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Serbs Voting In Divisive Parliamentary Elections

A woman passes a poster of Radical Party deputy leader Tomislav Nikolic in Belgrade (file photo) (AFP) Serbs flocked to vote at a record pace in parliamentary elections today, with a pro-Western alliance led by President Boris Tadic running neck-and-neck with the nationalist Radical Party. The vote is seen as crucial as it could decide whether the Balkan country heads toward integration with the European Union or returns to isolation.

The election was called after Serbia's coalition government collapsed in March amid infighting that followed Kosovo's declaration of independence.

The collapse of the coalition was largely over how Belgrade should respond to the EU's support for Kosovo's move. Nationalists wanted to snub Brussels by turning toward Moscow. But pro-Western parties, while angry with the EU, urged that Serbia must continue to seek closer ties with Brussels anyway for economic reasons.

For more on what is at stake in the elections see: Serbia: Kosovo, EU Key Issues As Country Heads Into Critical Elections

Deciding Serbia's Future In Europe

The issue now goes to the public in what is essentially a referendum on Serbia's future role in Europe.

Reflecting the stakes, the central electoral commission said "record" numbers were turning out, with 10 percent of the electorate voting in the first three hours.

Brussels is keenly aware of the moment. In the run-up to today’s poll, it attempted to improve the mood this week by offering to waive expensive visa fees for Serbian citizens traveling to 17 EU countries. And last week, Brussels signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia that marks the first step toward EU membership.

All of that is in hope of boosting the chances of one of the two front-running parties in the race, the pro-Western Democratic Party led by President Tadic. He and his allies have hailed the signing of the SAA as a signal that Serbia is on the road to joining the EU.

EU Accused Of False Promises

After casting his ballot in Belgrade, Tadic expressed optimism that Serbs over the vote.

"I am totally sure that people in Serbia are going to vote for a European future and also to contribute in terms of our capabilities to defend our legitimate interests on Kosovo -- to defend our territorial integrity and sovereignty," he said.

But the other frontrunner in the race, the nationalist Radical Party, accuses the European bloc of using false promises to lure Serbs into voting for pro-Western parties.

And even one of Tadic’s former coalition partners, acting Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of the Democratic Party of Serbia, has characterized the signing of the SAA as a vote-buying trick played at the expense of the Serbs' commitment to Kosovo remaining part of Serbia.

"I think it's very important that after the elections the government is formed very quickly so that the policy of preservation of the state's integrity is continued and the overall stable progress of Serbia is maintained," Kostunica told reporters after casting his ballot.

Nikolic Looking To Win

The race for parliament seats today is considered a close one. The deputy chairman of the Radical Party, Tomislav Nikolic, narrowly missed winning the country's presidential elections at the start of the year. The Radical Party, whose leader Vojislav Seselj is currently on trial at The Hague international war crimes tribunal, has made it clear that it will not extradite any other suspects and will seek closer ties to Moscow rather than Brussels.

Nikolic again expressed caution toward the EU after casting his ballot in Belgrade.

"We are open to the European Union but Serbia is a united country within the borders which are recognized by the United Nations," he said. "The European Union has to finally recognize that."

In Kosovo, national and local lections have been organized by Serbia in ethnic Serbian areas in defiance of the Kosovar government and UN authority.

If neither the pro- nor anti-Brussels bloc wins a decisive majority today, many analysts fear Serbia will face a new period of instability.

Some 6.7 million Serbs, including some living in Kosovo, are eligible to vote at the polls, which are due to close at 8 pm local time.

RFE/RL Balkan Report

RFE/RL Balkan Report


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