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Serbia's Future Remains Uncertain

Serbia may be heading for “disaster,” according to some Balkan analysts. There are fears that not only is Kosovo – the secessionist province that plans to declare independence from Serbia within weeks – lost, but Europe may be slipping away as well. It is ironic because the winner of last Sunday’s presidential election was incumbent Boris Tadic, who favors closer links with the West and rapid moves toward membership in the European Union. He narrowly defeated Tomislav Nikolic, whose Radical Party was aligned with former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990’s and who favors closer ties to Russia. However, both Mr. Tadic and Mr. Nikolic oppose independence for Kosovo.

Despite the outcome of the presidential election, Serbia’s nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has blocked plans to sign a political and economic agreement with Europe. Earlier this week he denounced a EU-offered deal intended to expand trade and ease visa restrictions as a “trap” aimed at forcing Serbia to accept Kosovar independence. The plan gives preliminary approval for replacing the departing United Nations mission in Kosovo with 1,800 European police and administrative officials. But Prime Minister Kostunica says the deal would dismember Serbia, and he has called for an urgent session of Parliament to discuss it.

Ljiljana Smajlovic, editor-in-chief of Politika in Belgrade, says that because of the results of the recent presidential election there will be no change of power at the top “for the moment.” Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Ms. Smajlovic says this is just the “opening of a new troubled period” in Serbian politics and “not the conclusive ending to who is going to rule Serbia.” She points out that Serbian unemployment is very high and there is anger over the widening gap “between haves and have-nots,” and all these things add up to “resentment over Kosovo,” whose population is largely ethnic Albanian. Furthermore, Serbian society is now “polarized into two groups” of almost equal size.

Quite true, says Matthias Rueb, Washington bureau chief for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. But he adds, when Boris Tadic defeated Tomislav Nikolic by 51 to 48 percent, there was a “big sigh of relief everywhere in Europe.” Mr. Rueb calls President Tadic the “favorite of the EU and the United States,” but he emphasizes that Mr. Tadic is politically “rather weak” compared with Prime Minister Kostunica.

Despite these tensions, it is widely expected that the Kosovar Albanians will declare independence from Serbia within the next few weeks. In fact, journalist Dukagjin Gorani, director of the Kosovo Institute for Journalism and Communications, calls that declaration “inevitable.” From a Kosovar Albanian perspective, Mr. Gorani says, it is only Western opinion that matters. And Pristina expects “strong recognition” by most of the states of the European Union and the United States.

Some Serbian analysts are predicting that the crisis may cause Prime Minister Kostunica, whose party rules in a coalition with that of President Tadic, to dissolve the government and force elections. There is also speculation that the Prime Minister will try to form a new coalition with the Radical Party.