly Europe’s most dangerous rogue state (© Damir Sagolj / Reuters/Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
President Boris Tadic is stealthily transforming Serbia, formerly Europe’s most dangerous rogue state (© Damir Sagolj / Reuters/Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Doug Saunders

Under Tadic, Belgrade comes in from the cold Add to ...

As he approaches the midterm mark, the Democratic Party president is struggling against challenges that would paralyze any leader: an angrily divided nation, a fractious congress, a devastated economy, a culture war, flagging polls. Despite the challenges, he's working quietly to turn his country back into a normal place, to restore its position in the community of nations, to end its violent conflicts.

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No, I am not talking about Barack Obama, despite the similarities. To see real change you can believe in, it's worth travelling to Serbia, where President Boris Tadic is stealthily turning around a country that was Europe's most dangerous rogue state just a few years ago. Mr. Tadic may be the Western world's most successful leader, precisely because you so rarely hear from him: In a land known for the explosive politics of rage, he has brought calm reconciliation.

Monday, Mr. Tadic travelled to Luxembourg to make history, persuading the foreign ministers of all 27 European Union countries to allow Serbia to bid for EU membership, which would end two decades of economic and political isolation. Months earlier, Serbs won the right to travel Europe without visas. Belgrade is coming in from the cold.

In exchange, Mr. Tadic has done things that even two years ago would have been considered unthinkable, things that would have invited assassination or political ruin.

He issued a state apology for his country's role in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. He organized the capture and arrest of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian-Serb leader most responsible for the massacre. And, most extraordinarily, he permitted the breakaway Muslim-majority province of Kosovo, the subject of a 1999 NATO war and a symbolic touchstone for many Serbs, to become an independent nation without official protest.

At Mr. Tadic's bidding, Europe is slowly ending its long punishment of the Serbs. It has taken far too long.

It was 10 years ago this month that Democratic movement protests drove strongman Slobodan Milosevic out of power, ending his 12-year campaign to Serbianize the former Yugoslavia.

For most of the 2000s, it was not at all clear that the Democrats would prevail: The ultra-nationalist opposition, loyal to Mr. Milosevic, controlled large branches of the government and the security services and orchestrated the assassination of Democratic reformist prime minister Zoran Djindjic, plunging Serbia into half a decade of darkness.

The congenial Mr. Tadic won his second presidential election in 2008, but he appeared doomed. In parliament, his Democrats had no way of forming a government without partnering with the Socialists, Mr. Milosevic's old party, who wanted nothing to do with Europe or international co-operation. The economy was collapsing: Mr. Tadic promised to create 200,000 jobs, but lost 300,000. And on election eve, it had become clear that the United Nations was about to allow Kosovo to declare independence, horrific timing for an inevitable decision, making ethno-nationalist rage the main issue.

It was through sheer charm and political guile that Mr. Tadic pulled it off. He persuaded the Socialists to purge their ultra-nationalist bloc and remake themselves as a European-style moderate social democratic party, giving Serbia its first completely united and pro-European government in a century. He persuaded many Serbs that the hardships and humiliations would lead to Serbia's return to Europe, and he persuaded politicians to shut up about Kosovo.

But Serbia's full rebirth has been blocked by Mr. Tadic's inability to capture the other Srebrenica fugitive, militia leader Ratko Mladic. Mr. Tadic says he is close, but his security services are neither fast nor completely loyal.

This inability baffles Europe and offends countries like the Netherlands, which block Serbia's EU entry. But after a Serbian leader so readily abandoned Kosovo, whose fate is a national obsession, there's no way he could be intentionally stalling on Mr. Mladic, who nobody in Serbia cares about any more.

"He's been dealt a very bad hand, but he's handled things very well, he's been very clever - he had to use his people skills, which are plentiful," said Ljiljana Smajlovic, the legendary Belgrade newspaper editor who is Serbia's most articulate voice for reform.

I had called Ms. Smajlovic hoping to hear a countervailing voice of criticism, for she had been a victim of Mr. Tadic's dark side, fired after a political feud from her job editing the partly state-run Politika daily in a nasty bit of political repression.

But despite her bitterness, even she finds his accomplishments impressive. "He worked with what he was given, and he was given very little, and he pulled it off - he's a very likeable guy, there's not a bad bone in his body," she said.

Mr. Tadic's success is not in what he has accomplished (Serbia remains poor and awkward) but in what he has prevented. It's a rare story of national transformation, one that will be jeopardized if he is not soon rewarded.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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