Serbia Election Tests Country's Next Step

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The people of Serbia voted today in a parliamentary election. The vote is seen as a test between ultra-nationalists and pro-Western reformers who want to move their nation into the European fold.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Voters in Serbia went to the polls today for a parliamentary election. The vote was seen as a test of strength between pro-Western reformers and ultranationalists who still hold sway six years after the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic. Projections indicate the ultranationalists will win the biggest block of votes, but not enough to govern alone. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Belgrade covering the elections. Sylvia, tell us about these results.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Well, since none of the three major parties is going to win an outright majority, there's going to have to be some kind of a coalition. The projections by independent monitors are putting the ultranationalist Radical Party in the lead with 28.5 percent. The Radicals' leader, Vojislav Sesel, is in prison in the Hague awaiting trial at the War Crimes Tribunal.

The Western-leaning Democratic Party of President Boris Tadic is in second place at 23 percent, while the more conservative Democratic Party of Serbia, headed by the outgoing President Vojislav Koštunica is in third with about 17 percent.

One possible scenario is a coalition of the two Democratic parties, but it would be an awkward combination. Tadic's Democrats have criticized Koštunica for not pushing reforms fast enough and for not getting rid of members of the Milosevic regime who still hold posts in the police and secret services.

The other possibility is a coalition between Koštunica and the radicals, which from the point of view of the West would be a very negative outcome.

ELLIOTT: What are the major challenges the new prime minister will face?

POGGIOLI: Well, the two top challenges involve relations with the outside world. Last May, the European Union froze talks on closer ties with Belgrade, saying they'd resume only when the fugitive, Ratko Mladic, wanted on genocide charges, will be finally handed over to the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague. Tadic's democrats say arresting him is a top priority, while the radicals of course would be very unlikely to hand over a man that they see as a hero.

But the even bigger issue is the future status of Kosovo, the disputed province whose control was wrested from Belgrade in 1999 after NATO went to war to protect the majority Ethnic Albanian population. Since then, Kosovo has been an international protectorate.

The Serbian election campaign took place under the shadow of an imminent announcement by U.N. mediators, who were expected to propose conditional independence for the province, but no major Serb politician, ultranationalist or reformist, is willing to give Kosovo away.

In reality, however, public opinion is rather divided over the issue. I've spoken to many young, urban Serbs who have told me Kosovo was lost seven years ago after the NATO bombing, and Serbia should move on.

ELLIOTT: Now, what does today's election mean for Serbia's future?

POGGIOLI: Well, we'll have to see exactly what kind of a coalition is formed. If the reformists come to power, there's likely to be progress on the Mladic front, and the E.U. will be much more open and flexible toward Belgrade. But the Kosovo issue is much more complicated and has already become an international dispute.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sided with Belgrade, warning Russia could use its U.N. Security Council veto to block any Kosovo plan that's objectionable to Belgrade, and China has made similar announcements.

The new development is that the Western pro-independent Kosovo front is beginning to show some cracks. Several E.U. members are concerned that a Kosovo secession could gain destabilize the Balkans and would be regarded as a dangerous precedent in other independence-minded regions in Europe and elsewhere.

These E.U. doubters include Spain, Greece, Romania and Italy. They're calling for further negotiations to help bring the Serbs and ethnic Albanians to a compromise solution, and today during her talks in talks with Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who currently holds the E.U. presidency, expressed concern about any Kosovo status plan that could destabilize the situation in Serbia.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Belgrade. Thank you.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

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