Serbia bans US and British election monitors

Serbia's electoral commission has barred US and British observers from monitoring its presidential elections in protest over the countries' support for Kosovan independence.

A member of the commission from the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), Slavoljub Milenkovic, said yesterday that the US and Britain would be prevented from sending monitors for the 20 January elections "because their countries want to destroy us and grab Kosovo away from Serbia".

The US and most EU nations back independence for Kosovo, which is populated by some two million ethnic Albanians. It has been run by the UN since 1999, when a Nato bombing campaign forced Belgrade to end its crackdown on an armed insurgency of Kosovan Albanians.

After more than two years of internationally sponsored negotiations, Serbia, backed by Russia, still fiercely opposes the imminent independence of Kosovo and has refused any solution other than broad autonomy. Belgrade did not react yesterday to a report in The New York Times that claimed the US and Germany have agreed to recognise the independence of Kosovo, and will push the rest of the EU to follow suit after the outcome of the Serbian presidential elections, the second round of which is to be held on 3 February.

Senior EU officials told the paper that the US President, George W Bush, and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, had agreed that it was imperative to secure the stability of the western Balkans by coordinating the recognition of Kosovo between the US and the EU.

Nationalism and anti-Western sentiment are growing in Serbia as it seeks to keep Kosovo from breaking away. The issue of Kosovan independence, which had been on the back-burner since 1999, came into sharp focus after international negotiations over the province began in 2005. Those efforts finally collapsed at the end of last year, prompting the Kosovan government-elect to warn that it would go ahead and declare independence in early 2008.

It provided a further opportunity for the conservative, nationalist government of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to rally Serbs, most of whom consider Kosovo to be the cradle of their medieval state and religion. His harsh rhetoric on Kosovo has created an atmosphere resembling the nationalist era of former leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Mr Kostunica's frequent diatribes against the EU and its planned mission for Kosovo are pushing Serbia away from signing the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU, which would give Serbia freer trade access to the European Union. Alongside this, Serbia's reluctance to hand over the remaining war crimes indictees is also not helping relations.

Mr Kostunica's insistence on closer ties with Russia also worries many. Serbs are deeply split over the issue, as no significant aid has ever been forthcoming from Russia in the recent past. No major Russian investments have been allowed since the fall of Milosevic in 2000.

However, Mr Kostunica's government now seems ready to sell the family jewellery, Oil Industry of Serbia (NIS), to Gazprom, Russia's state-run energy giant, in a murky deal for a knockdown price of €400m (£300m) by the end of next week, a move that anaylsts say could further endanger Serbia's access to the EU.

The European Commission yesterday voiced concern over the sale of NIS. Spokesman Krisztina Nagy said: "The Commission hopes that the sale of an important asset such as the Serbian oil company will be open and driven by objective, commercial and economic interests."

Serbia finds itself at a crossroads over the conflicting issues of Kosovo, the EU and relations with Russia just days before the presidential elections, which are considered crucial for the country. Voters are to chose between the reformist and pro-Western President Boris Tadic, and the ultranationalist SRS candidate Tomislav Nikolic. With their choice, they will also decide if Serbia will continue down the road of EU integration or return to its nationalist, isolationist past.

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