Size of turnout may decide knife-edge Serb vote

BELGRADE – Serbs voted on Sunday in a knife-edge presidential election that could decide whether their country turns its back on the West in response to the imminent loss of the breakaway province of Kosovo.

The race between pro-Western President Boris Tadic and nationalist challenger Tomislav Nikolic is too close to call. Political analysts say only a big turnout can counter the dedicated voters of Nikolic, who beat Tadic 40 percent to 35.4 percent in the first round two weeks ago.

About 51 percent of the 6.7 million electorate had voted by 1200 EST, slightly more than in the same period in the first round. The weather was clear and mild in most of the country.

Both men oppose Kosovo’s independence drive. Nikolic wants Serbia to turn to Russia to punish the West for backing Kosovo’s majority Albanians. Tadic is asking Serbs to swallow their pride and pursue European Union membership whatever happens.

“I voted for Tadic, not because he is the best candidate but because I don’t want my grandchildren to lose another five years,” said pensioner Radmila Milovanovic in Belgrade.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0100 EST) and close at 8 p.m. (1400 EST). First projections are due an hour later, but monitoring groups say they will be very cautious about calling the result.

Nikolic’s Radical Party has consistently taken a third of the vote in all elections since the fall of autocrat Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. It is tapping into anger over Kosovo, painful economic transition and widespread corruption.

“Without me Serbia has no future, it is a country in agony and decline,” Nikolic said after voting.

He said Serbia should work with both the European Union and Russia, its only big power ally on Kosovo. “But Russia is more supportive, a partner that does not put any conditions, so at the moment it is a much better partner for us,” he said.

Tadic has accused Nikolic of wanting to turn Serbia back to the Milosevic years, when the country was an international pariah for its role in the Yugoslav wars.

“This is a referendum,” he said on Sunday. “I am sure we will choose the path to the EU. I am convinced this nation wants something better rather than a return to isolation.”

KOSOVO LOOMS

Kosovo’s 90-percent Albanian majority will set a date for a declaration of independence after Sunday’s result. If Nikolic wins, political sources say they will declare independence next weekend. If Tadic wins, they will wait in accordance with the wishes of the EU.

“The elections in Serbia have nothing to do with us, they are the elections of a neighboring country,” Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu said on Sunday. “There are only a few days left before we declare independence.”

The province, Serbia’s medieval heartland, has been run by the United Nations since NATO drove out Serb forces in 1999 to halt ethnic cleansing during a counter-insurgency war.

A Nikolic victory could end the fragile coalition of Tadic and nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.

Kostunica has made the defense of Serb sovereignty over Kosovo the keystone of his policy. He has attacked an EU plan to send an 1,800-strong mission to supervise the transition to U.N. rule as a prelude to recognizing the new state.

This week he said he could not support Tadic’s re-election bid because his coalition ally had refused to commit himself to pledging that Serbia would refuse a deal with the EU if the bloc went ahead and supported Kosovo’s independence.

Neither the EU nor the United States has shown any sign of backing down over Kosovo’s independence, despite warnings from Russian President Vladimir Putin that he will never accept it.

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