BELGRADE, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Serbia votes on Sunday in a
knife-edge presidential election that could decide whether it
turns its back on the West in response to the imminent loss of
the breakaway province of Kosovo.
The race between pro-Western president Boris Tadic and
nationalist challenger Tomislav Nikolic is too close to call,
Tadic will hope for a high turnout to counter the dedicated
supporters of Nikolic, who beat him by 40 per cent to 35.4 in
the first round two weeks ago when just over 60 percent of the
6.7 million voters turned out.
Both men oppose Kosovo's independence drive. Nikolic wants
Serbia to turn to Russia to punish the West for backing Kosovo's
majority Albanians. Tadic is asking Serbs to swallow their pride
and pursue European Union membership whatever happens.
Polls open at 7 a.m. (0600 GMT) and close at 8 p.m. (1900
GMT). First projections of the outcome are expected an hour
later at the earliest. Monitoring groups say they will be very
cautious about calling the result.
Nikolic's Radical Party has consistently taken a third of
the vote in all elections since the fall of autocrat Slobodan
Milosevic in 2000. It is tapping into anger over Kosovo, painful
economic transition and widespread corruption.
"Serbia wants a change, it wants to control the
authorities," he said in a televised duel this week.
He advocates closer ties with Moscow, Serbia's only big
power ally on the issue of Kosovo, and says "Serbia has two
roads: the one to Russia is wide open, the other one to the EU
is thorny and full of obstacles".
Tadic, who says the issues of Kosovo and the EU are not
related, has accused Nikolic of wanting to turn Serbia back to
the isolation of the Milosevic years, when the country was an
international pariah for its role in the Yugoslav wars.
"On February 3 Serbia is facing a referendum between a
strategic path of progress or a return to the past," he says.
A vote for Nikolic would be "scrapping all that's been
achieved since 2000, destroying any hope of investments and jobs
and bringing us years of uncertainty and risk".
The ethnic Albanian leaders of Kosovo will set the date for
their declaration of independence after Sunday's result.
If Nikolic wins, political sources say the Albanians will
declare independence the following weekend. If Tadic wins, they
will wait up to a few weeks in deference to the EU's wishes.
The population of Serbia's ancestral homeland is 90 percent
Albanian. It has been run by the United Nations since NATO drove
out Serb forces in 1999 to halt ethnic cleansing during a
A Nikolic victory could end the fragile coalition of Tadic
and nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.
Kostunica has made the defence of Serb sovereignty over
Kosovo the keystone of his policy. He has attacked the EU's plan
to deploy an 1,800-strong mission to supervise the transition
U.N. rule, as a prelude to recognising the new state.
This week he said he could not support Tadic's re-election
bid because his coalition ally had refused to commit himself to
pledging that Serbia would scorn any deal with the EU if it went
ahead and supported Kosovo's independence.
Neither the EU nor the United States has shown any sign of
backing down over Kosovo's independence, despite warnings from
Russian President Vladimir Putin that he will never accept it.