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Nationalistic debate as Serbia heads to polls

On Sunday, Serbs will weigh in on whether to pursue a pro-European Union path or a more nationalistic, anti-Western route.

By Andrew WanderCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 9, 2008

Tomislav Nikolic, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party

stevan lazarevic/reuters

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Nis, Serbia; and Zubin Potok, Kosovo

The Serbian Radical Party's election rally in the main square of the southern town of Nis seemed, at first glance, like any other campaign event. Popular music played over the PA system. Badges and hats were sold from makeshift stalls, and families with children listened to the speakers.

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But the music was sung by the widow of Arkan, a Serbian paramilitary whose units wreaked havoc in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s. The badges bore the face of Vojislav Seslj, the Radical Party's founder, who is on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity, and the hats were berets of Chetnik fighters.

The families provided the final proof of how far this ultranationalist party has come in its battle to persuade Serbs that it – not pro-Western parties – offers the country a brighter future.

The polls are being billed as the most important ones since the fall of former President Slobodan Milosevic. But with neither the pro-European Democrats nor the Radical Party expected to score an outright victory, the direction of the country will rest with a handful of power brokers from smaller parties seeking to cement their influence in Serbia's fractured political landscape.

That worries Western leaders, who fear that the need for coalition building could favor an alliance of the Radical Party and the nationalistic DSS Party of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. Such an outcome, they argue, could discourage investment in Serbia, scupper the country's EU membership prospects, and orchestrate further trouble in Kosovo.

Split over Kosovo independence

The national election was triggered in March, when Mr. Kostunica pulled out of a fragile governing coalition with President Boris Tadic's pro-European Democrat Party (DS). Mr. Tadic was not prepared, as a gesture of protest against Kosovo's independence, to abandon plans to join the European Union.

Kostunica, meanwhile, refused to contemplate further integration without Kosovo. The result was an acrimonious split and the collapse of the government.

In Nis, the speeches made by Radical leaders were full of signs that the concerns of Western countries that nationalist elements may strengthen were justified. "Kosovo is ours," Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic said. "We didn't win it in the lottery. It's Serbian by history. European Union? Yes – but not without Kosovo."