Marijana Mihailovic and Saska Raseta have been best friends since the day they met. They share a one-bedroom apartment in a grim block on the outskirts of Belgrade, working full-time to fund their studies at the Belgrade College of Tourism. They share their food, their friends, even their clothes. Young, bright and ambitious, they speak perfect English and hope to work abroad one day.
But there's one thing that Ms. Mihailovic and Ms. Raseta, who are both 22, don't agree on. They have very different visions for the future of Serbia. Yesterday, Mihailovic voted for Boris Tadic's pro-European Democratic Party (DS). Raseta voted for the ultra-nationalist Radical Party. Their respective choices reflect a fault-line that runs through the heart of Serbian society.
At first glance, the results of yesterday's election looked like a conclusive win for the pro-European camp. Tadic's DS Party received 39 percent of the vote to the Radicals' 29 percent, defying the predictions of pollsters and pundits alike. But much of Mr. Tadic's vote appears to have come at the expense of other pro-European parties. Combining the figures from all the nationalist parties, the result is far less conclusive, showing that the nationalist bloc attracted almost half of the votes cast. That means that the battle between pro-European forces and nationalists for Serbia's future is not over yet, with an intense period of coalition-building expected to follow.
Tomislav Nikolic immediately claimed that his Radicals could attract the support of smaller parties to form a government, prompting fears that the period of coalition-building could be every bit as bitter as the pre-election campaign.
Tadic struck a cautious tone at his post-election press conference. "This is a great victory, but it's not over yet," he said. "I want us to be aware that we must form a new government as soon as possible."
More than 60 percent of the electorate turned out, queuing to vote even as the polls closed. The result of the election appears to have vindicated the EU's controversial decision to allow Serbia to sign a crucial pre-membership agreement, the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), during the campaign. But large sections of Serbian society resent the EU's efforts, seeing it as one of the major proponents of Kosovo's controversial declaration of independence from Serbia.
Analysts had expected a closer result between Serbia's two largest parties. "It is a surprising result, but there is a clear explanation for what happened," said Zoran Lucic of the election monitoring body CeSID. "The signing of the SAA boosted Tadic. The voters thought it would be crazy to vote for Nikolic. They wanted a better life. It means Serbia now has a very clear European future."
That is the hope of Mihailovic. "I think that the older generation are more nationalist, and they are gradually leaving the political scene. A new generation is taking over in Serbia- the pro-European generation," she says. "This generation is a safest way of getting things in order in Serbia."
She knows how difficult life in Serbia can be: She works full-time in a launderette to afford student life in Belgrade, where prices have been steadily rising over the past year, and earns just €250 a month.
"It's time for politicians to stop doing things out of spite, and start doing things for real," she says. "If the Radicals are in the government, years will be lost in Serbia. I will lose precious years. There will be no progress, just more fighting about everything."
Raseta laughs at this. "That's what we have now," she says. "I'm disappointed with yesterday's result because I expected real change and nothing happened. Tadic is too weak to change anything here."
The battle for the support of the Serbian population has been bitter, and at least half of the electorate will find themselves living under a government they cannot relate to. Indeed, there are fears that the inconclusive result might lead to a long period of political horse-trading. Late strongman Slobodan Milosevic's former party, the Socialist Party of Serbia, is now tipped to play a kingmaker role in forming the new government. They could choose to support the Democrats or join a coalition with the Radicals and outgoing Prime Minister Kostunica's DSS party.
Raseta says she wants to travel outside Serbia, but is afraid of EU membership. "Serbia is too small and poor to be in the EU. I think they will limit us," she says. "It would be nice to travel without a visa though," she adds, almost shyly.
Mihailovic is cautious in her obvious relief at last night's result. "The nationalists will always be a threat to Serbia's European hopes," she warns. "But hopefully the threat will shrink with time."
But while Mihailovic disagrees with an independent Kosovo, she says she wants to forget about it. "All my life I have heard about Kosovo," she says. "EU membership would change the way people think in Serbia. We could leave the past behind."
The Democrats' victory shows that substantial numbers of Serbs agree with her, and makes Serbia's European path much more secure. But there is still much genuine resentment felt by Serbs towards the West over Kosovo's independence.
"Serbia is still a divided country," Raseta says. "We don't have any middle ground – only extremes from either side."
• Reuters material was used in this report.