EU's favoured candidate wins Serbia poll

Posted in Europe | 04-Feb-08 | Author: Ian Traynor| Source: Guardian

Re-elected Serbian president Boris Tadic (right) and his unsuccessful challenger, the Radical party acting leader Tomislav Nikolic.

· President Tadic defeats nationalist challenger
· Fight with prime minister looms over Kosovo split

From this morning Serbia faces up to a bruising battle over how to react to the looming secession of its southern province of Kosovo, after President Boris Tadic, a pro-western liberal, won a renewed five-year term in a close election last night.

Tadic's victory, by a projected 2.6 percentage points, or 100,000 votes, over the extreme nationalist Tomislav Nikolic puts him in a strong position to push for an alliance with the European Union, despite the EU's support for Kosovo independence.

But this policy will set the re-elected president on a collision course with the more powerful prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, who is threatening to sever relations with much of the EU when Brussels deploys an 1,800-strong nation-building mission in an independent Kosovo.

The Tadic-Kostunica fight is turning into a proxy showdown between the west and Russia - with the Kremlin aiding the prime minister, and the EU and the US shoring up the president.

According to reliable projections last night, Tadic - who had lost the first round to Nikolic a fortnight ago - took 50.5% of the vote and edged ahead of Nikolic's 47.9%. Serbs turned out in droves for the most important and most heavily attended ballot since the late Slobodan Milosevic was overthrown in 2000.

In a victory speech in front of thousands of supporters at a rally in Belgrade, Tadic told his country: "We want to go to Europe. We want to cooperate with the world. We want to say to the people of Kosovo that we'll never let them down. We need to work together to fulfil Serbia's potential."

Nikolic conceded defeat, despite the narrow margin, and offered Tadic his congratulations. "I would like to thank all those who voted for me, who understood how much Serbia needed a change," he said. "This result gives us a reason to be optimistic. I congratulate him [Tadic] on his victory ... I will continue to be his tough opposition."

How Belgrade reacts to the impending loss of 15% of its territory to Kosovo's Albanian leadership now hinges on the struggle between Tadic and Kostunica.

Yesterday's contest was presented as a battle between the past and the future, and between east and west because Nikolic, a member of the old-guard Milosevic coterie, favoured a close alliance with Moscow, while Tadic's campaign was based on pledges of European integration. Brussels feared that Nikolic might win, and made last-minute offers to Belgrade to try to swing the vote. And the EU rushed to congratulate Tadic last night.

The 67% turnout confirmed the high stakes and helped Tadic. But, with Serbia's biggest ballot in years out of the way and Tadic's victory secured, the focus now turns to Kosovo where key decisions have been delayed pending last night's outcome.

Kosovo's independence declaration is expected within a couple of weeks. The state will quickly be recognised by the US and a large majority of the EU's 27 members, including all the biggest countries, with the possible exception of Spain.

Both Tadic and Kostunica strongly oppose Kosovo's separation, but differ fundamentally on how to respond to a fait accompli. Kostunica refused to endorse Tadic in the election because of the latter's position on the EU and Kosovo.

Kostunica will call the shots on how Serbia responds to the loss of Kosovo and to the overtures from Brussels. Tadic is weaker, but can claim a clearer and stronger mandate than the prime minister after winning his election with an uncompromising pro-European message.

Kostunica has prepared an "action plan" to try to frustrate Kosovo independence; western officials say that all Serbia's government ministries have been ordered to draw up sabotage plans.

These are likely to concentrate on blocking energy and water supplies from Serbia to Kosovo, and perhaps Serbia severing diplomatic ties - at least temporarily - with EU states that recognise Kosovo. Tadic opposes such a move.

The EU's presidency, Slovenia, welcomed Tadic's victory, saying it speeded up moves towards EU candidacy. "The presidency welcomes the fact that the Serbian people seem to have confirmed their support to the democratic and European course of their country," it said. "The EU presidency reiterates its commitment to the European perspective of Serbia."