Will Russia’s stake win in Serbian elections?

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Yelena Shesternina) - On Friday, Vladimir Putin met with Serbian President Boris Tadic and Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica in the Kremlin.

It was announced that the main goal of the visit was to sign agreements in the oil and gas sphere (Gazprom's planned purchase of the controlling interest in the state-run oil company NIS and the laying of a section of the South Stream gas pipeline on Serbian territory) and discuss privatization of the Serbian airline JAT - Aeroflot wants to buy a controlling block of shares in it.

But the talks were not limited to economic projects. The parties discussed Kosovo and the domestic political situation in Serbia. On February 3, Serbia will have a second round of presidential elections, and Boris Tadic needs Moscow's support as never before.

He is not the only one, though. The winner of the first round, nationalist Tomislav Nikolic is going to visit Moscow in several days. He will also try to persuade the Russian authorities to give him public support. But only deputies of the State Duma are ready to meet him. No meetings are planned with Putin or Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Moreover, the latter did not even know that a potential future Serbian president was coming to Moscow. "We have received no notification of this," Lavrov said at a news conference this week. Such ignorance makes it clear that Moscow has already placed its stake in the Serbian elections.

Why have Kremlin officials and Russian diplomats decided to support Tadic? Nikolic - number two in the Serbian Radical Party (number one is Vojislav Seselj who is accused by the Hague Tribunal of crimes against humanity) - looks a bigger supporter of friendship with Moscow than his opponent. Tadic is ready to be friends with Russia, but to no bigger extent than with the West and is hoping for Serbia to join the European Union (EU) sooner or later. The president believes that even the loss of Kosovo (most NATO members are in favor of its independence) will not ruin these plans.

Meanwhile, Nikolic bluntly said that he is prepared to sever relations with the West as soon as it recognizes Kosovo's independence, that Serbia can live without the EU, and that deployment of a Russian military base on Serbian territory may be a reply to Kosovo's cessation. Nikolic believes that Moscow would benefit from this step - it would be an adequate answer to the plans to deploy U.S. missile defense elements in the Czech Republic and Poland. "If the United States deploys missiles in Europe as a counter-terrorist measure, Russia can set up a stronghold in Serbia," he said. Serbia will host Russian missiles with nuclear warheads, he added.

Moscow has not replied to this for several reasons. First, although Nikolic has won the first round, there is no guarantee that he will win the second one. A little more than four percent between the two main rivals is not such a big gap. Now everything depends on who the outsiders of the first round will support.

Right now, the current president has more potential supporters. This is why Moscow does not want to give Nikolic additional dividends in the form of open support - he will remain a friend of Moscow and does not even have to be persuaded, as distinct from Tadic. If the prospects of the EU entry become real, Tadic may forget his current pro-Russian leanings.

Second, support for radical Nikolic has obvious minuses, even if he wins the elections. Deploying nuclear missiles in the Balkans is tantamount to overt confrontation with the West. Nikolic may forget about his proposal right after the voting - everything goes on the eve of the elections when the rating is at stake. Nobody can guarantee that this proposal is no more than election rhetoric. The Russian leaders have never heard about this proposal - it was made public in the media.

Third, Russia is not at all interested in Serbia's complete isolation, which will be the case if Nikolic wins. Unlike NATO, the expansion of the EU has not irritated Moscow. It has found unpleasant only the attempts of some new EU members to settle accounts with Moscow under the EU cover - this is particularly true of the Baltic nations and Poland. But Serbia will never behave like that. Moscow would welcome the appearance of a new pro-Russian state in the EU, all the more so since Serbia has very few friends there.

Obviously Russia has placed its stake. Now it will have to wait for February 3 to see whether it will win.

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