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Monday, 14 October, 2002, 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK
Weary Serbs turn backs on politics
Elderly man votes in Belgrade
Only a minority of voters bothered turning up

I think I'm beginning to understand how Serbs feel.

On the way into the BBC bureau after an election that never was, I passed the same tired-looking people. The streets look and feel the same.

The posters of the presidential candidates are still plastered over lampposts and billboards. They stare back at you. Yesterday's men.

Serbia's first presidential poll since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic has failed. A victim of a law which the former president brought in.

Rose-seller beside poster urging people to vote
Most Serbs failed to heed pleas to vote
Under that law at least half the electorate have to turn out to vote in order for the ballot to be declared valid.

In the end, around 46% managed to make their way to the polling booths. Now the whole process will have to be re-run.

Before this election many told me they would not vote. I was surprised. Among them friends who I thought would believe it was their duty.

But many in Serbia are tired. They took to the streets to help overthrow Mr Milosevic. Now they say they've had enough of politics.

They accuse politicians of being in the game for themselves. And of fighting one another. It's a turnoff.

We have shown we are unable to solve our problems and make our own decisions

Goran Milovanovic
Belgrade voter
Others say they have not seen any improvement in living standards since the reformers came into power two years ago.

Thirty-four-year-old Goran Milovanovic from Belgrade fits the profile. He didn't vote. But now he thinks perhaps he should have.

"It will cost us a lot both in money and a political crisis," he said.

"We have shown we are unable to solve our problems and make our own decisions."

Reforms for unravel?

Serbia was being held up by Western Europe as a model of transition. Now all that could unravel in a period of political uncertainty.

In the short term, it seems likely that elections will be re-run in the coming months. But already there is political infighting and argument. It will stifle the decision-making process here.

For Serbs that is bad news. Many have low standards of living. The official unemployment rate is 40%. In the Serbian Government, friends tell me they are worried the reform programme will be slowed.

The spokeswoman for the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, told me they'd be calling on Serbia's politicians to look for "imaginative ways" of avoiding a repeat of the election fiasco.

Cristina Gallach said while they would have preferred the elections to have been successful, it was "not the end of the world."

The EU is continuing to help in the negotiations over the union being set up between Serbia and its smaller partner in Yugoslavia, Montenegro.

Under an agreement brokered by the EU, Yugoslavia is being disbanded. It will be replaced by a looser union between Serbia and Montenegro.

The EU wants to head off Montenegrin independence. It had feared a planned breakaway referendum could encourage further, violent redrawing of borders elsewhere in the Balkans.

It helps to continue the uncertainty about the political scene in Belgrade

Western diplomat
Ms Gallach said she saw no reason why that process of negotiation would be slowed by the renewed political instability in Belgrade.

But others are less optimistic. One senior western diplomat here told me the outcome of the election was "disappointing".

"It helps," he said, "to continue the uncertainty about the political scene in Belgrade."

That uncertainty is likely to affect the vexed question of Serbia's co-operation with the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague.

It also raises questions about the speed of the reform process in the country, and will affect the resolution of key questions over the future of Serbia's southern province of Kosovo.

Signs of tension

There is sure to be heavy Western pressure in the coming days for the Serbian Government to change the law that led to the failure of these elections. Whether they do will be a key indication of how willing the government is try to move on from this crisis.

Already though there are signs of tension. The current Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica took two thirds of the vote.

He immediately launched into a bitter attack on his arch political foe here, the Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic. He said Mr Djindjic and his government had failed to change laws in the country that would have allowed the elections to be a success.

"Their mouths were full of Europe," he said referring to the reform process Mr Djindjic has been keen to push through at all costs, taking Serbia into the European Union.

Perhaps the politicians will take the hint from the voters that the in-fighting has to cease

"They did nothing to change the laws that could take us there," Mr Kostunica went on.

He said he had patiently waited to see the end of the Tito regime, and that of Milosevic. And he would wait patiently for the end of the Djindjic regime too.

It is political fighting talk Serbs have become used to. And the sort of talk which seems to have turned them off politics.

Perhaps the politicians will take the hint from the voters that the in-fighting has to cease. If they don't, Serbia, and the region it seems has some big problems ahead.

The BBC's Matthew Price
"Soon after the last vote was posted it was clear the elections would have to be run all over again"
See also:

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