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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 January 2008, 15:13 GMT
Serbs put jobs before Kosovo
Serbia goes to the polls on Sunday in a presidential election that comes at a sensitive time, with the UN-administered province of Kosovo gearing up for independence. The BBC's Nick Hawton has been gauging the mood among Serbs.

Campaign poster for Tomislav Nikolic
Tomislav Nikolic: Rebranding the hardline nationalists
The man who would be president, Tomislav Nikolic, beams benignly down from billboards around Belgrade.

He may be the deputy leader of the hardline nationalist Serbian Radical Party, but you would not think so at first glance.

His rhetoric has been moderate, you even have to look hard on his posters to see the Serbian flag hidden somewhere near the bottom. Rumour has it that an American advertising company is behind the new look.

The Radicals' official leader, Vojislav Seselj, is still on trial in The Hague, accused of war crimes.

Unlike Mr Nikolic, the Europhile President Boris Tadic has election posters showing him almost wrapped in the Serbian flag. His rallies have well-organised Serbian flag-wielding supporters. A giant video screen shows the president inspecting the troops.

All that is designed to reassure the public that the reformer and modernise can be trusted with looking after Serbia's national interests if re-elected.

Kosovo 'not top priority'

"It's a sign of a maturing democracy that candidates start grouping around the centre," says Marko Blagojevic from the election monitoring organisation CESID.

President Boris Tadic addressing rally
President Tadic says Serbia needs closer ties to the EU

There may be nine candidates in the race, but virtually all analysts agree that it boils down to a race between the current president and the hardline nationalist.

The election comes at a crucial time for Serbia, with the issue of Kosovo hanging like a black cloud over the country.

Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanian population is expected to declare independence in the very near future, something strongly opposed by Serbia.

Although the presidential candidates' speeches have been peppered with references to Kosovo, and countless newspaper column inches written about the breakaway province, Kosovo is not uppermost in voters' minds, according to political analysts.

"Kosovo is definitely not the most important subject for most people. The top issues are improving living standards, employment and the fight against corruption. We found in our survey only 26% of people thought Kosovo should be the number one priority of the government," says Marko Blagojevic.

Plea for jobs

Serbia's third city, Nis, down in the south and not far from Kosovo, has seen its fair share of election rallies. But despite Kosovo's proximity, other issues are on people's minds.


"For me, and for other young people, having a better visa system so we can travel abroad more easily is the most important issue," says Maja, 27, a teacher.

Ljubisa, 56, selling wall calendars from a stall on the main pedestrian street, says she only gets 70 euros (53; $104) a month as a pension.

"I can't live on that. There are just no jobs. Industry has been privatised and there are no more jobs. That's the main problem," she says.

Dragan, 41, who works for the Serbian military, says Kosovo is a side-issue. "In Nis, there is high unemployment. The priority is to get more jobs here. Belgrade takes most of the industry and money. More should come here."

Back in Belgrade, Milan Nikolic - no relation to Tomislav - from the Centre for Policy Studies says the elections are very significant.

"Serbia will choose between two paths: one of self-isolation and closer ties with Russia and even China, or one towards Europe and the European Union," he says.

For victory, a candidate must achieve more than 50% of the votes cast. If no one achieves that in the first round, the two candidates with the most votes will go into a run-off two weeks later.

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Country profile: Serbia
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