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Europe

Serbs Face Clear Choice in Presidential Polls

Serbian voters go to the polls Sunday in crucial presidential elections that pit pro-EU reformer Boris Tadic against ultranationalist Tomislav Nikolic. The result will largely determine the country's political direction.

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A win for Boris Tadic will improve Serbia's ties with the west.

On paper, Serbia's five-year presidency is largely ceremonial, but former president Milosevic proved how effectively its few powers could be exploited.

Sunday's vote could thus determine whether Serbia moves closer to the EU and NATO and improves relations with the west or lapses back into the chauvinism and isolation reminiscent of Milosevic's former regime.

Opinion polls this week gave Boris Tadic, a pro-Europe liberal, a lead of up to 54 percent against 46 percent for Tomislav Nikolic, an ardent nationalist whose Radical party propped up Milosevic's regime and supported his military adventures in the 1990s.

But despite the lead enjoyed by Tadic, analysts say that a turnout of under 40 percent could still hand the presidency to Nikolic, who commands greater loyalty among his supporters.

Choosing Between EU and Belarus

European Union officials have warned that a victory for Nikolic would diplomatically isolate Serbia, whereas a win for Tadic would ease relations.

Chris Patten, the European commissioner for external affairs, said this week that Serbs had a choice "between joining the European family or Belarus."

Tomislav Nikolic Wahlen Serbien

Tomislav Nikolic, frontrunner of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party.

Nikolic (photo) is against Serbia's entry to the EU and any victory for him could leave Serbia isolated on the international stage and scare off investors from the west.

"We need the east. Russia supplies us with resources and power. Why shouldn't we exploit that? The west should help us to manufacture goods and we should sell them in the east," Nikolic said recently.

Championing himself as the candidate for the working class, Nikolic's strident rhetoric and calls to limit foreign trade appeal to the unemployed, which make up almost 30 percent of the country's 7.5 million inhabitants.

"Serbia has opened its doors to the West, but the West hasn't improved your lives. It hasn't made the factories churn out more or brought better harvests," Nikolic said.

"EU will improve our lives"

Tadic, on the other hand, has made no bones about the fact that he'd like to see Serbia in the EU and even the NATO one day. An admirer of assassinated Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, Tadic took over the Democratic party in February after Djindjic's death. He has vowed to continue with the reform agenda started by Djindjic.

Tadic is considered popular with business leaders, artists and women alike and has continued the policies of his pro-western predecessor, calling for open borders and greater tolerance.

"We must become a member of the European Union. We must continue with these reforms, so we can join the bloc. That would improve our lives. Without the EU, we cannot overcome our problems," Tadic said.

The vote couldn't be further polarized with the two candidates unequivocal about where they'd like to take Serbia in the future.

Opinion polls, however, show Serbs to be divided, with many wanting to improve relations with the west but hostile to cooperating further with the International War Crimes Tribunal, which is trying a host of Serbian leaders including Milosevic for war crimes at The Hague.

Tough decisions over Kosovo

The country also faces tough decisions over Kosovo, the United Nations-administered province, which Belgrade insists remain part of Serbia even though the majority ethnic Albanian population wants independence.

Nikolic has called for sending security forces back to the troubled province of Kosovo, inhabited mainly by ethnic Albanians. He clings to the dream of a Greater Serbia -- saying it would be good for his people if all Serbs were united.

Tadic, meanwhile, advocates a political solution to the future of Kosovo.

Reform versus stagnation

Reporters at Belgrade's independent television station B-92 expect the election to be a watershed event for Serbia. They say if Tadic wins, Serbia will open up. But if Nikolic wins, Serbia will turn inward, stop delivering suspected war criminals to the international criminal court in The Hague, and become more isolated. The reform process would grind to a halt.

It's a scenario that Boris Tadic has already laid out before the Serbs. "Voters must be clear on the consequences of this election. If Nikolic wins, Serbia will be isolated. If I win, Serbia will open up."

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