Serbia faces dramatic runoff vote
The Radical Party acting leader Nikolic got 39 percent of the vote in presidential polls Sunday. He and pro-European moderate Tadic will square off in Round 2 of voting on Feb. 3.
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"In 2004, Nikolic was only a front for Seselj, who was a party leader running the campaign from his cell," says Jacques Rupnik a Balkans specialist at Sciences Po in Paris. "Nikolic is no longer a front. He hardly talks about Seselj; he is running on his own steam; he has 'grown' as a politician.Skip to next paragraph
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"With Kosovo the main issue now, with all [Serb] politicians agreeing on this and just disagreeing on the levels of vehemence and nationalism," he adds, "the context favors nationalists like Nikolic. Emotion is the greatest element."
Former US diplomat James Hooper, managing director of the Public International Law and Policy Group, says that NATO member states have played a role in creating a nationalist, Kosovo-embittered context in Serbia through a lack of resolve after the NATO bombing campaign of 1999 that drove Serb forces out of the 90-percent ethnic Albanian province.
"Round 1 shows how the political spectrum in Serbia has shifted to the right as a result of Kosovo," Hooper states. "The failure of the international community to act decisively on the independence of Kosovo years ago and remove it as a factor in Serbia – that delay has enabled the nationalists to recast the political debate in Serbia as anti-Western and anti-Europe."
Albanian Kosovars boycotted the Serbian elections, as they have in the past. The Albanian leadership in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, are preparing to declare independence in February or March at the latest, sources say. Some 20 of 27 European Union states, and the US, are preparing to recognize Kosovo shortly thereafter. But this does not play well in Serbia.
"Anything the Europeans now say will only help the nationalists," says a senior European diplomat. "Lets see what happens on February 3."
A nationalist at the helm could place Serbia much closer to Russia, further outside the European political orbit. Diplomats here worry that a Nikolic-led Serbia might create incidents in Kosovo and Bosnia that will destabilize the Balkans region. In recent days, though, Nikolic has made statements that sound more conciliatory.
Serbia watchers are now focusing on Prime Minister Kostunica, who was the kingmaker in 2004 and may well reprise that role in 2008. Mr. Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia is regarded as a necessary ally in forming a ruling coalition in the Serbian parliament.
Tadic and Kostunica are known to be "bitter rivals," says James Lyon of the International Crisis Group in Belgrade. Kostunica in the past year has come out as a much harder-edged nationalist than many European politicians had initially regarded him – espousing views that are closer to those of Nikolic than those of Tadic.