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Kosovo Heats Up as Key Issue in Serbian Politics

As United Nations status negotiations for Kosovo move toward a conclusion possibly later this year, Kosovo has become the focus of political debate in Serbia.

In a surprise finding, a recent opinion survey has concluded that if an election were held in Serbia today, mildly pro-European moderates would continue to hold power. Marko Blagojevic is the program director of the Center for Free Elections and Democracy. He says the Democratic Party of President Boris Tadic has registered gains while the nationalist Radical Party has lost support.

"Thirty percent of the electorate would vote for the Serbian Radical Party and 30 percent for the Democratic Party, which is the first time that we've seen actually these two parties with equal ratings," he said.

The poll says only two other parties, the moderate nationalists of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica (14 percent) and the Socialists of the late dictator Slobodan Milosevic (six percent), would today have enough support to win parliamentary seats.

Blagojevic does not expect elections for several months. Voter apathy, he says, is high and a large percentage of the electorate is undecided. He says the outcome of the Kosovo status negotiations is bound to influence voters, but perhaps not to the benefit of the Radicals. "This idea of Kosovo within the borders of Serbia (as would be stated in the proposed Serbian constitution) has been taken away from the radical nationalists and has become the issue that moderate nationalists are talking about. And not only moderate nationalists but among those who are considered to be pro-European," he said.

Blagojevic says the Radicals have lost Kosovo as a rallying point and this may explain their recent loss of voter support.

In effect, say analysts, mainstream parties are aware that Kosovo, with a 90 percent ethnic Albanian population demanding independence, is lost to Serbia. Politicians are maneuvering to avoid being blamed for the loss of Kosovo.

Former politician, diplomat and anti-Milosevic activist Vesna Pesic agrees that the Radical Party is unlikely to come to power. "Probably they (Kostunica and Tadic) will make some corrupted coalition as they have now to not let them come. But I would say that as was said when Milosevic was in power, his Socialist Party would say, "we're all a little socialist. Now you could say we're all a little radical," he said.

Pesic is a fierce opponent of Prime Minister Kostunica, particularly his failure to arrest Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb general who is wanted for war crimes in the Hague. She says Serbian politics is still split between traditionalists and nationalists on the one hand and pro-European modernists on the other. Despite some evidence to contrary, she believes the traditionalists are gaining strength.