Serbians were voting today in a run off presidential election that may bring an ally of late hardline President Slobodan Milosevic back to power, before a potentially explosive split by the Serbian province of Kosovo.
The closely contested race pits pro-Western incumbent Boris Tadic against rightwing extremist Tomislav Nikolic, who ruled with Milosevic during his bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s.
The vote is predicted to be one of the tightest in Serbia. Although some pollsters gave Tadic a slight lead going into the balloting, they said the race was too close to call.
The winner of the election may determine whether the pivotal Balkan country will continue on its path of pro-Western reform and closer ties with the European Union or return to isolation similar to that in Milosevic’s era.
The outcome will also decide how Serbia will react to the expected declaration of independence by its cherished Kosovo province, dominated by pro-independence ethnic Albanians, and to any arrest of its war crimes suspects.
Early voters in central Belgrade seemed to agree that the balloting was crucial.
“We have just recovered a little, we must not stop now,” says Dusan Andjic, 40-year-old lawyer who voted for Tadic. “This is really a matter of life and death.”
Nikolic’s voters also said the moment was “historic,” claiming the pro-Western Serbian leaders were going to “sell out” the country.
“If we don’t stop them, they will give away Kosovo,” cried Marko Stipcevic, 51, a clerk.
Serbia’s presidency is formally a ceremonial post, though it gained in importance and influence under Milosevic’s virtually unrivalled rule in the 1990s.
Both Tadic and Nikolic oppose independence for Kosovo, but Tadic has ruled out the use of force and would likely seek to preserve close ties with the EU and the US and other allies even if they recognise Kosovo statehood.
Nikolic, on the other hand, has said Serbia must abandon its bid to become an EU member if the bloc upholds Kosovo’s independence declaration. He has called for closer ties with Russia, which supports Serbia in the Kosovo dispute.
“There is no EU for us if they take away our Kosovo,” Nikolic said during the campaign. “We must stick with our friends,” he said, referring to Russia.
Nikolic, deputy leader of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, served as a deputy prime minister during Milosevic’s 1998-99 war in Kosovo, when NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days to stop his brutal crackdown against the province’s separatists.
The province has been run by the United Nations and Nato since the war. Kosovo’s Albanian leaders said they would declare independence days after the Serbian run off, no matter who wins, and they expect the US and most EU countries to follow up with quick recognitions.
A victory for Nikolic – whose party boss Vojislav Seselj is now on trial for war crimes at the UN tribunal for the former Yugoslavia – would further fuel tensions and could undermine Western efforts to stabilise the region.
It would dash Western hopes that Serbia will arrest two Bosnian Serb war crimes fugitives, Gen Ratko Mladic and his wartime political leader Radovan Karadzic, any time soon.
Tadic’s Democratic Party played a key role in Milosevic’s removal from power in 2000. The soft-spoken party leader first became the president in 2004, by beating Nikolic in a run off election.
While pledging never to recognise Kosovo independence, Tadic has said there is “no alternative” to EU membership for Serbia and that it is “the only way forward” for the nation.
Apart from exploiting Serb frustration over Kosovo, Nikolic has also thrived on widespread disillusionment with the pace of reform in Serbia, where nearly one million people remain unemployed and salaries hover around €465 a month.