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Serb poll a study in contrasts

The front-runners in the presidential election this weekend agree on keeping Kosovo, nothing else.

January 19, 2008|Zoran Cirjakovic and Tracy Wilkinson | Special to The Times

BELGRADE, SERBIA — Serbs will choose between sharply competing visions of their nation when they vote for a president this weekend, an election that could determine the stability of the Balkan region for the foreseeable future.

The next president will face the all-but-certain loss of Kosovo, a rebellious province dominated by ethnic Albanians whose bid for independence is supported by Washington.

The top candidates in Sunday's election are strongly opposed to letting go of Kosovo, but they have very different plans for how to respond, and for whether Serbia should look to the West or to Russia for its well-being.

"Serbia is once again at a historical crossroads," the Belgrade daily Danas said in an editorial.

"On Sunday we choose between two roads that have nothing in common."

The two front-runners are the incumbent president, Boris Tadic, seen as a pro-Western reformer, and Tomislav Nikolic, a hard-line ultranationalist whose party chairman is standing trial on war crimes charges at an international court in The Hague.

Nikolic is ahead of Tadic in most polls, but none of the nine candidates is expected to win the more than 50% of the vote necessary to avoid a runoff. A second round with the two top vote-getters would be held Feb. 3.

Nikolic appeals to a strong strain of Serbian nationalism, especially among those who believe their country has been mistreated by a vengeful West still punishing it for the deeds of the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

His political foes, however, fear that he would push Serbia deeper into pariah status, away from the West and into further isolation.

Tadic, by contrast, emphasizes a future for Serbia as part of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

"In this ballot, Serbia will decide whether it moves toward a European future, bravely and against all temptations, or slides back into the past," Tadic told thousands of supporters at a final election rally in Belgrade, the capital.

Nikolic said in one of his final campaign appearances that he was willing to cooperate with Europe, "but only on equal footing."

Nikolic, 55, is deputy head of the Serbian Radical Party; its founder and president, Vojislav Seselj, is standing trial on charges of crimes against humanity allegedly committed during the wars in which Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia seceded from what was then a Serbia-dominated Yugoslavia.

Nikolic fought in Croatia in 1991 and 1992 with a notorious Serbian paramilitary unit under the command of the Yugoslav army, but his party denies that he was involved in war crimes.

A letter purportedly written by Seselj from his cell was read at Nikolic's campaign rallies; in it, he calls on voters to turn out for one of Serbia's most important political battles ever, "a matter of survival."

Although Nikolic sought to soften his rhetoric in interviews and public appearances in Belgrade, his rallies across the country showed what many believe to be his true colors.

He vowed to "fight like a lion" to preserve Serbia's national integrity by holding on to Kosovo and using the Serbian police and army to drive out the "occupying" forces of the United Nations and the U.S.

"While those who mercilessly speak about European and world standards are getting richer by the day, Serbia is sinking into hopelessness and desperation," Nikolic said at the rally during which he accepted his party's nomination.

"We are not just at the edge of biological survival of the Serbian nation, but being humiliated every day we lose faith in the salvation."

And speaking to Serbs in Kosovo, in the town of Kosovska Mitrovica in the province's north, he declared that there "is no Serbia without Kosovo."

Tadic, 50, who has served as president for 3 1/2 years alongside a coalition government led by the more conservative Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, heads the Democratic Party.

Though considered a democratic modernizer, Tadic has used his campaign to attempt to appeal to more centrist nationalists as a way to broaden his voter base.

He has wrapped himself in the flag of Serbia, which has appeared prominently in his rallies, under his campaign slogan, "For a Strong and Stable Serbia."

Tadic's critics accuse him of weakening Serbia by downsizing its army and selling out to the West. To counter that, he has vowed repeatedly that Belgrade will never accept the independence of Kosovo. But, in contrast to Nikolic, he emphasizes that the country will use "all democratic means, legal arguments and diplomacy, and will not resort to war and violence."

Tadic has said that putting the Radicals in power would undermine Serbia's progress since Milosevic was ousted in 2000, after a tumultuous decade in which he led his country through devastating wars. The Serbian Radical Party routinely backed Milosevic in what they portrayed as a fight to promote a Greater Serbia.

A return to the horrors of the 1990s "cannot be an option," Tadic told a newspaper interviewer this week.

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