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Serbs  Vote in Presidential Election Sunday - 2004-06-10

Serbs go to the polls Sunday to elect a president. It is the fourth time the republic will try to elect a leader. The previous three elections were declared invalid because not enough eligible voters turned out.

The election is for the presidency of the Serb Republic, the larger of the two Republics that make up the Serbia-Montenegro Union. Serbia has been without a president for more than two years, ever since Milan Milutinovic was turned over to the War Crimes tribunal at the Hague. He was a close ally of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who is also on trial for war crimes at the Hague.

The results of Serbia's three previous attempts to elect a president were not valid, because the law required 50 percent of eligible voters to participate in the balloting.

"They had to change the stipulations in order to enable a sufficient number of voters to cast their ballots for it to be legitimate," said Janusz Bugajski, director of the Eastern Europe Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "So it looks as if they'll finally elect a president."

Daniel Serwer, the Director of the Balkans Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace explained why this election is important.

"At the current time it's particularly important because you have such an odd political configuration in Serbia," he noted. "You've got a minority government supported by the radical party, which is not regarded by most in the West as a democratically oriented party. So, who gets elected president will really shift the weight of Serbian politics, either in a more democratic or in a less democratic direction."

Polls show nationalist Tomislav Nikolic, another Milosevic ally, is leading the pack of several candidates. The Democratic Party's candidate, Boris Tadic, is in second place followed by Serbia's acting President, Dragan Marsicanin, of another reform-minded party the Democratic Party of Serbia. No matter what the turnout, in order to win, a candidate must get more than 50 percent of the vote. So, it appears a runoff election is likely.

Daniel Serwer added that the international community will take note of the result.

"They see a major and fundamental difference between a Nikolic and Tadic," he explained. "They see one as representing the past, representing a failed ideology, a failed set of methods, and the other representing a vision of the future that's more European and in which Serbia is engaged in at least Partnership for Peace, if not as a member of NATO."

Dr. Serwer adds that a Nikolic win will likely inhibit foreign investment as well as other Western involvement in Serbia. Janusz Bugajski agrees.

"Serbia's made some progress on economic reform, some progress in military reform recently. [It] still has a long way to go in terms of corruption, privatization, attracting foreign investment, judicial system, some of the intelligence services. [Also,] they still have a long ways to go to reach that level whereby they could be compatible with NATO, for example," Janusz Bugajski explained.

Dr. Serwer adds that while the result of the Serbian presidential election may not be too important to the West right now, it will matter to Serbs.

"It is going to make a difference to Serbia, whether they can elect somebody who wants really rapid movement into the European Union, who has abandoned the failed ideologies and methods of the past or if they chose somebody who is still a supporter of an indicted war criminal who's at the Hague," he said.

He believes Serbia will not fare well in the region or in the world, if its people make the latter choice and elect Mr. Nikolic.