On January 20, Serbs go to the polls for the first round of a presidential election that may decide the country’s future for decades to come. As Kosovo’s new government moves toward a unilateral declaration of independence, Serbs face a stark choice: retain Kosovo and effectively sever ties with the European Union, or accept the painful reality of Kosovar independence and embrace a new future within the EU.
Serbia’s liberal pro-European president, Boris Tadic, remains the favourite to win, but opinion polls suggest that his lead over Tomislav Nikolic of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party has narrowed to within the margin of error.
Nikolic, whose party’s leader, Vojislav Seselj, is currently being tried for war crimes in The Hague, has campaigned on an anti-Western, Euro-skeptic, and openly chauvinist platform, exploiting the Kosovo issue at every turn and putting Tadic and other pro-Europeans on the defensive. His argument that Kosovo should remain an integral part of Serbia, and that Russia is a more natural (Slavic) ally for the Serbs than perfidious Europe, resonates strongly in a country traumatized by its recent past.
Tadic’s real problem, however, lies not with his enemies but with his friends. His coalition partner, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, increasingly espouses hardline nationalist rhetoric that is indistinguishable from that of Nikolic and the Radicals. In addition to rehabilitating many Milosevic-era figures and refusing to arrest indicted war criminal General Ratko Maldic, Kostunica often speaks contemptuously about the EU and insists that if the EU recognizes Kosovo’s independence, Serbia will turn away from Europe and seek closer relations with Russia.