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2 Feb, 2008 10:54

East or West? Serbs mull over future

Serbian voters are using a second day of campaign silence to decide who to pick in tomorrow’s crucial presidential election. It’s seen as the country’s most important election since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic.

Opinion polls show nationalist Tomislav Nikolic and incumbent Democrat Boris Tadic are neck and neck. The two failed to gain a winning majority in the first round, forcing the run-off. The election is being viewed as a referendum on how much Serbia wants to integrate into Europe.

Big rallies across Belgrade lasted right up to the campaigning deadline.

In a tight race, the candidates have re-invent themselves, to capture the votes of those outside their traditional electorates. But Tadic stuck to his main theme.

“Everybody needs to vote for our European path. This is the only way. I promise, I will finish this job and we are going towards a European life. Let's win Europe together,” Tadic said.

Just a few miles away, the man who won the first round, Tomislav Nikolic addressed his followers. The hard-line nationalist said that Serbia should serve as a bridge between Russia and the EU, but also that Moscow has done more to support Serbia.

“We will open our house for both, east and west. I don't have to assure you that Russia is on our side,” Nikolic said.

In shadow of Kosovo

Yet in this campaign ideological distinctions have become clouded by the more immediate Kosovo problem.

Ethnic Albanian leaders of the province have been hinting that a declaration of independence could come as early as this month.

This worries many Serbs, who feel that the province is a historical part of their country and that the rights of its ethnic Serb population may be curtailed.

Tadic and Nikolic have tried to demonstrate their patriotic credentials by competing with the strength with which they have condemned the move to sovereignty. Otherwise, Tadic has been the more pro-active candidate between the rounds.

He showed that he is just as capable as Nikolic of co-operating with Russia, when Serbia signed a contract to sell off its national energy company to Russian gas giant Gazprom, paving the way for the country to become a major Russian gas distribution hub.

Nikolic had a confident lead after the first round, but Tadic has been very aggressive in his campaign and that's allowed him to pull level.

He has incessantly attacked Nikolic's links with the past, particularly his associations with Slobodan Milosevic, in whose government he served, and Vojislav Sesejl, who is the leader of Nikolic's Radical Party, but is currently on trial for war crimes.

But there is one man whose crucial support Tadic has failed to win.

Vojislav Kostunica, the country's Prime Minister and most powerful politician, says he will not endorse the President, despite working together with him for the past four years, and being in a coalition with his party.

So, with little light between the candidates in the opinion polls, the election remains in the balance.