Serbia prepares for crucial presidential poll

By bne IntelliNews January 18, 2008

Dominic Swire in Nis, Serbia -

Serbian voters go to the polls this weekend in a historic election that will not only have a crucial bearing on the future status of Kosovo, but also determine whether the country orientates itself towards EU integration and the West or isolation and the East.

The first round of elections will take place on Sunday, January 20 in which President Boris Tadic is seeking reelection as the candidate of the pro-Western Democratic Party. His main rival is the acting head (the real one is in The Hague) of the ultranationalist Radical Party, Tomislav Nicolic, who favours closer relations with Russia and has threatened to cut diplomatic ties with any country that recognizes an independent Kosovo.

"If Nikolic wins, then I'm very afraid for the future of Serbia because I think there will be another war and I think that Europe will be very far from us then," wheezed a regional head of the Democratic Party in between breaths as she marched through the southern Serbian town of Nis, leading a crowd of flag-waving followers behind her. The group was heading to one of the last Democratic conventions before the elections.

"The choice is either Boris or I don't know what, I really don't know what. I must say this is the most important election for Serbia in last 20 years," she said.

Reform and independence

Key to the election is EU-style reform and the future status of Kosovo, which is on the brink of independence with Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci claiming on January 9 that the province will become an "independent, sovereign country" within weeks.

Yet, publicly at least, both main parties are refusing to accept this reality issuing fiery statements of how Kosovo is part of Serbia and no one can take her away. "We want good relations with Brussels, but the EU must know that Kosovo has to be part of our country. Kosovo can't be an independent state because that would amount to a criminal act against Serbia," Vladimir Djukanovic, member of the Radical Party's General Secretary, told bne.

"The question is similar to why Jerusalem is so important for Jews. All our history, tradition, everything is in Kosovo. Serbia is not Serbia without Kosovo. It's like asking why London is so important for Britain. We can't exist without Kosovo," argued an impassioned Djukanovic.

Although the Democratic Party is a strong advocate for joining the EU, its ministers also brush off the fact that the bloc wants to see Kosovo independent. "The Serb position is clear," shouted Democrat Chairman for International Affairs Milos Jevtic above the racket of the Nis convention hall bar prior to the president's address. "We can never accept any other solution without a new [UN] resolution. That would be illegal for us and we couldn't accept it."

Across the room, Minister of Defence Dragan Å utanovac concurred, refusing to give up hope that Serbia and Kosovo can join the EU as one. "The EU did not ask Cyprus to recognise its northern part as an independent state and they are now full members of the bloc," he reasoned.

Å utanovac went on to warn the international community that Kosovo is a hotbed of crime and if the EU thought issue would be any easier following independence, they would have a "huge headache" the next day. However, he did categorically rule out the possibility of any military action following any declaration of independence from the province. "I said many times that the problem of Kosovo is not a military problem - we can't solve it with military forces. It's a problem of law and politics and I hope that lawyers and politicians will find final acceptable solution for both sides," Sutanovac told bne.

The strong rhetoric was matched by Prime Minister Kostunica earlier in January when he warned the EU that Serbia won't sign the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), a first step to joining the EU, if the EU decides to send a mission to Kosovo "snatching part of Serbia's territory." The strength of the nationalist sentiment in Serbia has had the effect of forcing the EU to soften its stance on the region, with the bloc recently insisting that the two issues of Kosovo and Serbia's accession to the EU were completely separate matters.

"The Stabilisation and Association Agreement and all its contents were negotiated between the European Union and Serbia as equal partners and without prejudice to the future status of Kosovo," EU spokeswoman Krisztina Nagy clarified in a statement, seen by many as a response to Kostunica's war cry.

Domestically, one telling factor could be who Kostunica backs in the second round, assuming his favoured candidate Velimir Ilic from New Serbia Party is knocked out in the first round, as he is almost certainly expected to be. Kostunica, formally a member of the Democratic Party before breaking ranks to form his own similar sounding but distinct Democratic Party of Serbia, is generally considered to lean more towards Moscow. Although whether his followers obey his command in the second round is unclear, as the electorate is so young, says Balkan expert Denisa Kostovicova from the London School of Economics.

Drop the dead donkey

Rhetoric notwithstanding, talk of joining the EU without giving up Kosovo seems like offering voters a cake and the chance to eat it, which isn't an option, according to Filip Tesar from the Institute of International Research in Prague. He views Kosovo independence "as certain as death."

From an economic standpoint, dropping Kosovo could make a lot of sense for Serbia. A recent report from The Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies suggests that the cost to Serbia of running the province amounts to approximately €125m per year. Attempt to reintegrate the province would increase this figure to €450m per year, assuming no additional security measures are needed, which could push the figure even higher.

Furthermore, shunning the EU in favour of motherland Russia also looks like financial insanity. Latest figures from Serbia's Investment and Export Promotion Agency show Russia to be the country's 15th largest investor in 2005, throwing just $14.4bn at the country. However, 11 of the 14 countries ranked above Russia are EU members, with Greece in number-one spot investing a total of $237.5bn alone.

Yet for politicians from both the Democrat and Radical party to admit the possibility that Kosovo may be lost would amount to political suicide. "None of the influential Serbian politicians will ever declare in public that Kosovo is lost for Serbia, even though they know it's true," says Tesar.

Clearly, the EU would prefer the pro-Western Tadic to remain in power, and it seems to be pulling two strings in order to achieve this aim. The first is the continued postponement of Kosovo's independence, now unquestionably in the hands of the international community. If the province had declared independence before the election, the fear was that this would push more voters to side with Nikolic's nationalist camp. The second card the EU has played was to arrange the date of Serbia's signing of the SAA on January 28, midway between the first and second round of voting. While the EU plan is based on the hope that this would provide a fillip to Tadic's campaign, the LSE's Kostovicova says it's playing with fire.

"I think this is a very dangerous game, because the EU is almost dropping the conditionality clause of cooperation with The Hague and extradition of [accused war criminal] Ratko Mladic, which is a separate issue," she said.

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Serbia prepares for crucial presidential poll

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