Serbia's President Boris Tadic has issued a defiant public statement about Belgrade's determination to maintain a role in northern Kosovo -- even if it means a delay in becoming a candidate for membership in the European Union.
Speaking to the Tanjug news agency on August 25, Tadic said officials in Belgrade must "frankly tell our citizens that there is a possibility we will not obtain candidate status by the end of this year, nor a date for the start of accession negotiations."
In the past, Tadic had been optimistic about Serbia's EU bid -- especially after the recent arrests and extraditions of Ratko Mladic and Goran Dadzic, the last two fugitives wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel dampened those hopes during her visit to Belgrade on August 25, insisting that Serbia improve relations with Kosovo to obtain EU candidacy status.
Tadic explained that Belgrade was particularly unhappy about Merkel's insistence that it must dismantle the parallel administrative structures it maintains in Kosovo's predominantly ethnic Serbian north -- such as separate Serb-run post offices, schools, and municipal administrations.
Tadic claimed that this was "not acceptable for Serbia."
"I said this very openly and clearly to Chancellor Merkel," he said. "If we are going to get a request for Serbia to make a choice, my answer both in Serbia and to the European political public would be that Serbia would not give up on any of its political interests. If [our EU membership candidacy] is not possible today, it will be possible tomorrow."
'Not Kneeling' Before Merkel
Serbia has refused to recognize Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence in 2008. Belgrade fears that fulfilling Merkel's conditions would effectively mean giving up Serbia's claims on Kosovo, a former province with an ethnic Albanian majority.
Independent Serb member of parliament Vesna Pesic
Vesna Pesic, an independent member of parliament in Belgrade, told RFE/RL that Merkel forced Tadic to take a defiant stand about the Kosovo issue when she publicly demanded action from Belgrade as a precondition for becoming an EU candidate.
"I think that Tadic and our leadership were angry at Angela Merkel because she went public about what she told him eye-to-eye, and he could have agreed some kind of strategy with her," she said, adding that Merkel's public pronouncements meant that Tadic needed "to take a strong position -- so that he does not look as though he knelt before her."
Pesic did point out that Serbian "politicians often are posturing" so it was hard to say whether Tadic's stance "is for real or not."
"But that is how it is being spun in public," she said. "That he has taken a tough position and that he is determined."
A Return To Autocratic Rhetoric
Pesic concluded that there were still too many Serbian voters who want Belgrade to maintain its ties in Kosovo for Tadic to brush off Merkel's remarks without responding.
"Starting [with] the [Serbian Orthodox] Church, everybody thinks that Serbia should not betray Kosovo," she said. "This means that because of the forthcoming elections and internal pressure from the general public, [Tadic] needs to act tough."
Some analysts find it ironic that Tadic is now embroiled in a public scandal over the very same issue that cost the previous government -- led by the [former prime minister Vojislav Kostunica's] Democratic Party of Serbia -- the country's last parliamentary elections in 2008.
Political scientist Predrag Simic
Among them is Predrag Simic, a professor of political science at Belgrade University. He believes there could be a public backlash against economic reforms in Serbia because of Merkel's statement.
"It could mean the return of autocratic rhetoric, because we already are reading calls in newspapers for Serbia to renounce market economics," he says.
"I am afraid that we are entering a phase which is not good at all, more so because the environment has changed. Take, for example, Bulgarian and Croatian [diplomatic] visits to Pristina recently. It contributes to the growing feeling of being besieged in Serbia," Simic adds.
"I think a lot of [reforms] that have been achieved in recent years, and on which Tadic had insisted, have now been put in question."
Indeed, members of the now-opposition Democratic Party of Serbia have accused Tadic of sealing Kosovo's fate instead of fighting to preserve Serbia's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
with reporting from Belgrade by RFE/RL's Balkan service