Who will Moscow support in the Serbian elections?

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Yelena Shesternina) - The nationalist Serbian Radical Party, whose leader Vojislav Seselj is on trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity, is celebrating the victory of their candidate, Tomislav Nikolic, in the first round of the presidential elections.

However, Nikolic can lose the second round to the incumbent president, Boris Tadic.

Serbs are choosing not between individuals, but between policies.

Tadic, who presumably wants to maintain good relations with Russia, is a pro-Western politician who thinks that Kosovo must remain part of Serbia.

Other candidates advocate the same policy, with the exception of Cedomir Jovanovic, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and a former ally of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic assassinated on 12 March 2003. He won more than 5% of the vote in the first round.

Tadic, who is trying to sit on two chairs, says that the possibility of losing Kosovo is not a reason to quarrel with the West, in particular the European Union.

Nikolic, who is much more radical, has threatened to sever relations with all the countries that recognize the independence of Kosovo. He says that the aspiration to join the EU should not become the dominant reason in the issue of Kosovo's sovereignty.

He has pinned his hopes on Russia, reminding his voters about Seselj's words: "We must be consistent and firm in our Russophillic stance, advocating Serbia's closer integration with Russia and other Slavic and Orthodox countries."

Nikolic is prepared to sacrifice everything to attain such integration, including the EU membership, especially because the latter is only a distant possibility and not a guaranteed prospect.

Serbia may receive certain guarantees after it signs the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU as the first stage of its integration into the Union. The parties initialed the agreement last November, but its signing largely depends on the outcome of the second round of the presidential elections on February 3.

Whose side will Moscow take? It wants Kosovo to remain part of Serbia, so as not to create a precedent for the self-proclaimed republics in the former Soviet countries. But will it really support the pro-Russian candidate? The answer is not that unequivocal.

First, Nikolic has threatened to send Serbian troops to Kosovo if it proclaimed independence, though he added that a war must be avoided by all means. Russia does not need a new conflict in the Balkans.

Second, during the previous elections Moscow supported the incumbent president, Boris Tadic, though Nikolic won the first round. Vladimir Putin's greetings on the 50th birth anniversary of the Serbian president suggest that the Kremlin may support Tadic this time too. The Russian president wished him "new political successes," which Serbs have interpreted to mean that the Kremlin wants Tadic to keep his post.

Anyway, the outcome of the presidential elections in Serbia will not be decided in Moscow, even though Russian observers, unlike American and British ones, have been invited to monitor the elections. Everything now depends on the decision of the third candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, who must choose whom to support on February 3.

Shortly before the elections, differences between Serbia's prime minister and president over the Kosovo-EU dilemma deteriorated so much that Kostunica refused to support Tadic, opting instead for Velimir Ilic, the leader of the New Serbia party, who obviously cannot win.

Another outsider, Cedomir Jovanovic, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, will also have to give his votes to one of the two candidates.

The question now is whether Kostunica will again team up with Tadic to prevent the nationalist candidate from coming to power.

Another important element is turnout. It exceeded 60% in the first round and was the highest for the country since 1990. If it is as good in the second round, Tadic may keep his post, because unlike the opposition democratically minded voters prefer spending the election day at home.

The outcome of the February elections will answer the crucial question of Kosovo's independence, which is to be settled at the end of winter or the beginning of spring, as the Kosovo authorities have said openly and the West has hinted.

Before taking measures that cannot be undone, they want to know the name of the next Serbian president, so as to see how far Belgrade might go in response to the proclamation of Kosovo's independence.

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