Serbia's European dream lives on - but only just

Commentary

Pro-European Boris Tadic may have regained the Serbian presidency, but his country remains sharply divided and the fight for its European future is not over. The EU should think hard about ways to support the pro-democracy camp.

Boris Tadic, the Western-leaning Serbian President, won his country's presidential election. With the greatest turn-out in decades, Mr. Tadic held off the pro-Russian nationalist Tomislav Nikolic from the Serb Radical Party. A collective sigh of relief can be heard in Brussels. But all is not over yet.

Nearly all of Serbia's elections after the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 have been called the country's "most important"; but this election deserved the moniker more than any other. Pitting a pro-European, but corruption-plagued incumbent against a modernized nationalist, the election was a struggle for the country's future orientation.

Mr. Nikolic, whose party was aligned with Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, favored closer ties to Russia, Serbia's main ally in opposing independence for Kosovo. Mr. Tadic similarly opposes Kosovo independence, but favors closer links with the West and moves towards membership of the European Union.

Both the European Union and Russia sought to help "their" candidate - the EU with talks of easing the visa regime and Russia with a 500m euros purchase by Gazprom of a majority stake in Serbia's main oil company NIS (although, with NIS valued at 2 billion, the Russians may have clinched the better deal). 

In the run-up to the election, polls had put Mr. Nikolic ahead of Mr. Tadic with concerns that the EU's involvement may have inadvertently hurt the President's chances. But in the end, Serbia's 4 million defied Prime Minister Kostunica's campaign against his coalition partner. Mr. Tadic was also helped by the high turnout. Since 2000, elections have seen turnouts under 50%, including in the 2004 presidential election.

Once the hang-overs have subsided and the echo Roma brass bands - a staple item in Serb celebrations - have vanished, work remains. Having opposed the President in the first and second rounds, Prime Minister Kostunica will have to find ways to collaborate with his rival.

This will not be easy. Pro-Western, pro-democratic voters have tired of the corruption in Mr. Tadic's Democratic Party and the President's continuing concessions to the Prime Minister's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS). As Vesna Simic, a Serb journalist, told me: "It is important to understand that the Radicals got a lot of votes and that this is a message to the Democrats that they should do something to make people's living standard better or they will lose next election."

Yet the kind of reforms required to liberalize the economy will be opposed by many who see Russia's purportedly string-free support as an alternative to the EU's reform-laden assistance. The question is therefore: will Mr. Tadic be able - and bold enough - to use his victory to force a change in the government's make-up and programme or will Mr. Kostunica use the narrowness of the poll to threaten to share government with Mr. Nikolic's Serb Radical Party (SRS), as he did very briefly following the 2007 parliamentary elections? It was this ruse, which allowed Mr. Kostunica to trade his party's third-place finish elections into Prime Ministerial power.

Then there is the UN-administered province of Kosovo. With the elections over, Kosovo is now likely to declare independence, supported by the U.S. and the EU. Mr. Tadic's victory would suggest that a small majority of the Serb electorate accepts the inevitably of Kosovo's independence, yet the process will inevitably inflame passions and strengthen Mr. Kostunica's hand. A lot, says Ognyan Minchev, the head of ECFR's Sofia office, will depend on which part of Mr. Kostunica's wins the day, calling the Prime Minister "half pragmatist, half idealistic nationalist."

What should the EU do?

Following the official count, the EU said it "wishes to deepen its relationship with Serbia and to accelerate its progress towards the EU, including candidate status." It expects to sign an interim agreement, offered to Serbia by EU Foreign Minsters on Monday, which would offer economic incentives, easier access for travelers and students to the EU and the eventual prospect of EU membership. Oli Rehn, the EU official in charge of enlargement, is due in Belgrade this week. But any such deal would need the backing of Mr. Kostunica - who is decidedly lukewarm on the EU.

Having seen Mr. Tadic return to the Presidential Palace, the temptation to continue as before is great. But this may be a mistake.  As part of a struggle to sign the Serbia-EU agreement, new parliamentary elections should not be ruled out. Elections that may favor of a DDS-SRS coalition.

Therefore, while Kosovo's independence should proceed and pressure for Serbia to comply with its international obligations - notably on cooperation with the Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) - must continue, the EU should build on its late offer and immediately grant visa-free access to the EU, not only for students both also for the elderly voters who make up SRS's ranks. Other policy initiatives should be considered. Failure to do so could make last night's victory short-lived and strengthen Russia's claim to offer a more attractive path for Serbia. As Vesna Simic says: "I really think that EU should do something now in order to stop Serbia becoming a Russian satellite. I don't want to live in country like Belarus."

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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