Serbs weigh nationalism against prosperity in key election

The West has made clear it hopes the Democrats will win as the two front-runners, the nationalist Radical Party and the pro-Western Democratic Party, will have to woo smaller parties to form a coalition.

Serbs weigh nationalism against prosperity in key election

Serbs began voting on Sunday in an election that will show whether the lure of European Union membership outweighs their anger over the Western-backed secession of Kosovo.

The country is divided and the two front-runners, the nationalist Radical Party and the pro-Western Democratic Party, will have to woo smaller parties to form a coalition. The West has made clear it hopes the Democrats will win.

"This election is a referendum on whether we let Kosovo go or fight for it, this is the only reason I came to vote," said a 50-year old Belgrade man who declined to give his name.

He said he voted for the Radicals because they were the only genuine party in its commitment to keep fighting for Kosovo.

Another voter, Djordje Petrovic, said he was previously a Democratic Party voter but this time decided to vote for a smaller, more liberal pro-Western party.

"I feel a lot of disappointment over the broken promises," he said, "but maybe the expectations were too high".

The Radicals say that in the eight years since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, acquiescence to the West and harsh market reforms have brought Serbs only humiliation and poverty.

They want to put EU membership on ice, look elsewhere for investment and trade, restore national pride and push Serbia's claim to their former Kosovo province which declared independence, with EU support, in February.

The Democrats say joining the EU is the only way to attract much-needed investment, create jobs and raise living standards that suffered in the isolation during the Milosevic era for its crimes in the Yugoslav wars.

They have tried to combine firm opposition to Kosovo's secession with offering a hand of friendship to the Western countries that recognised it.

EU anxiety

Because neither of the two main parties is likely to win outright, outgoing Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica is the probable kingmaker.

He has moved closer to the Radicals' position over Kosovo and is unlikely to renew his alliance with the Democrats of President Boris Tadic, whom he accuses of selling out to the EU.

The West and other Balkan states are worried that if Radical leader Tomislav Nikolic and Kostunica form a ruling coalition, the return to nationalism will certainly have a ripple effect.

Nationalist moves to partition Kosovo, which has a large Albanian majority, and annex its Serb minority could harden Albanian separatist feeling in southern Serbia and Macedonia, and encourage Serb separatists in Bosnia.

The EU has made its preference very clear by offering Serbs a pre-membership pact and a visa facilitation deal that are both implicitly conditioned on a Democrat win.

EU officials say that if the nationalists came to power, Serbia's progress to membership would face long delays.

"The EU cannot influence the election outcome. We wish Serbia would become a member of the EU as soon as possible," said Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel of Slovenia, which holds the rotating EU presidency.

But if the Serbs do chose the Radicals, the EU "will talk to the representatives of the Serbian nation", he added.

Some 6.7 million people are registered to vote, including the defiant Serb minority in Kosovo. Polls close at 8 p.m.

Last Mod: 11 Mayıs 2008, 10:47
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