Voters in Serbia prepare to shrug off Milosevic

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Millions of people go to the polls in Serbia this weekend in an election seen by many as the country's first real chance to break away from its recent past and embrace a democratic future. The elections are the first since Serbia became an independent state after Montenegro voted for independence last May, and the first since the former leader Slobodan Milosevic died last March.

The outcome of the vote, in which nationalists are pitted against pro-democracy and reform-orientated parties, will be decisive in marking the road that Serbia will take. A victory for reformists would make the handover of Ratko Mladic to The Hague war crimes tribunal a real possibility, a long-standing demand from the EU which has suspended accession talks with Serbia over its failure to give up the former Bosnian Serb army chief.

Despite the death of Mr Milosevic, his legacy continues to cast a shadow over Serbia's political landscape. Problems such as the status of the UN-run southern province of Kosovo remain, but analysts say Sunday's election could prove key in Serbia's ability to break with the past. "That is why it is all the more important to make a real choice now," said one analyst, Vladimir Goati.

The government of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, dominated by the conservative Democratic Party of Serbia, has proved unwilling - or unable - to tackle the issues head-on, fearing a backlash from the large part of Serbian public which remains fervently nationalistic. But many Serbs have grown tired of nationalist rhetoric and political stagnation.

As a consequence of these divisions, recent polls show the ultranationalist Serbian Radical party, led by Vojislav Seselj, currently awaiting trial in The Hague, is neck and neck with the reform-oriented Democrats. With roughly 30 per cent of the vote each, neither would be able to form a government on its own.

The Democrats, the party of Serbia's first non-communist prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated four years ago, have campaigned for sweeping changes in the way the country is run. The Serbian President, Boris Tadic, has called for "more resolve, more decisive measures". Speaking at the party's final rally, he said: "We have lost too much time, Serbia cannot wait any longer."

"They have words, we have deeds," responded Mr Kostunica at his populist block rally. Mr Kostunica's government claims credit for Serbia's buoyant economy: 6 per cent economic growth in 2006; foreign investments flooding into the country and rising wages which are on average 10 times higher than in 2000, when Mr Milosevic fell from power.

The process of privatisation will be over by the end of 2007, and experts predict even better performances from the economy in the future. However, the transformation has come at a high price - unemployment stands at nearly 30 percent.

And recent polls show that, contrary to the 1990s when Serbs were most worried about the bloody conflicts erupting around them and their accompanying hardships, economic status is now of paramount importance to voters. Their worst fear now is to lose their jobs.

Another pressing issue to Serbs is the status of Kosovo. Since the passing of a constitution last October which described the province as "an integral part of Serbia", none of the major parties has been ready to accept Kosovan independence. Only the small Liberal-Democratic Party thinks otherwise. "It's clear that Kosovo has been de facto independent from Belgrade for nearly eight years," said the Liberals' leader Cedomir Jovanovic.