26th Sep 2022

Serbians head to polls for decisive elections

  • Current Serbian president Boris Tadic sees EU integration as the country's only future (Photo: European Commission)

On Sunday (20 January), Serbian citizens will go to the polls to choose their new president in an election likely to strongly influence the country's EU path.

Among the nine candidates competing for the post, two stand out as the most likely to be Serbia's next president – the current president, the pro-Western centrist Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party, and the nationalist eurosceptic Tomislav Nikolic.

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Mr Nikolic is the acting head of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), whose official leader Vojislav Seselj is currently on trial in The Hague accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

This is the second time both men have faced each other in presidential elections. Mr Tadic beat Mr Nikolic in the second round of elections four years ago.

Currently, polls put the Radical candidate at 21 percent against 19 percent for Mr Tadic, according to French news agency AFP.

A second round between them is expected to take place on 3 February.

The end result is set to have a significant impact on the country's future EU path. Current president Boris Tadic is in favour of his country's European integration and has pledged to get Serbia into the EU.

But Mr Nikolic – although he has softened his rhetoric lately – says he will oppose Belgrade's EU membership so long as Serbia is being "conditioned and humiliated" by Brussels over Kosovo, he recently told AFP.

The Kosovo issue

The issue of Kosovo – Serbia's breakaway province which is currently under UN rule and expected to declare independence in the near future – has been a central element of the pre-electoral campaign.

Both Mr Tadic and Mr Nikolic have repeatedly declared they were not ready to make concessions on the issue.

This week, Mr Tadic reiterated that "our central goal lies in Europe, but with our identity and with Kosovo. We will never give up our European goal or our Kosovo goal," according to Serbian news agency Tanjug.

For his part, Mr Nikolic on Wednesday (16 January) told Moscow daily Vremya Novostei that "we shall not give up Kosovo. If that is the condition for Serbia to join the EU, we shall initiate talks with Brussels and request other development options."

This means that in the event of Kosovo's independence eventually being recognised by the EU, the consequences for Serbia's EU integration process will depend on who the president is.

Although both presidential candidates are categorically against the move, "[Boris] Tadic will continue with EU integration, no matter what happens," while "[Tomislav] Nikolic could take much more drastic measures", Thomas Vanhauwaert of the Brussels-based European Policy Centre (EPC) said.

What can the EU do?

There is "not much" the bloc can do to avoid Belgrade cutting itself off, according to Mr Vanhauwaert.

The EU can send Serbia a "positive message" and insist that it wants Belgrade to be part of "the family", but in the end "the Serbian president will have the last say on that," the analyst said.

The possible signing of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia during an EU foreign ministers meeting on 28-29 January had been seen as one way to keep the country on its pro-EU path.

However, some member states – particularly the Netherlands – are opposing the signing of any deal before the UN war crimes tribunal judges that Serbia is fully cooperating with it.

In the end, any major act that could have an influence on the elections' result seems to have been dropped.

The signing of the SAA in January is for now out of the question, sources indicated, adding that EU foreign ministers are still likely to discuss the matter and that their working lunch on 28 January will be devoted to the Serbian question.

In addition, the deployment of the EU Kosovo mission that the bloc's leaders agreed on in December, and that Belgrade opposes, will not be on the ministers' agenda.

But in a move likely to be interpreted as offering a political olive tree to Belgrade, the European Commission on Friday (18 January) announced the launching of a "dialogue" on establishing a visa-free regime with Serbia.

The move will not have immediate concrete results, but is an "important, maybe even a historical step," according to the commission.

"This dialogue is a tangible proof of the political commitments taken by the EU and reaffirms the European perspective of Serbia," EU justice commissioner Franco Frattini stated.

Brussels watches as Serbs head to polls

Serbians will on Sunday elect their new president, in a choice between current pro-Western leader Boris Tadic and his nationalist and eurosceptic opponent Tomislav Nikolic. The elections are seen as crucial for the country's future, particularly in terms of EU integration.

Radical candidate wins first round of Serbian elections

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