Serbian Socialist leader Ivica Dacic speaks during the 8th Congress of Socialist Party of Serbia in Belgrade in this December 11, 2010 file photo. Dacic received a mandate on June 28, 2012 to form a coalition government with President Tomislav Nikolic's nationalist Progressive party, a move that may raise concerns about Belgrade's bid for European Union membership. REUTERS/Marko Djurica/Files

Belgrade - As spokesman for late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, Ivica Dacic would lash out against the democratic opposition, belittling their demands for free elections and earning the nickname “Little Sloba”.

More than a decade on, the man who will be Serbia's next prime minister has said he is a politician who “speaks to the people and for the people”.

The 46-year-old career politician now faces the challenges of overhauling a moribund economy and advancing Serbia's European Union membership bid which hinges on better ties with Kosovo, its former province whose independence Belgrade ignores.

“Dacic is one of the most intelligent and cunning politicians in Serbia,” said Nenad Sebek, executive director of the Centre for Reconciliation and Democracy think-tank.

“Without ever saying sorry for what his party did during the 1990s under Milosevic, Dacic single-handedly returned the Socialists to the political mainstream in Serbia,” he said.

Dacic's calculated pragmatism has turned him, in less than six years, from a political pariah burdened by the legacy of his mentor Milosevic, to Serbia's next head of government.

Under his leadership, the Socialist party (SPS) doubled its support in an inconclusive parliamentary election on May 6 to be placed third.

Dacic graduated cum laude from the Faculty of Political Sciences, majoring in journalism, and went straight into politics, joining Milosevic's ruling party.

In mid-1990s, Milosevic's influential wife Mirjana Markovic relegated Dacic to a tiny office in a Belgrade suburb to curb his growing ambitions and he obeyed, biding his time.

After Milosevic was ousted from power in 2000, Dacic, who had meanwhile joined the SPS leadership, sought to overturn his mentor's war-mongering legacy and reform the declining party.

He assembled a team of young moderates to help overhaul the party, while retaining the old party cadre to appease the elderly ex-communist electorate. In 2006 he became the SPS president and set his sights on returning to power.

He succeeded in 2008, after joining forces with the pro-European bloc of Democratic President Boris Tadic.

“He has an almost computer-like precision when deciding when to forget or remember something,” the Serbian daily Blic said.

As interior minister, Dacic, the son of a policeman, was instrumental in securing visa-free travel for Serbs in the EU and launched a crackdown on organised crime and corruption.

During his tenure, Serbian police arrested and handed over to the Hague tribunal two top war crimes suspects, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military chief Ratko Mladic. Milosevic had been handed over in 2001 and later died in detention.

Within the coalition, Dacic's party controlled state-run energy and gas monopoly Srbijagas and secured funds and close ties with Russia through a partnership with oil and gas giant Gazprom.

Despite his nationalist past, he boosted ties with police in neighbouring Croatia and Bosnia, allowing cross-border cooperation to take firm roots for the first time since Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991.

“He is extremely smart and likely to be very cooperative when negotiating with the international community, but still an ey esore fo r anyone who doesn't have the memory of a goldfish,” Sebek said. - Reuters