Two issues and two candidates will dominate presidential elections in Serbia on Sunday 20 January, and – such are the divisions – it is likely two rounds will be required to decide the contest.
The first issue is the future status of Kosovo; currently it is Serbia’s southern province and is inhabited mostly by ethnic Albanians who seek independence. It remains occupied by a Nato-led UN force.
The second is the question of Belgrade’s accession to the EU.
Both top the agendas of Boris Tadic, the current president who is seeking another term in office, and his strongest challenger, Tomislav Nikolic.
Tadic leads the centrist Democratic Party (DS) of murdered prime minister Zoran Djindjic, while Nikolic is vice-president of the far-right Serbian Radical Party (SRS).
The SRS president, Vojislav Seselj, is presently being tried at the Hague for war crimes against Bosnian Muslims and Croats during the Yugoslav wars. Seselj surrendered to the Hague Tribunal voluntarily in early 2003, only weeks before Djindjic was assassinated by former paramilitaries and mafiosi.
Since Djindjic’s assassination Serbia’s transition has slowed down, and the two main Hague suspects, General Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, remain at large.
The country has been entangled in a three-way political conflict, between the Democrats, the Radicals and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica’s conservative Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS).
Yet, there have been real economic and political improvements as well. Belgrade is likely to sign the Stabilization and Accession Agreement with Brussels in late January, though should Nikolic win, this may be postponed.
The DS and DSS, together with two smaller parties, formed a coalition government less than a year ago, after a long impasse. The DSS increasingly appears to be moving towards the Radicals, the largest party in opposition, on the issue of Serbia’s international position; while the DS is unquestionably pro-western, the Radicals favour close ties with Moscow.
On the issue of Kosovo all three main parties appear to be united in rejecting its independence, desired not only by Kosovo Albanians, but also by Britain, the US, Germany and France. In addition to Russia, several other European countries are against granting Kosovo independence, including Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia.
While the Democrats insist that the status of Kosovo and Serbia’s integration into western institutions are two separate, crucially important issues, the DSS is willing to sacrifice EU prospects if the price meant giving up Kosovo. The Radicals have recently softened their discourse – amid news that Nikolic’s campaign is run by a top US PR firm – but there is no doubt that they would prefer Serbia to look east rather than west.
Kostunica has refused to support either Tadic or Nikolic and has instead supported Velimir Ilic’s candidacy. Ilic is a government minister and leader of the small, nationalist New Serbia party.
He is a populist who has replaced the jailed Seselj as Serbia’s most vulgar politician. With no real chance of winning elections, Ilic may take some votes off Nikolic, although Tadic’s position would have been stronger with the backing from Kostunica and Ilic.
Tadic is likely to lose votes to Cedomir Jovanovic, leader of the left-of-centre Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). A charismatic former student leader and a former vice-premier, Jovanovic was expelled from the DS in 2004 after clashing with Tadic over his willingness to co-operate with Kostunica.
The LDP is the only Serbian parliamentary party which openly supports independence for Kosovo although, like Ilic, Jovanovic is unlikely to win the Sunday’s election.
So, who will win and what consequences the election results will have on the region? According to opinion polls it will be a closely fought contest between Tadic and Nikolic, with the former likely to win in the second round.
That would bring little change to the current predicament in which Kostunica enjoys power far exceeding his real support among the electorate. For, if he decides to support Tadic in the second round, he will likely seek major concessions in return, something Tadic has been willing to grant in the past.
Should Kostunica decide to support Nikolic in the second round, this would probably further erode the premier’s support.
Nikolic’s win would be disastrous, not so much for the region, as for Serbia. Economic and political reforms would be jeopardized as would be Serbia’s EU prospects.
Despite tough rhetoric, Nikolic would be unlikely to wage war against Kosovo or any other country should (or perhaps when) the southern province declares independence; in fact his election would only provide yet another argument in favour of Kosovo’s independence. Nor would Nikolic attempt to annex the Bosnian Serb Republic to Serbia. Yet, his victory would undoubtedly worsen Serbia’s relations with most of its neighbours, which have improved in recent years, in no small part due to Tadic’s diplomacy.
Some observers hope that Nikolic’s victory might force him to reform the party, not unlike Ivo Sanader has done in neighbouring Croatia. Sanader, successor to the late nationalist president Franjo Tudjman as leader of the ruling Croatian Democratic Union, has publicly called for reconciliation with Serbs and his new government includes a Serb vice-premier.
However, there is a major difference: the ‘national question’ in Croatia is probably solved for good, with some two thirds of Croatia’s Serbs leaving between 1991 and 1995 as a result of war. But the crisis over Kosovo’s status continues, it will be unlikely that either Serbian or Kosovo Albanian nationalists would be willing to reform.
Even this week, there has been an assassination attempt, aimed at a Kosovo Serb who joined the recently formed Kosovo government of Hashim Thaci.