Serbia's split runs deep in struggle toward Europe

( dpa )- As Serbia heads toward early elections, even longtime friends are split between the vista of a place in Europe and anger at Western powers over the loss of Kosovo.

"I've never been to Kosovo," says musician Marko Grubic , 35. "The goal of every country should be for people to live better. That doesn't have much to do with Kosovo."

Across the table at a Belgrade cafe, his bandmate and friend of 10 years, Vladimir Marinkovic , differs sharply. For half an hour, they argue about their country's future.

"If you take away 15 per cent of a state's territory, that's not a normal thing," he says.

"We have to fight diplomatically to prove it was the wrong decision. The European Union cannot force any government in Serbia to accept that," says Marinkovic , who works at a Serbian cultural centre in Paris.

The political and emotional divisions will play out when Serbs choose a new parliament on May 11, a vote widely seen as a referendum on the pro-Western course championed by President Boris Tadic against nationalist rivals.

Opinion polls have shown for years that about 70 per cent of Serbs want to join the EU and, presumably, look to the future. But Kosovo's declaration of independence in February has inflamed extremist rhetoric and violent protests that bare Serbia's other face.

Many Serbs view Kosovo's departure under US and EU pressure as the ultimate humiliation, nine years after NATO bombed Slobodan Milosevic's forces out of the overwhelmingly Albanian region and the United Nations took over. Longtime ally Montenegro split off from Serbia on its own in 2006.

"If we give up Kosovo and our identity, what else will we have to give up?" says Mira Gajic , a historian. "Pretty soon, only Belgrade with its surroundings will enter the EU."

For Serbs who yearn to travel freely and want their country accepted as part of the European club, Kosovo - cradle of a medieval Serb kingdom, home to the oldest Serbian Orthodox monasteries - is a distraction.

"My real problem is , why can't I go right now to Munich? I would need a visa," says Grubic .

Tadic remains the country's best-liked politician with about 46 per cent popular support, a March poll showed. But nationalist opposition leader Tomislav Nikolic was close behind at 41 per cent.

Gearing up for the election campaign, Nikolic recently likened NATO soldiers in Kosovo to Nazi troops who occupied Yugoslavia during World War II.

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, whose government collapsed over Kosovo's independence, also plays the Serbia-as-victim card. He lashed out at organizers of the European swimming championship for suspending Serbia's Milorad Cavic after he sported a shirt that said "Kosovo is Serbia."

Nikolic's Serbian Radical Party (SRS) won the most seats in parliament last time, but was kept out of power by a coalition led by Kostunica.

This time, there is speculation that Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) might pave the way for an ultra-nationalist government.

As Serbs weigh their options, wounded pride is a key emotion. In Yugoslavia, Serbs were part of Europe's most advanced communist country. Now, one-time Balkan stragglers like neighbouring Romania and Bulgaria have beaten them into the EU.

"The bottom line is that a part of Serbia wants to look to the future despite the challenge of the Kosovo status, and the other would rather focus on the integrity of Serbia at possibly the cost of a much slower pace toward Europe," said Ivan Vejvoda , executive director of the Belgrade-based Balkan Trust for Democracy, which funds pro-democracy projects.

A nationalist victory in May would likely slow Serbia's path for another few years and further complicate ties with the EU. Already, many EU countries have recognized Kosovo's independence, and Serbia's reluctance to arrest top war crimes suspects looms over talks with Brussels.

Also at stake is economic growth and foreign investment, which have taken off in the years since peaceful protests toppled Milosevic in 2000. The economy grew by an estimated 7.5 per cent in 2007, but Belgrade's stock market tumbled after Kostunica's cabinet quit.

"Potential investors have taken a wait-and-see position trying to figure out where Serbia will go," Vejvoda said.

Grubic's wife Ivana , an economist at a Greek bank in Belgrade, has a straight-forward solution: Serbs need to take responsibility for their own future.

"The only plan is to develop ourselves. Then everybody will be ready to invite us in," she says.

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