Nationalist sentiment runs high as Serbia prepares for the polls

By bne IntelliNews May 9, 2008

Dominic Swire in Belgrade -

As Serbia prepares for what is being billed as one of the most important elections in its history on May 11, the country is yet again being torn between pro-European and nationalist forces - and recent polls put the nationalists are ahead, but only slightly.

According to research from CeSID, if the elections in Serbia were held last week, the nationalist Serb Radical Party (SRS) would have received between 1.4m and 1.55m votes, compared with between 1.35m and 1.5m for the pro-European coalition led by the Democratic Party. This means the next government is highly likely to be a coalition - and if the Radicals are elected, they are likely to turn to Prime Minsiter Vojislav Kostunica's confusingly named Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS).

Nationalist sentiment was almost tangible at the final political rally by Kostunica's DSS party outside Belgrade of as traditional music blared and giant video displays showed religious imagery and footage of Albanians sacking Serbian churches in Kosovo during the troubles of 2004.

"Kostunica is the best man for Serbia," shouted computer repairer Petar as he held up one end of a banner in the crowd. "The only true victory is when we can enter the EU as a whole," he said, referring to Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Delic's recent decision to sign the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU, an initial step to joining the bloc, without first getting a deal on reversing Kosovo's independence.

The controversial signing by Delic on April 29 provoked fury in the nationalist camp, which claims it's tantamount to recognising the independence of Kosovo. Prime Minister Kostunica condemned the deal as "a forgery" and threatened to annul the agreement should he get back into power. "Serbia will never accept that a signature was placed on her behalf to establish good neighborly relations with Kosovo, because Kosovo is Serbia," Kostunica told the Tanjug news agency in a statement.

Spectre of Djindjic

Since the signing, tensions in the country have escalated. Posters slamming the pro-Western president, Boris Tadic, and Delic as traitors were recently removed from the streets of Belgrade after being judged too provocative. More recently, local media has reported that a death threat was sent to Tadic, warning "scores will be settled" for "betraying the country." It's something that touches a nerve in Serbia, as only five years ago the pro-reform PM Zoran Djindjic was gunned down by a sniper in central Belgrade.

For its part, Tadic's Democratic Party also claims to be fighting against the recognition of Kosovo, but believes that this aim can be achieved most effectively from inside the EU. But following Kosovo's declaration of independence, which was reportedly postponed until after Serbia's presidential election for fear of promoting the nationalist vote, the electorate seems to have changed its mind. "Nationalist parties feel they are winning the battles that matter," International Crisis Group's James Lyons told bne. "They feel the EU and international community is in disarray, that they are gaining ground."

The nationalist message certainly resonates clearly with many voters on the street who are angry and frustrated not only over the Kosovo issue, but also because of a perceived lack of progress regarding problems such as unemployment, corruption and poverty despite eight years of Democrat rule.

Miroslav, a taxi driver in his 60s who drives a beaten-up Mercedes with a framed picture of Saint Nicolas by the gear stick, epitomizes such frustration. He voted for Tadic in the last election, but will not do so again. "My wife is a nurse, she makes €400 a month," he says. "I work 12 hours a day and sleep for four hours a night. I have been working as a taxi driver for 21 years and the car is 26 years old, but I can't afford to buy another." Asked whether he believes Kosovo can once again become part of Serbia he bellows emphatically, "yes, yes, yes!"

If a similar nationalism is stirred in enough voters across the country and Kostunica remains in power with the help of the Nationalists, Serbia could become the first country to snub the EU's proffered hand in a bid to go it alone.

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Nationalist sentiment runs high as Serbia prepares for the polls

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