Watershed Serbia vote plays out in shadow of Kosovo

A031685417.jpgBELGRADE – Pro-Western Serbian President Boris Tadic faces nationalist challenger Tomislav Nikolic on Sunday in an election that will decide Serbia’s attitude to the West after the imminent loss of breakaway Kosovo province.

Analysts say it amounts to a referendum on the nation’s future. The race is so close that monitors may withhold exit polls for fear of provoking premature celebrations and tension.

The European Union, urging Serbs to break with the lingering legacies of the late autocratic and nationalist ruler Slobodan Milosevic, wants Tadic to win.

Tadic, like Nikolic, opposes independence for Kosovo but would try to stop a relapse into the defiant nationalism of the 1990s once the land-locked territory breaks away with Western backing in coming weeks.

“We find ourselves at a crossroads,” Tadic said in a televised debate with Nikolic on Wednesday night. “The European path has no alternative, it contains all our hopes. The years of isolation must be over once and for all.”

Nikolic, a Russophile who has toned down his nationalist rhetoric to appeal to moderates, said he would never oppose EU entry — if the bloc backed off from recognising Kosovo.

“The EU will have in me a tough negotiator, I will first of all defend Serbia,” he said. “The EU no longer has the same rigid stance it had at previous elections…they said they’ll continue to cooperate with Serbia no matter who becomes president.”

TIMING OF DECLARATION

For the leaders of Kosovo’s Albanian majority, the outcome of the election will determine the timing of their declaration of independence in February.

If Nikolic wins, political sources say they will declare independence the following weekend. If Tadic wins, they will wait up to a few weeks in deference to the wishes of the EU.

A Nikolic victory could also bring down the fragile governing coalition of Tadic and nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, two politicians who have tried to bury their rivalry in an uneasy marriage to defend Kosovo.

Serbia’s ancestral homeland is now home to a 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority. It has been run by the United Nations since NATO drove out Serb forces in 1999 to halt ethnic cleansing during a counter-insurgency war.

The EU is due next month to approve deployment of an 1,800-strong mission to supervise the transition from U.N. rule, as a prelude to recognising the new state.

Kostunica, leader of a small but pivotal party, who has made the defense of Serb sovereignty over Kosovo the keystone of his policy, has raised the stakes with attacks on the EU’s plan, and steered Serbia towards Russia.

Moscow is Serbia’s only big power ally and has opposed a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo.

On Wednesday, Kostunica said he could not support the president’s re-election bid because Tadic refused to commit himself to a showdown with the EU over Kosovo’s independence.

Analyst Milan Nikolic said Kostunica’s decision not to back Tadic “questions the very existence of the coalition”.

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