Kosovo was not the issue

In the wake of the Serbian election Kim Bytyci argues Kosovo was not the issue in this crucial poll

Taxi drivers in Serbia tell you things as they are. They know they will probably never see you again.

"Trust me, we are very tired," said the man who drove me from the airport to the city on the eve of the elections. Looking indeed tired and casually dressed, he could easily be mistaken for a "radical" voter. But keeping the radicals out was his motivation for Sunday 3 February. "No more return to the past. We've had enough of wars and nationalism of the Nineties."

The re-election of President Boris Tadic will have pleased him - and most of those I spoke to on the day before the election. It had been widely seen as a referendum for or against the European Union, a choice between future and past, the west and Russia. Tadic based his campaign on a European platform. His rival, Tomislav Nikolic, looked towards Russia, stressing the importance of relations with the "historic friend".

The shadow hanging over this election was Kosovo. After the failure of the extended talks between Serbs and Kosovans last December, the declaration of independence by Kosovar Albanians was widely seen by the international community as the only way towards solving the issue of Kosovo's status.

But with the Serbian presidential elections a month away, Kosovar Albanians were asked not to rush into a decision.

The narrow (2 per cent) victory by the pro-western Tadic can be seen as something of a warning to him and to Brussels. For the people I spoke to in Belgrade, however, the election had nothing to do with Kosovo or the EU. For them, Kosovo is the "distant past" and the EU a distant dream. What they want in the immediate future is "European standards" - in other words, a better life, more employment and less corruption and organised crime. To travel without a visa would be nice but one still needs money to do it.

Experts agree. The choice "EU or isolation" and "Kosovo or not" was false, they told me. Speaking on election night, a representative of the Centre for Free Elections and Democracy stressed that a "better life" was a clear priority for 75 per cent of voters. "Kosovo was a priority for politicians," he said.

A recent poll in Serbia showed 75 per cent of people want integration with the EU, while more than 80 per cent see it as "something positive". Goran Svilanovic, former foreign minister of Serbia in the post-Milosevic government, thinks this election was more an assessment by the voters of the past seven years of the democratic coalition government that has ruled Serbia since the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. The two million or so who voted for Nikolic should not be seen as extreme nationalists and haters of other nationalities. Most of them are unhappy with what has been happening since 2000, he said.

Now the focus turns to Kosovo. A declaration of independence is expected within weeks and the US and most of the EU are likely to recognise it quickly. Both Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica oppose independence but differ on how to respond to the demand for it. Having secured a new mandate without Kostunica's support, President Tadic is in a strong position.

The future of the government is uncertain. Much depends on what happens in the coming weeks and months, especially in relation to the interim agreement with the EU, which was due to be signed on 7 February. If Tadic fails to get Kostunica's support, regardless of Kosovo, new elections may be called in Serbia.

Whether this will mean another delay for Kosovo remains to be seen. But also waiting will be the people of Serbia. They voted for change and they want change. As my taxi driver put it: "They keep scaring us with the loss of Kosovo, which for years has not been ours. All we want is a better life."

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty