RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Political turmoil continues in Serbia. Last week the government collapsed. This week the president dissolved Parliament. At the heart of the conflict, Kosovo's Declaration of Independence and Serbia's desire to keep it.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli covers the Balkans and then joins us now to sort this all out.
And Sylvia, in dissolving Parliament, the President also called for new elections in May. Some commentators say these elections will be the most important since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic eight years ago. Why is that?
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Well, they could mark the death of the Democratic anti-Milosevic coalition that governed since the late autocrat was toppled in 2000. It was always a very uneasy grouping of the pro-western and liberal Democratic Party headed by President Boris Tadic and the small conservative and nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia headed by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.
Now both sides strongly opposed Kosovo's independence and Belgrade has recalled ambassadors from countries that recognize the province that Serbs consider their historical and cultural cradle. But the political fault line now is between liberals putting the prospect of joining the European Union first and those who put Kosovo first.
MONTAGNE: Well, let's get to the quest of the EU - joining the EU in a moment, but first, could the election lead to a return to the hard line nationalism that plagued Serbia during the '90s and led to the really bloody breakup of Yugoslavia?
POGGIOLI: Well, opinion polls show that 70% of Serbs are in favor of the European Union, but an equal number are opposed if the price is the loss of Kosovo. Now I was in Belgrade recently and I was surprised by how depressed everyone was over how the international community handled the Kosovo issue. Even people who are not usually very emotional about it, felt the West had acted in violation of international law.
There's also strong resentment against the EU, especially among young people for the near impossibility to get visas to travel to the EU. In fact, 70% of young Serbs have never traveled out of the country. And so Kostunica and the opposition radical party, which is the biggest in the country, are trying to capitalize on all these grievances and polls indicate that the anti-western parties could gain substantially and join forces in a government that might turn Serbia's back on the West.
MONTAGNE: Well, so the point is though, if these nationalists, they have to offer an alternative to EU membership since the opposing Kosovo independence is a problem for Serbia with the EU.
POGGIOLI: Well, the radicals will campaign on the failure of eight years of pro-western governments to deliver on promises of a better life and on the benefits of closer ties to Russia, which has come out strongly in backing Serbia over Kosovo's independence. At the UN Security Council, Russia blocked any resolution that would have recognized Kosovo and Russia also promises large investments and recently sealed a big deal with the national oil company for construction of a major pipeline through Serbia.
MONTAGNE: Well, talk about the region then. What does this dispute mean for that whole area?
POGGIOLI: Well, Serbia's neighbors are really worried. The Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev said yesterday, We're concerned that Serbia's slipping away and will voluntary isolate itself from the EU. And isolation of one of the biggest countries in the region could mean regional instability. And Brussels officials are beginning to worry about the possible fall out from Kosovo's recognition. There are already signs of a soft partition in Kosovo; the new EU supervisors who are there to take over for the EU are virtually barred from the Serb inhabited areas in northern Kosovo. And Balkan analysts also warn of the danger of a contagion from the Kosovo conflict. Bosnian Serbs have threatened to hold a referendum on succession from Bosnia and yesterday in Macedonia, which has a very large ethnic Albanian population, the government collapsed over long simmering ethnic disputes. So the goal of western recognition of Kosovo was to stabilize the Balkans but early signs suggest the opposite.
MONTAGNE: All right. Well, we'll continue covering this. Thank you, Sylvia.
POGGIOLI: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. And this is NPR News.
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