Narrow victory for Boris Tadic despite continued tensions over Kosovo
By David Charter in Belgrade

Crowds waving Serbian and EU flags celebrated in Belgrade’s central square last night after the pro-European President beat off a tough challenge from an ultranationalist rival to keep the troubled Balkan country facing West rather than turning towards Moscow.

Boris Tadic, President since 2004, benefited from a high turnout of 67 per cent after a campaign that highlighted deep divisions in Serbia and was overshadowed by the impending declaration of independence from the province of Kosovo.

Preliminary results gave Mr Tadic a narrow win, with 51 per cent of the vote, although the final tally will not be known until later today.

In his victory speech Mr Tadic called on the country to unite after a campaign that exposed Serbia’s faultlines and raised the temperature over Kosovo to boiling point.

“I congratulate all the citizens of Serbia on us being a European democracy. We have shown to many EU member countries the democratic potential of this country,” he said.

His far-Right opponent, Tomislav Nikolic, a former ally of Slobodan Milosevic with close links to Russia, had used the Kosovo issue to stir up patriotic passions and counter the long-term appeal of economic gains from eventually joining the European Union.

The vote left the country polarised between nationalists and reformers but will come as a huge relief to the EU, which feared that Serbians, disillusioned by the slow pace of reforms and 30 per cent unemployment, would turn to Moscow for their economic and political future.

The appeal of Russia centred on its backing for the Serbian refusal to grant independence to Kosovo, which has been under UN administration since Nato intervened in 1999 to stop ethnic cleansing and is cherished by Serbs as their spiritual home and the location of important cultural sites.

Mr Tadic, 50, walked a tightrope during the campaign of opposing Kosovan independence while appealing for voters not to lose faith with the EU, despite strong signs that most European nations will recognise an independent Kosovo immediately.

His victory was quickly welcomed on behalf of the EU by Slovenia, the fellow former Yugoslav nation that holds the rotating EU presidency.

“Serbia has a crucial role to play in the Western Balkans and the people of Serbia are part of the European family,” the statement said. “The EU wishes to deepen its relationship with Serbia and to accelerate its progress towards the EU. It therefore encourages Serbia to implement vigorously the reforms necessary.” These include full co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia ‘ including the arrest and handover of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader, and Ratko Mladic, the ex-army chief, both prominent war crimes suspects.

Mr Nikolic, 55, a former cemetery worker known as ‘the undertaker’, was fiercely opposed to co-operating with the tribunal in The Hague, a sentiment shared by many Serbs. He travelled last week to Moscow, which has blocked UN debate on indepen- dence for Kosovo, to receive pledges of greater investment and offer Serbia an alternative destiny to joining the EU.

Conceding defeat at his party headquarters in Belgrade, Mr Nikolic said: “My message to Russia is to keep helping Serbia as it has done so far. My message to the EU is to stop blackmailing Serbia and stop putting impossible conditions, and that we are ready to be within the EU, but there are some conditions we cannot fulfil.” Earlier in the day he declared: “Serbia is close to the European Union and Russia, but at this time Russia is a closer partner than the EU because it can make development possible for Serbia.”

President Sejdiu of Kosovo said: “The elections in Serbia have nothing to do with us, they are the elections of a neighbouring country. There are only a few days left before we declare independence.”

The victory for Mr Tadic will give all sides a little more breathing space and allow the international community to try again to manage the next steps in Kosovo’s future while avoiding further bloodshed in the area.

Mr Tadic had campaigned on a message that voting for Mr Nikolic would turn Serbia back to the era of Milosevic, the former President who died in custody in The Hague in 2006 before his trial for war crimes reached a verdict.

Stefan Wolff, Professor of Political Science at Nottingham University, a Balkans expert in Belgrade for the elections, said: “The Serbian population is very split between Tadic and Nikolic and it is very difficult to say how that will play out in a future parliamentary election. The issue of Kosovo is extremely important and the West needs to brace itself for a difficult time ahead with Serbia.”

Mr Tadic must now try to rebuild his relationship with Vojislav Kostunica, the Serbian Prime Minister, who has become increasingly hostile to the West and strongly opposes EU plans to send a stabilisation force to Kosovo.