Serbian elections focus on keeping Kosovo
Presidential polls take place Sunday amid intense debate that has pitted hard-line nationalists against more moderate politicians.
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The elections, closely watched in the US and Europe, pit a moderate nationalist, Boris Tadic, against numerous hard-edged nationalists, chief among them Tomislav Nikolic, who are deeply opposed to the independence of Serbia's mythic Kosovo heartland.
Many experts feel the West is unprepared for the implications of electing a radical nationalist like Mr. Nikolic. The outcome will probably be clarified in a second round of voting on Feb. 3.
The West hopes Serbia will lose its pariah reputation – and rethink a troubling rapprochement with Moscow, forgo actions that will stoke Albanian ethnic passions in the region, and make Kosovo an important history subject but give up future territorial claims. Serious Serb nationalists say they want few of these things if it means losing the largely Albanian province of Kosovo.
"If Nikolic wins, then I think the [Serbian] government must blow up," a senior European diplomat closely involved in Balkan talks told the Monitor. "Belgrade then can't continue as if nothing happened – it would be a clear push to the extreme right. After that, forget European perspectives; they won't want them."
Some 20 of 27 European Union states and the US are prepared to recognize Kosovo independence eight years after NATO drove strongman Slobodan Milosevic's forces out of Kosovo, ending nearly a decade of Serb-led ethnic war in the Balkans. A Kosovo declaration is expected in February or March.
Serbian ministries have leaked possible plans for punitive measures in response: cutting the 40 percent of power to Kosovo supplied by Belgrade, imposing embargoes, refusing to recognize Kosovar passports. Diplomatic cuts with states that recognize independence have been rumored.
"We aren't going to war, but Serbia is putting a wedge between itself and the EU," says Marshall Freeman Harris, a former US diplomat and Balkans adviser. "It is not progressing the way its neighbors are. What do you do if you are a European or in Washington if you must deal with a [Nikolic] victory? I don't think the nationalists will be as cooperative as wishful thinkers in the State Department imagine."
Europe has pinned its hopes for Balkan stability on the idea that the gravitational force of the EU, as well as carrots – aid, visas, a shift from demanding that accused war criminals be handed over – will pull Serbia into the European civilizational orbit. But Belgrade nationalists wish to defy that pull. Centering election debate on Kosovo evokes pride and frustration in the Serbian psyche, experts say: debates over East versus West, an Orthodox past, old grudges, undercurrents of exceptionalism.