'Without Kosovo, there is no Serbia'


Tomorrow's presidential vote puts Serbia at a crossroads between the EU and Russia and sharpens the focus on Kosovan independence, writes Daniel McLaughlin

Any Serb politician visiting Kosovo walks, and talks, in the long shadow of Slobodan Milosevic. It was in Kosovo in 1987 that Milosevic told angry Serbs"no one will dare to beat you" after hearing complaints about the local Albanian majority, in an impassioned speech that propelled him towards the presidency of Serbia and then of rump Yugoslavia.

In the former role he instigated the horrific Balkan wars of the early 1990s, and in the latter he launched a crackdown on Kosovo's Albanian separatists that killed thousands of civilians and brought Nato bombs raining down on Belgrade in the spring of 1999. Since then, the UN has run Kosovo and Nato has kept the peace, while Milosevic was ousted in October 2000 and sent the following year to the UN war crimes court at The Hague, where he died in March 2006.

But some people heard echoes of Milosevic's rhetoric this week, when one of his former allies, Tomislav Nikolic, made an ethnically divided town in Kosovo the final stop on his campaign trail ahead of tomorrow's presidential election.

"I have come to Kosovska Mitrovica to pledge that I shall never let you down and that you will never be alone and without protection," Nikolic told a rally in the northern, Serb part of Mitrovica, across the Ibar river from the Albanian half of town.

"I will never turn my back on you," Nikolic told thousands of supporters who chanted his name and cried "Serbia, Serbia!" and "We will never give up Kosovo!" "Do not dare touch Serbia . . . Without Kosovo, there is no Serbia!" shouted Nikolic, the leader of Serbia's most popular party, the ultra-nationalist Radicals, and the likely winner of tomorrow's ballot.

POLLS SUGGEST HE will take 33 per cent of votes, ahead of incumbent Boris Tadic with 30 per cent. They are expected to go through to a run-off on February 3rd that could decide whether Serbia will move towards EU membership or become a Russian satellite in the heart of south-east Europe.

Speaking to a Serb electorate that deeply opposes Kosovo's bid for independence and the West's support for it, Nikolic can sound like a Milosevic-lite. He vows to protect the 100,000 Serbs who live among almost 2 million Albanians in Kosovo, has urged Russia to station troops in Serbia and vows never to agree to membership of an EU that wants to "steal" the so-called cradle of the Serb nation.

Talking to Western journalists, however, Nikolic tempers his tone, and claims he has been misunderstood by foreigners who want to demonise Serbia, and misrepresented by Serb liberals who use him as a political bogeyman to scare the EU and US.

"Our problem is that the EU doesn't understand how much Kosovo means to us," Nikolic (55) said this week. "I'd be first to back EU membership if they treated us like normal people, without conditions that were not set for others." A former cemetery manager nicknamed The Undertaker, Nikolic portrays himself as an honest patriot among lackeys to the West, and insists that Serbia could sit happily between Russia and the EU, despite the disputes that regularly rock their relationship.

"They say we should join Nato, then want Russia's veto on Kosovo, they want to join the EU and also keep Kosovo. I am not prepared to lie like that," he said of his Serb rivals. "Some say we must shun Russia and only look to the EU. But the Europeans themselves do great business with Russia, so I don't see why Serbia cannot work with both." Nikolic is also adamant that he is not a new Milosevic who would take up arms against the Kosovo Albanians and lead Serbia deeper into poverty and isolation. "I think I've dispelled fears of war, sanctions, isolation, all that cannot happen again," he said. "I was never a lackey of Milosevic's regime."

Brussels and Washington have gone to great lengths, however, to load the dice in favour of the man seeking re-election, Boris Tadic. They have delayed a final decision on Kosovo, and the EU has even suggested it might sign a pre-accession deal with Belgrade this month, in the hope of keeping Nikolic out of power and steering Serbia down a path towards eventual EU and Nato membership. Tadic, a former ally of reformist premier Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated in 2003 by nationalists loyal to Milosevic, dare not incur the wrath of his people by openly accepting Kosovo's independence, but in private his supporters are resigned to that outcome.

Instead, Tadic vows publicly to never recognise a sovereign Kosovo, while also underlining to Serbs that they must not cut themselves off from the West and be stranded while all the countries around them move towards EU membership. "Getting closer to the EU makes Serbia stronger. Only a strong Serbia can protect its interests on Kosovo. Giving up the European road is giving up Kosovo," Tadic said recently.

"We can chose development, stability and the European path or return to isolation and instability." In a country where the average wage is about €350 and around one-third of people are unemployed, Tadic says closer ties with the US and Serbia's EU neighbours will attract vital investment and boost the economy.

NIKOLIC, ON THE other hand, plays to Serbian pride wounded by the West's 1999 bombing over Kosovo and by the region's looming independence, and he insists that stronger links with Russia and China can offset the potential loss of EU and US support.

With Tadic and Nikolic closely matched and unlikely to win an outright majority tomorrow, the winner will almost certainly be whoever wins the backing of prime minister Vojislav Kostunica in the run-off in a fortnight's time. Kostunica has thrown his first-round support behind a candidate from his own party, Velimir Ilic, who is expected to come third or fourth tomorrow. Analysts say Kostunica's endorsement would clinch victory for Tadic or Nikolic in round two, but he faces the dilemma of backing either an ultra-nationalist who is a pariah in the West, or a liberal whom he has criticised for vowing to continue Belgrade's bid for EU membership even if Brussels pushes through independence for Kosovo.

"With their differences out in the open, they will find it difficult to support Tadic," analyst Slobodan Antonic said of Kostunica and his party. "Their policies, their strategic goals are not the same any more. Like Nikolic, Kostunica seems intent on playing off Brussels and Moscow against each other, and winning concessions from the EU over Kosovo by threatening to move decisively towards the Kremlin and becoming a pro-Moscow enclave in the Balkans.

Kostunica and his party want to reward Russia for its support over Kosovo by selling Serbia's state oil company to Kremlin-controlled Gazprom for a knockdown price, believing it would also give Belgrade leverage over the EU in talks on energy supply to the bloc.

For millions of Serbs, a Nikolic victory would enhance Serb pride and Slav unity, and stick a finger in the eye of the arrogant West. For millions of others, however, it would feel like sliding back into the cold, dark days that they thought they had buried along with Milosevic.