Serbia narrowly elected a pro-European president, Boris Tadic, only weeks ago. But that was before the Albanian majority in sacred Serbian province of Kosovo declared independence, putting much of Serbia in sackcloth and ashes.
Now the coalition government, unable to agree on a Kosovo policy, has fallen. In early May, Serbia's weary electorate will again go to the polls to choose between a radical pro-Russia vision of the future versus a Western, pro-Europe one. Except this time, instead of electing a president who can only try to point the parliament in certain directions, they will usher in an entire new government.
US and European diplomats are concerned that the ultranationalist Radical Party will use the highly emotional issue of Kosovo to win, which could bring further instability in the Balkans.
In Belgrade, the Jan. 28 vote for Mr. Tadic never really took hold. The government was paralyzed from the start, resulting in bitter standoffs between the democrats and hard-line radicals.
So Prime Minister Kostunica dissolved the ruling coalition Saturday. A consummate powerbroker, he was unwilling to help Tadic engage with the European Union if it meant giving up legal claims to Kosovo and allowing European Union (EU) institutions into the Serb-held areas there. "Kostunica felt he had no choice," says Dejan Anastasijevic, a columnist with Vreme, a Belgrade weekly. "The government was split over everything, not just Kosovo."
Liberal Serbs in Belgrade who voted for Tadic and want to integrate with the EU have mixed feelings about the development. Some see the fall of the government as a chance for the democratic forces finally to mobilize and strengthen decisively. But as one former minister put it, "I'm pessimistic, because this is a critical moment, and the radicals are using the Kosovo issue to reject Europe. They are afraid of a normal, accountable government that would bring us a regular life."
Marshall Harris, a former US diplomat and Balkan expert in Washington, says Kostunica is playing the nationalism card. "Having inflamed the Serbian people over the loss of Kosova, Kostunica is now seeking personal political advantage by calling new elections to increase his and other nationalist leaders' hands," he says. "The United States and Europe can count on [him] to seize every opportunity to drive a wedge between Serbia and the West."
Among the 120,000 Serbs in Kosovo, most of whom live in the Mitrovica area, which borders Serbia, there is some relief that the pro-European government has collapsed. Many Kosovar Serbs say they have not been sufficiently supported by Belgrade since Kosovo's declaration on Feb. 17. A Kosovo "action plan" described by Belgrade early this winter has not yet brought the confrontation with the larger Albanian majority in Kosovo that many Serbs wanted – a cut-off of electricity to the larger areas of Kosovo, for example.
"People are pessimistic, because there has been no sign of the action plan for Kosovo that Kostunica promised," says Branislav Kostic, a middle-aged Serb from Mitrovica. "Kostunica shouldn't have made that coalition in the first place – he was not able to defend Kosovo when he made it. Now people want a new coalition with the Radicals."
The new Serb elections could also serve as the kind of provocation of Albanians that some analysts feel is part of Belgrade's strategy.
"The Albanians' patience is going to wear thin," says Alex Anderson of the International Crisis Group. "They have not yet fallen into the trap of lashing out at Kosovar Serbs, but these elections will further entrench parallel, defiant institutions in Kosovo."
But both Pristina and Belgrade seem intent on consolidating power in Kosovo, where Serbia expects the May elections will be held as well. Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci told his cabinet last week, "We will not tolerate any parallel institution on Kosovo's territory."