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Serbian vote exposes deep rift

Mark Mardell | 19:00 UK time, Sunday, 11 May 2008

I wonder if a portrait of Tomislav Nikolic will ever stare down on my slumbering form when I visit Belgrade.

Poster of Tomislav Nikolic

The thought is prompted by the hotel I am staying in while covering the Serbian elections.

It has paintings of well known world leaders on the walls of the rooms.

I am relatively lucky: a stern Vaclav Havel hangs above my bed.

Colleagues have Ronald Reagan and, alarmingly, Mao.

Hitler used to grace one of the rooms but was apparently removed after complaints from the Israeli embassy. He still features on the hotel's brochure.

So, while greatness is not the same as goodness, I have a hunch Tomislav Nikolic may turn out to be a very interesting politician indeed.

Kosovo warning

Mr Nikolic is a man with strong-set policies, particularly about Kosovo.

His party says that, in power, they would continue talks about joining the European Union only if all EU countries declared that Kosovo was part of Serbia.

This will not happen when the majority have already recognised it as an independent state.

The European Union has also said talks will continue with Serbia only if it shows much more co-operation about catching those accused of war crimes such as General Mladic.

The Radicals are understandably sensitive about those accused of war crimes. Its leader Vojislav Seselj is in prison in the Hague accused of inciting the murder and torture of ethic opponents.

East or West?

This is why many see this general election as a referendum on whether Serbia should face East or West.

Although this indeed is what potentially hangs in the balance, I expected people here to be much more concerned about the economy.

Talking to people both in the Sunday market and outside a church service suggests they too are mainly interested in Serbia's place in the world.

A feature of the market is the fish stalls. At the foot of the stalls and their slabs of ice and dead fish are a number of plastic bowls justabout large enough to hold their prisoner: big fat carp, floating, if not swimming, in the water.

The proverbial big fish in a small pool, they look anything but comfortable. But Serbia is undergoing a lengthy process of readjustment from being the big fish in the small pool of Yugoslavia to choosing which bigger pool to splash in: the EU or Russia's severely diminished sphere of influence.

Mr Nikolic is in no doubt that Russia, China and Arab countries make better friends than the rest of Europe.

It is always interesting to see what happens when men with clear views swim in the murky waters of government and exercise real power.

The opinion polls predict his party will be the largest after tonight's results are counted.

But so it was in the last election, and the one before that. What has changed is Kosovo and Kostunica.

kostunicarallyap-1.jpg

The prime minister is sometimes referred to as a kingmaker, because he heads a small party, the Serbian Democratic Party, which holds the balance of power. But he is a kingmaker who has come to adore wearing the crown himself.

After the last election he went into alliance with the pro-European Democratic Party of President Boris Tadic.

Increasingly passionate about the issue of Kosovo, he pulled the plug on the coalition after Kosovo declared independence.

After this election he may well throw his lot in with the radicals.

'Up to the EU'

Jostling alongside other reporters and camera crews, I catch up with Mr Nikolic outside a polling station in the area known as New Belgrade, across the Danube from the city centre.

After posing with his attractive wife and family, and then voting, he turns to the assembled media. I ask him about Serbia's future relations with the EU. Tomislav Nikolic (Jan 2008)

"The European Union will make its own mind up about whether it wants us to be a member or not," he tells me.

"We are open to them but it's all entirely up to the EU because as long as the UN recognises Serbia as a sovereign state, a whole sovereign state it will remain. The European Union has to accept this."

But didn't his conditions close the door? "Our conditions are no different from those any other country would make," he adds.

So is this election a choice between East and West?

"Of course we will be the gateway between East and West. Until such a time as the EU recognises Serbia's full sovereign borders we should have no further negotiations with the European Union."

He added that there would be better relations with those countries, such as Greece and Spain, that don't recognise Kosovo.

'Decisive poll'

As I talk to former Serbian foreign minister Vuk Draskovic, now a member of another main bloc in this election - the Coalition for a European Serbia - we can hear the hubbub from the street outside.

It is, I imagine, what many pro-European Serbs hope their country will become.

The pedestrian precinct is lined with shops familiar on any British high street, like Lush and Accessorize.

A café takes up the centre of the pavement where young, fashionably-dressed people lounge in comfortable armchairs drinking iced mocca in the spring sunshine.

Mr Draskovic believes the economy at least is at risk.

"These elections are decisive. For the future of Serbia," he tells me.

"We have two ways: to join the EU or to go back to the past of Milosevic."

That stark? I ask.

"Of course they wouldn't repeat the same things. But if the government was made up of anti-European forces, it's very clear the door will be closed on the European Union. For how long I don't know. For a year for two years, because very soon the people of Serbia will face the consequences.

"Catastrophe in the economy, catastrophe of the rule of law, catastrophe of our relations with the European Union and United States of America."

He says too it would create a black hole in the Balkans, the risk of more instability in a region famed for its instability.

The consequences of the election will take a while to show, but we should get the results soon. I will update when I can.

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