The re-election of Boris Tadic as president of Serbia has muddied the waters for Kosovo’s quest for independence.
This may seem counter-intuitive because Tadic is seen as more pro-western than Tomislav Nikolic, the ultra-nationalist who wanted to turn his back on the EU and align Serbia with Russia.
A Nikolic victory would have made it easier for Kosovo to declare independence in days.
But the EU can be expected to put pressure on Kosovo’s leadership to again delay independence on the grounds that Serbia should be rewarded for its pro-western stance. Kosovo, Serbia’s southern province, technically remains part of Serbia but has been a UN protectorate since a Nato air campaign drove out the Serb army in 1999. After years of UN supervision, the Kosovars are impatient for independence.
Brussels’ relief at the outcome of the Serbian election was audible throughout Europe. Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European commission, called Tadic’s narrow win yesterday "a victory for democracy in Serbia and for the European values we share".
Even before the election, the EU was dangling carrots in front of Serbian voters. Last week, EU foreign ministers offered Serbia an "interim accord" to replace the more binding pre-membership accord vetoed by the Dutch and Belgian governments because of Belgrade’s failure to arrest the remaining war crimes suspects from the 1990s.
The EU is so desperate to bring Serbia into its tent as a means of establishing stability in the western Balkans that it is prepared to accelerate Serbia’s progress towards EU membership, despite Belgrade’s failure to hand over the Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, the alleged mastermind of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslims.
But the Kosovars, who thought independence was within their grasp early last year until Russia threatened to veto their plans at the UN, are unlikely to be held back much longer. Hashim Thaci was elected prime minister in November partly because of impatience at his predecessor’s inability to bring about independence. Thaci has said independence is just around the corner and cannot put off declaration indefinitely.
Although Tadic’s victory means no declaration will come this month, Kosovars are setting their sights on early March, the 10th anniversary of the massacre of about 50 Albanians by Serbian troops. If Kosovo goes ahead with independence, the EU will find out whether Tadic can stand his ground against Serbia’s nationalists and hardliners on Kosovo, especially Vojislav Kostunica.
Serbia’s coalition government is already an uneasy one. It is composed of Tadic’s Democratic party and Kostunica’s Democratic party of Serbia, the product of five months of wrangling after last year’s parliamentary election.
Tadic has said he opposes Kostunica’s plan for economic sanctions against Kosovo, including blocking energy and water supplies, when it declares independence. Kostunica also wants to sever diplomatic ties, at least temporarily, with EU states that recognize Kosovo. Tadic also opposes this, but some observers wonder whether he will stand firm when the crunch comes on Kosovo’s independence.
"The results for me at least signaled the wish of the majority of the people in Serbia who want to continue the path towards Europe, and I’d like to say Europe is very happy with that," the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said after the Serbian presidential election. By next month, Solana’s optimism may prove to be premature.