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Page last updated at 22:59 GMT, Monday, 10 March 2008

Uncertain Serbia faces key poll

By Helen Fawkes
BBC News, Belgrade

Serb woman casts vote 03.02.08
The next election is seen as a referendum on Serbia's EU ties
For Serbia, elections seem to be becoming a national pastime.

Serbians will soon be asked to go to the polls for the third time in less than two years.

President Boris Tadic is expected to dissolve parliament within the next few days and order an early general election to take place in May.

It follows the collapse of Serbia's coalition government at the weekend.

Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence has caused political shock waves in Belgrade.

Much to the anger of Serbia, most European Union countries are supporting the independence of Kosovo.

Deadlock

The government has been under mounting pressure to come up with a unified position on not just Kosovo but also on its relations with Europe.

The problem is that the European Union didn't handle the situation well - most Serbs see the EU as doing something unfair or unjust to Serbia
Bratislav Grubacic
Political analyst

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica says that Serbia should not work towards European integration until the EU recognises that Kosovo is a part of Serbia.

President Tadic, on the other hand, believes that the two issues are separate and Serbia should continue to develop closer ties with the EU.

On Monday, the government formally admitted defeat.

Most analysts here agree that a fresh ballot is the best way to break the deadlock.

The key issues of the forthcoming vote are almost certain to be Kosovo and whether Serbia should join the EU in the near future.

The election is being seen by many as a referendum on the future direction of this former Yugoslav republic.

Kosovo factor

But it is predicted that the poll will not significantly alter the balance of power in parliament.

map
The two largest shares of the vote are expected to go to the nationalist Radical Party and the president's Democratic Party (DS), followed by the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) led by the prime minister.

It is thought that no-one will win an outright majority. This could lead to more protracted coalition talks.

After the general election last January, it took until May for the coalition to be formed.

But this time round, there is the unknown factor of Kosovo.

This will be the first election since Pristina declared independence.

With public sentiment towards Kosovo running high, this could boost the popularity of the nationalist Radical party, who favour closer ties with Russia.

Radical coalition

There is speculation they may join forces with the prime minister's party to form the governing coalition.

Mass protest rally against Kosovo's declaration of independence 21 February, 2008 in Belgrade
Kosovo's independence declaration has sparked protests in Belgrade
''For the first time since Slobodan Milosevic, the nationalists look like they have a real chance of coming into power," says political analyst Bratislav Grubacic, who is also the editor-in-chief of the Serbian VIP magazine.

''The Radicals are likely to get the largest number of seats once again. If they increase their share, it's hard to imagine the new authorities without the nationalists.

"This is something that the EU is very much afraid of," he says.

The West sees this election as a stark choice between Serbia's European future and its isolationist past.

This could be used as a trump card by the pro-Western President Tadic.

His party may play on fears that a return to nationalism could have a negative impact on living standards in Serbia and claim that people would be better off as part of Europe.

Misunderstanding

But the role of the EU and its relations with Kosovo could harm the president's campaign.

''The problem is that the European Union didn't handle the situation well," says Mr Grubacic. "Most Serbs see the EU as doing something unfair or unjust to Serbia.

"They don't understand why as they see it that the European Union is punishing Serbia. There is a big misunderstanding.''

With this country focusing on the snap election and a caretaker government now in charge, work on much-needed reforms is likely to slow down.

It could mean that as other Balkans states move towards eventual membership of the EU, Serbia could end up the furthest away from European integration.

Whatever happens in the poll, Serbia could well be without a fully functioning government for several months.

It looks like the political uncertainty here is set to continue for some time to come.




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