BELGRADE, SERBIA — A Gypsy trumpet band, firecrackers, blaring car horns, and a small but raucous crowd waving the three-fingered Serbian salute helped ring in the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party's victory celebration in a Belgrade suburb Sunday night.
Despite their first-place showing in Serbia's parliamentary election, however, the Radicals didn't win enough seats to rule the country alone. In fact, if the three parties that make up the pro-Western democratic bloc can overcome their squabbling to form a governing coalition, the Radicals could once again find themselves on the sidelines of Serbia's government.
But voters' strong support for the ultranationalists could signal trouble for international negotiations over Kosovo, the Los Angeles-sized diamond of land populated mainly by ethnic Albanians.
The Kosovo issue is hovering at the top of Europe's agenda amid concerns that Serbia's Russian-backed insistence on keeping the province could clash with international pressure for Kosovo's independence. A much anticipated set of UN recommendations that would bring Kosovo's status closer to resolution are expected by mid-February, but could come out as early as Friday.
UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari has been working for nearly a year to find a compromise on Kosovo's future between Serbia – which technically has sovereignty over the province – and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian politicians, who insist on independence.
It's unclear what the next stop will be after Mr. Ahtisaari's recommendations come out. Both Washington and Brussels have long maintained that Kosovo won't return to Serbian rule. Both capitals have also indicated that some kind of independence, most likely conditional, will be granted to the province, which has been run by the UN since NATO bombing in 1999 drove Serb forces out for ethnically cleansing Albanians from Kosovo.
NATO has 16,000 troops providing security in the province. But despite the strong presence of the UN and NATO, the provisional Albanian government has considerable leverage. Serbs, who comprise nearly 10 percent of the population, have boycotted the provisional government.
None of Serbia's three major democratic parties support independence for Kosovo, though they haven't gone as far as the Radicals' saber-rattling promises to fight for the province.
The Radicals, as well as Prime Minister Voyislav Kostunica, are not keen to court the West, which since has 2000 hectored Serbia over its failures to arrest fugitives from the UN war crimes tribunal. Kostunica has instead looked east, to Russia, for support. Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated this month that Russia will not get behind any Kosovo solution that does not have approval from Belgrade. That could mean a diplomatic impasse if the issue moves to the UN Security Council, where Russia wields veto power over any proposed resolutions.
"The probability is extremely high [that Russia will veto] unless the international community is able to deal with Russia's concerns about the Caucasus," says James Lyon, a Belgrade-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, noting that Russia has its own problems with the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abhkazia. "If the international community is willing to cut a deal on this, it will probably ward off Russia's veto."
But there could also be an impasse within Serbia in the coming weeks as it wrangles over forming a new coalition. Sunday night's preliminary results gave the Radicals 81 of the necessary 125 seats to control Serbia's 250-seat parliament. But Radical Vice-President Tomislav Nikolic raised doubts that his political rivals, the three parties that make up Serbia's pro-Western democratic bloc, can put aside their squabbles and run Serbia with their combined 131 seats.
"Between them I see only war, not agreements. I don't think the government will even be formed," said Mr. Nikolic Sunday night in the fluorescent-lit halls of Radical headquarters, across the room from a wall-sized blowup photo of Radical leader Vojislav Seselj, who's on trial for war crimes at the UN tribunal in The Hague.
But the rubbishing of the democratic bloc – which has run Serbia since the ousting of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 – is not a sentiment that's shared by the pro-Europe Serbian president, Boris Tadic, or in the hushed halls of the US Embassy in Belgrade.
They expect a coalition to be formed, and the sooner the better. "I think they can do it, I think they will do it, and I am certain that the Serbian people want them to do it," says the US ambassador to Serbia Michael Polt.
Mr. Tadic's most likely coalition partner would be the third-place Democratic Party of Serbia, headed by the conservative prime minister, Mr. Kostunica.
There's no love lost between the two men, and their other possible coalition partner, the G17, left the government last year over Kostunica's failure to arrest fugitive war crimes suspects and the European Union's suspension of Serbia's baby steps toward membership.