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Serbia: Early Elections Could Force Belgrade's Hand --> Government ministers headed for the exits at the March 10 session (AFP) The collapse of Serbia's government and the resulting early elections signal the end of an awkward alliance between conservatives and pro-Westerners, and could force Serbs into a difficult choice over their future course.

Saying that "the government no more has a common policy regarding a most important issue -- the status of Kosovo within Serbia," Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica announced the end of the 10-month-old parliament on March 8.

Kostunica and the coalition government have formally requested that President Boris Tadic dissolve parliament and set early voting for May 11, to coincide with previously scheduled municipal elections.

Western European leaders are likely to regard the campaign ahead of the polling as a fresh opportunity to encourage Serbia's voters to swallow the bitter pill of Kosovar independence and revive their European Union aspirations. News of the impending elections led some European officials to predict that the vote would decide Serbia's course -- "toward Europe or against Europe," as Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn put it.

"Serbia is again at the crossroads, indeed," according to Gordana Knezevic, director of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service. "It is widely expected that the next election will be between choosing between Europe or Kosovo for Serbia, but we have to [keep] in mind that May 11, the day proposed for elections in Serbia, is not tomorrow, and emotions and attitudes in Serbia can still go this way or that."

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The coalition's demise came after pro-European forces voted down a resolution on March 6 that would have halted Serbian efforts to join the EU until Brussels stopped supporting Kosovo's independence.

The coalition government had been an uneasy alliance from the start -- joining Kostunica's conservatives with President Tadic's more pro-Western Democratic Party.

Their rift came to a head when Tadic's ministers and those in another smaller coalition party, G17-Plus, opposed and outvoted Kostunica's ministers in the March resolution. That came just a month after the Radical Party's Tomislav Nikolic narrowly lost the presidential election to Tadic.

"What is obvious at this moment is that all political forces in Serbia felt that the moment is good for them," says Knezevic. "The Radicals believe that they can gain more votes in May elections because they feel that their firm stand on keeping Kosovo within the borders of Serbia is a kind of winning for the time being; on the other hand, pro-European forces see a chance for themselves as well, as they believe that the major emotions relating to Kosovo are actually going to cool down and that they can win the next elections."

While she says that at this point it is impossible to predict the outcome of the May poll, however, Knezevic does not discount the possibility of Serbia further isolating itself from the international community.

"It will largely depend as well on the situation in Kosovo itself," Knezevic says. "If any major incident were to happen between now and May, [that] could turn Serbian voters in the wrong direction."

Polls at this point suggest the parliamentary elections will be close, with neither Radicals nor pro-European parties winning a majority.

Nevertheless, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country holds the rotating EU Presidency, voiced his hope for a victory by pro-European parties.

"Now with the elections coming, we hope that the European forces will win -- I have seen some encouraging signs," he said. "We have seen some opinion polls, we have seen some demonstrations of students, intellectuals, younger people.... To be quite frank -- I don't think that there is any other possibility for our Serbian friends than the European Union. Where else should they go?"

But even President Tadic, considered a member of the "pro-European" camp, does not see eye to eye with Brussels when it comes to Kosovo.

Saying that attempts to divide Serbs on the issue would backfire, he has argued that the best way to ensure that Kosovo -- which he calls an "outlaw state" -- never gets into the European Union is to enter the EU first and block its accession efforts.

Knezevic says such an approach is unlikely to meet with acceptance in Brussels, where "Europe is trying hard to build up unity over the Kosovo issue and to persuade the remaining few members to recognize Kosovo."

But she also likens Tadic's comments to his language ahead of the presidential vote, "when he was trying to persuade people that it is possible for Serbia to have both -- to have membership in the European Union and to preserve Kosovo."

At any rate, the development leaves Serbia facing a renewed period of political uncertainty -- with the prospect of a caretaker government until May, and possibly protracted coalition talks after the elections.