Run-off vote to decide Serbia's future

The path of Serbia towards EU integration or the isolation of the Milosevic era will be decided in two weeks' time, after yesterday's presidential poll failed to produce a clear winner.

Preliminary results released last night by Serbia's respected election monitor CeSID showed a surprisingly high turnout of 61 per cent, or 4.1 million voters. The ultranationalist candidate Tomislav Nikolic headed the race with 39.4 per cent of votes, followed by pro-Western incumbent Boris Tadic on 35.4 per cent.

As both fell short of the majority needed for outright victory, the final decision on Serbia's president will be made in a head to head run-off vote on 3 February.

Analysts agree that the highest turnout since downfall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 showed that Serbs were aware of the importance of elections. The run-off will practically be a plebiscite on Serbia's future.

Serbia's elections are unfolding against a tense back-drop, with the breakaway province of Kosovo – viewed by Serbs as the cradle of their nation and their Orthodox Christian religion – heading towards an expected declaration of independence next month. The international community sees the soft-spoken Mr Tadic as a better prospect for helping Serbia on to a faster track to EU membership.

Mr Nikolic, leader of the Serbian Radical Party, frequently plays the nationalist card, milking frustration with the United States and Europe over their backing for Kosovo, and putting his trust in Russia.

"There will be no more blackmail and humiliation," said Mr Nikolic after he cast his ballot. "Russia is a much closer partner to Serbia... We do not want to argue with the EU. We need the EU, but not at any price."

Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci travels to Brussels this week, where he is expected to agree on a date for Kosovo's parliament to declare independence, after Serbia's ally Russia blocked the territory's secession at the United Nations Security Council.

Mr Tadic opposes an independent Kosovo but is not prepared to isolate the country. "This election decides which path Serbia is going to take and what is the future for Serbia and our children," he said, setting out the options as "a road ahead and an errant road".

Despite Mr Tadic's promise of quicker progress towards EU membership, Serbia still has to overcome several obstacles. Although Slovenia, the current EU president, wants Serbia to sign a pact this month as a first step to entry, some EU states insist it must first hand over the war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic to the UN tribunal in The Hague.

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