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.
"What's key in the election run-up is that in newspapers, TV, publicity – all you hear is Kosovo, Kosovo, Kosovo," says James Lyon, with the International Conflict Group in Belgrade. "[Prime Minister Vojislav] Kostunica is beating Kosovo endlessly. This could have been handled much differently."
Sources in Belgrade and the Serbian Embassy in Paris confirm that pro-European President Tadic and pro-Kosovo Radical Party leader Nikolic are leading in the polls. Mr. Tadic is seen in Europe as an easier politician to work with and a genuine democrat, in contrast with the style of the radicals.
"The Europeans have no desire for ideological radicals to sit at the top of the Serbian government," says Henning Reicke of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "The advantages of joining the EU is something no reasonable politician could oppose."
To be elected in Round 2, Tadic is said to be highly dependent on the support of Prime Minister Kostunica, a true believer in the nationalist Kosovo mythology. In recent weeks, Tadic has begun to reposition himself as a more devout nationalist. "Tadic is fighting for his political life. He thinks he can win by becoming more nationalist … ," says the European diplomat. "But will this work? A lot of the nationalist bloc voters may think, why vote for the copy, if you can vote for the original?"
Only one Serb candidate, Cedomir Jovanovic of the Liberal Democrats, has an unavowed pro-Europe, forget-Kosovo platform. He is at about 5 percent in the polls. Mr. Jovanovic told Reuters this week that "Kosovo has already been independent for nine years, and I feel ready to face the fact that Serbia has lost its right to govern Kosovo."
As soon as Jan. 28, Brussels and Belgrade are readying to sign a "Stabilization and Association Agreement" – the formal path leading to Serbia's eventual EU membership. But foreign minister Dmitrij Rupel of Slovenia, which holds the EU presidency, says signing may shift to after the elections, pending further cooperation by Belgrade on Gen. Ratko Mladich and Radovan Karadzic, wanted by The Hague for war crimes in Bosnia.
Mihailo Papazoglu, spokesmen of the Serbian Embassy in Paris, says the SAA is "a sign Europe supports the democratic forces in Serbia, and [that Serbia] is being welcomed by the 27 EU states. The message is that after sanctions and the '99 bombing campaign, that the West, the EU, is on our side."