With Serbian Elections Looming, Focus Is on Kosovo

When Serbs go to the polls Sunday to decide between an ultranationalist whose policies recall those of war criminal Slobodan Milosevic and a pro-Western incumbent who preaches closer ties with the European Union, hanging over them will be the impending loss of Kosovo.

Both candidates oppose the plan by the leaders of the United Nations-administered region to unilaterally declare independence, but the difference between them is how they would react to the loss of what many Serbs consider the cradle of their culture.

President Boris Tadic has said that the country must continue on its path toward EU membership, which means swallowing its pride over the loss of Kosovo. His opponent, Tomislav Nikolic, however, has put national pride above whatever economic promises might come from closer ties with the West.

During a televised debate Jan. 30, Nikolic addressed Tadic as "Mr. former President" 10 times and delivered the same mix of chauvinistic nationalism and economic populism that convinced almost 40 percent of voters in the first round of the elections.

Supporters of his Radical Party of Serbia have been beating the pavement, trying to convince the remaining undecided voters.

Branislava Marinkovic was posted along with a few other young activists in the pedestrian area of downtown Belgrade, an area where support is not high for her candidate. Nikolic has drawn more backers from those in the outskirts of the city, where unemployment is high and tens of thousands of refugees from the wars lost by Serbia during the Milosevic rule in the 1990s have settled.

"Since the fall of Milosevic in 2000, the government has done nothing to improve the standard of living, look how many rich tycoons there are now. I had enough of them for eight years," the 20-year-old student told ABC News.

Marinkovic's concerns are echoed by many Serbs, but for some the loss of Kosovo eclipses all other issues.

"I know we cannot prevent Kosovo's independence, but I can use this presidential vote to show my anger with the rest of Europe," taxi driver Dusan Nakarada said.

The choice would seem to be either to reject Kosovo's independence and sever ties with the European Union, or accept the humbling reality of giving up a region many consider the cradle of Serbian culture and embrace a new future within the EU.

Both Nikolic and Tadic oppose the plan by former Kosovo Liberation Army fighter Hasim Thaci, the leader of Kosovo, to declare independence. But each would take Serbia in different directions when the region, which is now 90 percent ethnic Albanian, breaks away.

Tadic believes Serbia should swallow its pride and move toward membership in the EU, looking for a brighter economic future.

Nikolic, a former ally of Milosevic and a stand-in as head of the Radical Party of Servia for Vojislav Seselj while he faces trial at the Hague Tribunal for war crimes, has made Kosovo a matter of national pride and says he is willing to sacrifice membership in the EU if Europe insists on recognizing Kosovo.

"The Gravedigger," as he is known because of his previous career as a cemetery employee, wants to freeze diplomatic relations with any country that recognizes Kosovo and is also seeking to establish close ties with Russia as an alternative to Europe. During his campaign, he said that if he becomes president, he would invite Russia to build military bases along Serbia's border with Kosovo.

Nikolic has also made it clear that he would be unlikely to press for efforts to find Gen. Ratko Mladic, wanted at the Hague for war crimes for the Srebrenica massacre. The EU has declared that if Serbia wants to continue to move toward membership, Mladic must be found.

When Nikolic and Tadic faced a similar scenario in the 2004 elections, the country chose to go with the pro-Western candidate. But that was then and this is now, experts say.

Since 2004, Serbia's political and emotional mood has shifted to the right, favoring nationalists like Nikolic, who advanced to the runoff by receiving 40 percent of the first round vote. Tadic received 35.4 percent.

Marko Blagojevic from the Center for Free Elections and Democracy told ABC News that Tadic "has a slight advantage," but the gap falls within the range of a statistical error.

"A few tens of thousands votes -- we might have Florida," he said, referring to disputed vote in the 2000 presidential race.

The divisive election is expected to encourage an unusually high turnout of around 65 percent out of 6.7 million eligible voters, he said.

The president, although largely a ceremonial position, is the head of the armed services, making it more important than the job description. And electing the president has become a barometer of popular -- and thus political -- sentiment.

As the leader of the large party in government with prime minister Vojislav Kostunica, Tadic has a great deal of influence.

Nikolic, on the other hand, is the acting leader of the largest party in parliament.

The choice Serbs face Sunday is seen by many experts as a crucial one not just for their country but for people across the Balkans who fear another decade of instability and economic stagnation.