Serbia's incumbent pro-European President Boris Tadic on Sunday won re-election in the run-off with ultra-nationalist opposition leader Tomislav Nikolic. EU and German officials welcomed the outcome.
"Let's conquer Europe toghether," reads the sign behind Tadic and his wife, Tanja
Pro-Western Boris Tadic got a second term as Serbia's president on Sunday, sparking celebrations on the streets of Belgrade despite fears over Kosovo's looming independence.
Tadics opponent Tomislav Nikolic conceded defeat at a rally of his Radical Party in the Serbian capital.
Tadic, who wants closer ties with the European Union, had 51.1 percent of the vote against 47.2 percent for Nikolic, a former ally of late Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and an ultra-nationalist who favors greater links to Russia.
With Kosovo and Serbia's future direction inspiring the electorate, CeSID, a Belgrade-based election-monitoring organization, said the turnout of 6.7 million votes was 67.7 percent -- the highest since Milosevic was defeated in elections in 2000.
In the Jan. 20 first round, Nikolic came out in front with 40 percent of votes, against Tadic's 35 percent and experts had expected a very narrow runoff.
Germany offers assistance
Germany's government welcomed Tadic's re-election.
Deputy government spokesman Thomas Steg said Berlin had noted "with pleasure" the outcome of the run-off poll.
"The Serbian people have stressed that they see the future of Serbia within Europe," he said. "That is good news for the whole of Europe."
Steg added that the German government was willing to support Serbia on its road to Europe, adding that a new cooperation agreement between the EU and Serbia, expected to be signed on Thursday, will help in that respect.
"We trust that Serbia will take the neccersary steps to move towards even closer ties with the EU," he said.
Kosovo problem blocks EU aspirations
The EU's Slovenian presidency also congratulated Tadic on his victory, saying it reflected the country's democratic resolve to join the bloc. Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa said it was his "firm belief that Serbia would very soon succeed in meeting the criteria required in order to proceed along this path."
Belgian soldiers serving in KFOR walk past the posters showing presidential candidate Tomislav Nikolic
The EU made no mention of the other Serbian issue high on its agenda -- the expected declaration of independence from the breakaway republic of Kosovo. Ethnic Albanian leaders in the province have threatened to unilaterally declare independence within days of the election.
Both Serbian presidential candidates had opposed independence, a move which is supported by the EU and the United States. Last week, the 27 EU nations finalized preparations for a civilian mission to help ease Kosovo's transition to independence. It will number around 1,800 people, most of them police and judicial experts, one diplomat said.
Promise of a brighter future
Tadic used the promise of a brighter future in a Serbia with strong links to the European Union to motivate young voters to turn out in force.
"Everyone must go to vote today in the elections ... We have a form of a referendum about the path Serbia will take," Tadic said after casting his ballot in Belgrade.
"I expect voters will choose a continuation of the reforms started in October 2000," added the 50-year-old Tadic, a trained psychologist.
However, Tadic failed to win the support of conservative nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who wanted him to take a tougher line against EU support for an independent Kosovo.
Nikolic, a 55-year-old former undertaker, sought votes from Kostunica's camp, as well as from among the losers of Serbia's delayed transition from years of economic mismanagement under communism and the Milosevic regime.
Nikolic: "Russia is a closer partner"
"Serbia is close to the European Union and Russia, but at this time Russia is a closer partner than the EU because it can make development possible for Serbia," he said after casting his vote.
Nikolic casts his ballot on Sunday, Feb. 3
In Belgrade, a war-weary city so often at the crossroads of the region's turbulent history, voters said they were torn between a future in the EU and losing Kosovo.
Kosovo Serbs also voted, some in the hope that their choice will help keep the province in Serbia, others resigned to splitting from their motherland.
Leading up to the election, NATO and the United Nations bolstered troops and international police in Kosovo.
The UN has run Kosovo since NATO's 1999 air war drove out Serb forces waging a crackdown on separatist Albanians who comprise about 90 percent of the province's 2 million population.
Most Serbs consider the tiny territory the cradle of their history, culture and Orthodox Christianity.