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Update No: 129 - (29/02/08)

Nothing is more important for a state than its territorial integrity. This was the issue in presidential elections in February, the month that also saw Kosovo declaring its independence.

Twelfth-century Kosovo was the administrative and cultural centre of the Serbian state. In the mid-1400s, Serbia was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, who won the Battle of Kosovo on June 28, 1389, a date etched into Serb consciousness. The Ottomans took sovereignty over the region a century later.

It was not until 1878 that Serbia threw off the Ottoman yoke. But Serbs in Bosnia remained subject to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On June 28 1914, a very fateful day, the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in their royal wisdom decided to visit Sarajevo. This on the Serbian national day. They were assassinated; and the rest is history.

Narrow win for incumbent
President Boris Tadic, the pro-Western incumbent, narrowly, but decisively, defeated the arch-nationalist challenger, Timoslav Nikolic, a former crony of Slobodan Milosevic, in February 3 elections. Brussels and others breathed a sigh of relief. The Balkans are still dangerous; but somewhat less so after this result.

Tadic obtained 50.5% of the vote and Nikolic gathered about 47.9% according to CeSID, a vote-monitoring organization. The voter turnout was estimated to be 67.7%, the country's highest turnout since the 2000 election, that saw the end of Milosevic.

Nikolic won the first round with about 40% of the vote, while Tadic came in second with 35%. But in the second round Tadic came out as the clear winner. This was a re-run of the outcome in 2004.

Tadic heads the Democratic Party of Serbia and wants closer relations with the EU. Nikolic, the leader of the nationalist Serbian Radical Party, supports closer ties with Russia, Serbia"s historical ally.

Nikolic made a gracious concession speech, congratulating the winner. But he also promised that his party, which he heads, the Radical Party of Serbia, would maintain a strong opposition.

No new war over Kosovo
The election was really about whether Serbia was choosing a policy of reconciliation or confrontation with the West over the issue of Kosovo. Fortunately there will be no return of 1999. 

Tadic, like all serious Serb leaders, opposes independence for Kosovo, that was declared on February 17. But he would not use force to prevent it. As commander-in-chief he is the key figure.

Independence for Kosovo 
The pivotal issue in the presidential race was the imminent secession of the majority-Albanian province of Kosovo, now declared a fact. The region has been under U.N. administration since the end of the 1999 NATO bombing campaign that halted Milosevic"s campaign of “ethnic cleansing" against the Albanians, who make up about 90 percent of Kosovo"s 2 million people.

Tadić"s party, the Democratic Party of Serbia, played a key role in the revolution that toppled Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000, bringing Vojislav Kostunica to power, first as president, then as premier.

Tadić served as Minister of Telecommunications in the Government of FR Yugoslavia in 2000 and as Minister of Defence in the Cabinet of Serbia and Montenegro from March 17-2003 until he assumed the presidency. He served as an MP of the Democratic Party in the Federal Senate and as vice-speaker of the Parliament of Yugoslavia. He was the leader of the Democratic party"s club in the Parliament of Serbia and Montenegro in 2003 and the leader of Democratic Party in the Parliament of Serbia in 2004.

The assassination of Zoran Dindic in March 2003 led to a leadership convention of the Democratic Party in 2004, which was won by Tadić.

Brussels offers a deal 
The EU has offered Belgrade a circumscribed deal that would expand cooperation covering trade and visas, but falls short of opening the way to EU entry talks. 

An EU official close to the negotiations over Kosovo"s independence said before the elections that if Nikolic won the them, Kosovo's independence declaration would be accelerated, whereas a Tadic victory would give the EU and Washington more diplomatic breathing room. The latter is now the case. 

"The Prime Minister of the Republic of Slovenia and the President of the European Council, Janez Jansa, congratulated Tadic on his victory in the Serbian presidential elections, and wished him every success in discharging that office in future," said a press release posted on the website of the EU Presidency shortly after the preliminary results of the election were published. 

As the prime minister of the country which is holding the EU Presidency, Jansa stressed that Tadic's victory reflected "the wishes and resolve of democratic forces to further Serbia on its path towards membership of the European Union," the press release said. 

Citing the recent offer of the EU to sign a political agreement with Serbia, Jansa reiterated EU's commitment to the European perspective of Serbia and assured Tadic of Slovenia's support in this regard.

Probing the riots
Hundreds of hooligans attacked the U.S. Embassy in downtown Belgrade on February 21, setting part of it on fire and smashing windows. One person died and hundreds were injured and arrested.

The mobs also targeted other Western missions, foreign banks and shops.

Serbia's pro-Western president insisted on February 26 on a full probe of riots that targeted U.S. and other Western embassies in protest of international recognition of Kosovo's declaration of independence.

President Tadic scheduled a meeting of the National Security Council, when he called for an investigation into the unrest, Serbia's Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told B92 television. The council includes the president and prime minister, as well as the army, police and intelligence chiefs.

Kostunica the maverick non-Milosevic
But there is still Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. He is not a Milosevic; but he is no Westerner like Dodic either. He fervently believes that Kosovo should be eternally part of Serbia. 

He is going to use the Kosovo issue for all it is worth. He has declared his determination to carry on ruling those parts of Serbia that want to be ruled by Belgrade. They do, indeed, exist, those parts to the north still inhabitated by Serbs. Serbia intends to rule parts of Kosovo where "loyal citizens" still look to Belgrade for government, PM Kostunica has announced.

In a fresh challenge to the West, which backs Kosovo's independence, and in particular to the European Union, which is due to take over from the United Nations as Kosovo's supervisor, he said Serbia would do all in its power to exert its authority. 

"Serbia will do everything to implement its jurisdiction and state prerogatives for all loyal citizens in Kosovo -- Serbs and non-Albanians," Kostunica said. "There cannot be normalisation of relations with the states that recognised Kosovo independence until they annul their decision," he added. "Protest rallies will not stop as long as illegal independence is not annulled."

Kostunica won renewed backing from ally Russia, whose likely next president, Dmitry Medvedev, made a high-profile visit to say Moscow would continue to back Serbian sovereignty, despite Western support for the independence of Kosovo.

Medvedev, who also met Western-leaning president Boris Tadic, said there would be no shift in Russia's support for Serbia after the presidential election. "We assume that Serbia is a single state whose jurisdiction covers all of its territory," Medvedev said. "We will stick to this position."
There is plenty of scope for further trouble here.

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