Run-Off in Serbia Election Round One to the Nationalists

Nationalist Tomislav Nikolic came out ahead in the first round of the Serbian presidential election on Sunday. But a run-off, scheduled for Feb. 3, will be necessary. The choice is clear: Isolation versus a future in the European Union.

A Serb woman casts her ballot in the town of Mitrovica in Kosovo.

A Serb woman casts her ballot in the town of Mitrovica in Kosovo.

It didn't take long for the two leading candidates in Serbia's presidential election to begin interpreting the first round of voting. Although nationalist Tomislav Nikolic came out just ahead of pro-Western incumbent Boris Tadic by a score of 39 percent to 35 percent, Tadic still saw a way to bend the outcome in his favor.

"Serbia voted today for both Europe and Russia," Tadic told state television. "The road to Russia is at this moment more open, and I'll open the road to the European Union."

It was a nifty piece of self-serving political analysis. Tadic was trying to say that those who voted for him did so because of his unrelenting support for the country's eventual accession into the EU, while those who voted for Nikolic did so because they support a close alliance with the country's traditional ally Russia. In reality, though, the two camps in Serbia are likely much further apart than Tadic would like to admit.

The central issue in Sunday's vote, which saw 61 percent of Serb voters head to the polls, was the future of Kosovo, the ethnic Albanian breakaway province. Kosovo is expected to declare independence as early as next month, and the European Union is planning on recognizing the new country -- which has put Tadic in a bit of a campaigning bind. He is against Kosovo independence, but in favor of European Union accession. The EU has offered Serbia an accelerated path to membership, and the country is set to sign a preliminary agreement next week.

Tadic, though, has also said he will use all diplomatic means necessary to keep Kosovo a part of Serbia. Those means, particularly when he is courting the EU, are limited at best. Which helps explain the success of Nikolic, an ally of former strongman Slobodan Milosevic. Nikolic has promised the Serbian electorate that he would take strong measures against any country that recognizes an independent Kosovo and has shown much less enthusiasm for moving toward the EU. Some observers have said the vote is a choice between opening the Balkan country up to the world and sinking back into the backward isolation that characterized the Milosevic years.

The two will now face off once again in a run-off election on Feb. 3 with the result likely to be a close one. Tadic has done his best to frame the choice as one between progress and regression. "I will not allow pessimism to rule Serbia again … I will not allow my opponent Tomislav Nikolic to be a president," Tadic said on Sunday. "I will not allow us to return to the 1990s."

The wildcard may end up being who Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica decides to throw his support behind. Kostunica has long been a moderate nationalist, more similar to Tadic than to Nikolic. The prime minister's party also sees itself as being pro-European and has done a lot to move the country further along the path to the EU.

But when it comes to Kosovo, Kostunica has proven just as intent as Nikolic not to let go of the breakaway province. It would be unrealistic to expect any mainstream Serbian politician to voice support for an independent Kosovo, but Kostunica's party has indicated that military means are not out of the question. He has also said the EU must decide between supporting Kosovo independence and pushing for Serbian membership -- both are not possible.

In Sunday's poll, Kostunica backed Velimir Ilic, who ended up in third place. He has not yet indicated who he might support in the run-off. "Kostunica is again in a position to decide the fate of the country," political analyst Milan Nikolic told Reuters.



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