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Serbs Vote In Pivotal Election --> Election posters in Belgrade (AFP) Serbs have turned out in unexpectedly high numbers in a watershed presidential election that many observers view as crucial to the country's future direction. Overshadowing the vote is an expected independence declaration in February by the separatist province of Kosovo.

The field included nine candidates, but polls indicated the ballot essentially would come down to a contest between pro-Western incumbent Boris Tadic and ultranationalist Tomislav Nikolic.

Tadic is seen as the heir to Zoran Djindjic, the dynamic, reformist prime minister assassinated in 2003 who set Serbia on a new pro-Western course after the fall of autocratic leader Slobodan Milosevic. He is trying to persuade Serbs to embrace EU integration and join Europe's mainstream.

Nikolic, on the other hand, says Serbia should withdraw from the West and strike a Slavic partnership with Moscow.

Neither man is likely to garner the 50 percent needed to secure a first-round win. Many observers are already looking ahead to a probable runoff on February 3.

By 5 p.m., three hours before polls were due to close, turnout was already more than 48 percent. The nongovernmental Center for Free Elections and Democracy said that was already the highest level of voter participation since Milosevic's downfall in 2000.

Enticement Of Europe

Some polls indicate as many as 70 percent of Serbs favor EU integration. In an interview with RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service, Tadic said he was confident the country would remain on its Western course despite efforts by his election rivals to paint the EU in a negative light.

"I'm convinced that the presidential campaign won't reverse the political process in Serbia -- in other words, Serbia is not going to stray from the European path, because we don't have an alternative," Tadic said.

After casting his ballot on January 20, Tadic told reporters in Belgrade that he was "sure that...Serbia will remain on its European path for the future of this country."

He also likened the vote to "the first half" of a soccer match. "The second half is waiting for us on February 3, and I think that will be the chance for us to win," Tadic said, referring to the anticipated runoff. "I am very optimistic in terms of the final results of these elections."

Nikolic, who heads the Serbian Radical Party, favors closer ties with Russia, and said that, if elected, he would offer Moscow the use of military bases on Serbian territory. After voting, he said "Russia is closer" to Serbia. He added, however, that "if Europe wants to open its doors and not to make obstacles, we will gladly accept it."

But throughout the campaign, Nikolic has made it clear if he were president, integration with Europe would be on his terms -- and would exclude independence for Kosovo. "There are lines," he says, "that no self-respecting state or nation can cross."

Nikolic has also belittled polls showing that Serbs favor joining the European Union.

"Nobody has asked Serbian citizens if they want to enter the EU if the EU takes Kosovo away from them. Everyone surveyed is in favor of EU membership. I'm also in favor of EU membership," Nikolic told RFE/RL. "But there are conditions that we can't satisfy. One is giving away our territory. Citizens should be informed about this."

Nikolic lamented that "nobody has told [voters] openly and clearly -- we can enter the EU, but we have to give Kosovo away to do it," adding that Tadic avoids the issue "because the citizens of Serbia are not willing to accept it."

Nikolic has also pledged to make Radical Party founder Vojislav Seselj, currently on trial for war crimes at the UN tribunal in The Hague, his prime minister.

Who Loses Kosovo?

Of the nine presidential candidates, only one -- Cedomir Jovanovic of the Liberal Democrats -- said he supported independence for Kosovo.

Although Kosovo independence is widely accepted as inevitable outside the Balkans, inside Serbia officials continue to present the issue as far from resolved -- adding to worries that the ultimate winner will be burdened with the legacy of "the leader who lost Kosovo."

Kosovo, which has functioned as a UN protectorate since NATO's 1999 bombing campaign to force the withdrawal of Serbian forces from the territory, is a deeply emotional issue for some Serbs, who see the province as an inseparable part of their country.

"Serbs are emotional people; we follow our heart," Sasa Budimovic, a shipper, told RFE/RL in Belgrade. "Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia. We were born in a country where Kosovo was an integral part. Kosovo is a part of us; it can't be cut off so easily."

Others, such as Danijela Varsakovic, a hairdresser in Belgrade, "don't have a problem with it."

"I have no problem accepting the secession of Kosovo," she told RFE/RL. "I don't understand people who attach themselves to Kosovo emotionally; I really don't."

Serbia's Electoral Commission had initially banned election monitors from the United States and Great Britain due to Washington and London's support for Kosovo's independence. The country's Supreme Court, however, overturned the ban early on January 20.

In practical terms, the powers of the presidential post are limited. The president can neither dissolve the government nor determine foreign policy. But the outcome of the vote is important in determining the composition of the future parliament.

Currently, the ruling coalition is a fragile partnership between Tadic's Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.

Kostunica takes a far more stringent line on Kosovo and the EU than Tadic. The prime minister has made clear he will back neither Tadic nor Nikolic in a first round, and has refused to commit to a candidate in a potential second round.

Expect Another Round

Should Nikolic win, a future ruling coalition would likely be made up of the Radicals and Kostunica's DSS. Such a grouping would mean a definitive step back from the West and stronger ties with Moscow.

But RFE/RL Balkans analyst Patrick Moore said the outcome of any second round was nearly impossible to predict. Despite the prominence of political issues such as Kosovo and the EU in the current race, he added, many voters may have bread-and-butter issues in mind as they head to the polls.

"I really think it's anyone's call right now," Moore said. "There are so many variables and we should also remember that -- besides the Kosovo issue, which has been widely publicized abroad -- Serbia has a very high poverty rate, and even those who are above the poverty line often have difficulties making ends meet."

Such realities, Moore predicted, mean "voters are likely to be swayed not just by Kosovo and other nationalist issues, but by their economic concerns and how they perceive Tadic and Nikolic as being able to deal with them."

(RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service contributed to this report)

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