( AFP )- Voters in Serbia go to the polls Sunday in a presidential election seen as crucial for the future of this Balkan state vis-a-vis the EU and as its breakaway province of Kosovo plans to declare independence.
There are nine candidates for the 6.7 million voters to choose a president for a five-year mandate, but the main race will be between a pro-Western reformer, incumbent Boris Tadic, and ultranationalist Euro-sceptic Tomislav Nikolic.
But latest polls and analysts say none will get a first round majority and Tadic and Nikolic will fight a run-off on February 3, a repeat of the 2004 scenario.
The international community is nervously watching the battle between Tadic and Nikolic.
A CESID poll released this week put the Democratic party's Tadic, who wants closer ties to Europe, on 19 percent, and Nikolic, an opponent of NATO and the United States whose Serbian Radical Party is the single strongest force in parliament, on 21 percent.
Tadic, who is opposed to Kosovo independence like all Serbian officials, is however favoured by big Western powers as he is considered best able to resist an expected nationalist surge after a split, which is expected soon after the election.
Amid growing anti-EU sentiment because of its support for Kosovo, Tadic has insisted that Serbia "must continue its European path."
Nikolic however has vowed to "do everything to prevent" Kosovo's independence and to strengthen ties with Russia.
Belgrade and Pristina have failed to reach agreement on the future of Kosovo, which despite its ethnic Albanian dominated population is seen as the cradle of Serbian nation, tradition and religion.
The leadership of the province of about 1.9 million people is backed by the United States and European Union. Serbia has been supported by Russia in rejecting independence and offering only very wide autonomy.
Much attention has been focused on Vojislav Kostunica, the conservative prime minister who is backing his infrastructure minister, Velimir Ilic, a nationalist from the New Serbia party, despite being in Tadic's ruling coalition.
Kostunica's choice in the second round could prove decisive, as analysts predicted it will be extremely tight.
Polling stations open at 7:00 am (0600 GMT) and close at 8:00 pm (1900 GMT), while preliminary unofficial results were expected overnight Sunday. Final results must be announced by Thursday.
Twenty-three monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and eight from Russia would monitor the polls, as well as more then 3,000 observers from Serbia's nongovernment group Center For Free Elections and Democracy (CESID).
The republic's electoral commission twice voted not to allow monitors from the US and British embassies to observe the polls, despite the Serbian government's recommendation to do so.