Serbian Election Colored by Kosovo's Future Serbs go to the polls Sunday in the second round of their presidential election. The runoff, between the current president and his rival, is being dominated by the issue of Kosovo.
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Serbian Election Colored by Kosovo's Future

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Serbian Election Colored by Kosovo's Future

Serbian Election Colored by Kosovo's Future

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Today's presidential elections in Serbia are seen as a choice between a future closely allied with Europe or with Russia. Looming over the vote is the question of the Kosovo province. The population there is 90 percent ethnic Albanian, and it's expected to declare independence this month. In a tight race both candidates are firmly opposed to an independent Kosovo.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Belgrade.

(Soundbite of rally)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Cheering supporters of incumbent president and Democrat Party candidate Boris Tadic gathered for his final rally. Speaker after speaker stressed a Tadic victory would end Serbia's international isolation.

On the other side of town, tens of thousands of people were bussed in to a sports arena for Radical Party candidate Tomislav Nikolic's last rally. Hawkers were selling T-shirts glorifying wanted war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. The songs echoed nostalgia for Kosovo, Serbia's medieval heartland.

(Soundbite of music)

POGGIOLI: The main campaign issue has been Kosovo, the province that has been under U.N. protection since 1999, when a NATO bombing campaign wrested its control from the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

Ms. LJILJANA SMAJLOVIC (Daily Politika): There is no sense that Kosovo can be part of Serbia, but there is a sense that Serbia is about to be robbed, that it's about to be ripped off.

POGGIOLI: Ljiljana Smajlovic, editor-in-chief of the Daily Politika, says there is widespread resentment at the United States and European Union for their support of an independent Kosovo.

Ms. SMAJLOVIC: Well, what Washington and Brussels wanted us to do was to sign this robbery away to them and pretend that it's not blackmail. So people feel it was illegal and immoral. And this has benefited, I'm afraid, Tomislav Nikolic.

POGGIOLI: Two weeks ago, Nikolic won the high-turnout first round. He claims Serbia's future is with Russia, which forcefully opposes Kosovo's independence as a breach of international law. Many analysts say the anti-Western mood has been fueled by strict European Union visa controls for Serbs that increase their isolation and ensure that 70 percent of young people have never left the country.

At the same time, Serbian history books have not been updated to shed light on the country's recent bloody past. The results are disaffection and confusion, especially among youth.

Milena Yanyich(ph) is 18.

Ms. MILENA YANYICH: I am not voting because I don't think that it's going to change anything and I think that Kosovo is our homeland. It would be very sad to lose it.

POGGIOLI: You don't think Milosevic already lost it eight years ago?

Ms. YANYICH: I was very young. I don't know what he did. Everybody's talking that Milosevic was very bad, but I don't know what he did.

POGGIOLI: But 26-year-old Milo Zornich(ph) believes this election is crucial. He took part in the protests that brought down Milosevic in 2000 and has visited one European country, Ukraine, where he volunteered as an election monitor. He believes isolation nurtures an obsession with the past.

Mr. MILO ZORNICH: (Through translator) Kosovo (unintelligible) a long time ago, but we are burdened with this mortgage of history and we have to live it all the time and living out the myths and the mythomania of our leaders. It's much more important for me to turn to my present-day life, to be able to travel, to be able to (unintelligible) Europe. We are overburdened with history.

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Belgrade.

HANSEN: Also today, Egyptian troops closed the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, ending 11 days in which thousands of Palestinian residents of the territory poured into Egypt seeking fuel, medicines and other supplies. These things had become scarce since Israel blockaded Gaza to prevent rocket attacks on Israeli border towns. The Palestinian militant group Hamas says the border closing is - the border re-closing, rather, is only temporary.

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