Boris Tadic's re-election as president of Serbia was wholeheartedly welcomed by European leaders yesterday, as they looked forward to the prospect of the Balkan country moving along a smoother path to EU membership as the breakaway province of Kosovo prepares to declare its independence.
While opposing Kosovan independence, Mr Tadic does not want bitterness about losing the province to get in the way of boosting Serbian prosperity from within the EU fold. The man he defeated by a mere 100,000 votes, the ultranationalist Tomislav Nikolic, was in favour of turning to Russia and away from the EU in protest at its planned recognition of Kosovo.
"We will continue working with Serbia and we'd like Serbia to get as close as possible as rapidly as possible toward the European road," said Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, after Mr Tadic's victory.
The EU and Serbia are due to sign a deal on Thursday concerning closer trade relations and more relaxed visa rules, a prelude to cementing its membership bid. The full Stabilisation and Association Agreement is being held up by demands from some European countries that Serbia hands over war criminals who are still at large. The Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander Ratko Mladic are wanted by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague for the massacre of more than 7,000 Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995.
Analysts in Kosovo agree that Mr Tadic's re-election is good news, because of the much-needed stability in the region ahead of the expected proclamation of independence. The province has been run by the United Nations and patrolled by Nato since 1999 in response to ethnic cleansing.
"It's good news that the Serb people have shown they want to move toward the future, not turn back to the past," said Kosovo's Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci . The date for Kosovo's proclamation of independence will be set this week, he added. And the parliamentary speaker suggested it would be all wrapped up by the end of February. "We are ready and in co-ordination with our Western allies, the US and the EU, we will declare independence this month," said Jakup Krasniqi.
Yesterday the EU formally agreed to send a joint action force of 1,800 police and justice officials to Kosovo, without setting a date for deployment. Although parts of the EU force are in place in Pristina, full deployment will take several weeks.
Serbian newspapers devoted headlines to the pro-European tack on which Mr Tadic's re-election will set the country. The daily Danas said that "Serbia elected Europe," while others declared his win the "Victory of the European Serbia".
But political observers said the President could not sit back and enjoy a honeymoon because of deep rifts with the conservative Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. Serbia's government is an uneasy coalition of Mr Tadic's Democrats and Mr Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia. Mr Kostunica opposes signing any treaty with the EU if it backs Kosovo's independence.