Serbia's pro-Western president narrowly defeated an ally of late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic in a closely contested election Sunday only days before an expected declaration of independence by the breakaway Kosovo province.
President Boris Tadic won 51 percent of the vote, while Tomislav Nikolic, who ruled with Milosevic during the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, had 47 percent, according to the state electoral commission.
"Serbia has shown its great democratic potential," Tadic said in his victory speech, praising Nikolic for "the number of votes he has won."
Nikolic congratulated Tadic but added, "I will remain to be his tough opposition."
Tadic's supporters celebrated in downtown Belgrade, waving Serbian, EU and Democratic Party flags and honking car horns.
The outcome indicated that a majority of Serbians want the country to stay on its path of pro-Western reform and closer ties with the European Union, instead of heading back to the nationalism and isolation that characterized the Milosevic era.
Easier on Kosovo independence
Nikolic's defeat will also likely alleviate fears in the West that Serbia would react violently to the expected declaration of independence later this month by the Kosovo province, dominated by pro-independence ethnic Albanians.
Both Tadic and Nikolic oppose Kosovo's independence, but Tadic has ruled out the use of force and will likely seek to preserve close ties with the EU and the United States even if they recognize Kosovo statehood.
The province has been run by the United Nations and NATO since the 1998-99 war, when NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days to stop his brutal crackdown against Kosovo separatists.
Kosovo's Albanian leaders said they would declare independence days after the Serbian runoff, no matter who wins, and they expect the U.S. and most EU countries to follow up with quick recognition.
While pledging never to recognize Kosovo independence, Tadic has said there is "no alternative" to EU membership for Serbia and that it is "the only way forward" for the nation.
Nikolic has insisted that Serbia must abandon its EU membership bid if the bloc upholds Kosovo's independence and should turn to its ally Russia instead.
During the election campaign, Nikolic had advocated measures including armed intervention to protect minority Serbs in the province and imposing a complete economic and travel blockade for Kosovo Albanians.
'A matter of life and death'
The election war marked by high turnout — 67 percent an hour before polls closed, and voters in Belgrade said the balloting was crucial.
"We have just recovered a little, we must not stop now," says Dusan Andjic, a 40-year-old lawyer who voted for Tadic. "This is really a matter of life and death."
Voters for Nikolic said the moment was historic, claiming the pro-Western Serbian leaders were going to sell out the country.
"If we don't stop them, they will give away Kosovo," cried Marko Stipcevic, 51, a clerk.
Serbia's presidency is formally a ceremonial post, though it gained in importance and influence under Milosevic's virtually unrivaled rule in the 1990s. Serbia's president names the commander of Serbia's army — a post that gains in importance before likely Kosovo independence.
A victory for Nikolic — whose party boss Vojislav Seselj is now on trial for alleged war crimes at the U.N. tribunal for the former Yugoslavia — would have dashed Western hopes that Serbia will arrest two Bosnian Serb war crimes fugitives, Gen. Ratko Mladic and his wartime political leader Radovan Karadzic, any time soon.
Tadic's Democratic Party played a key role in Milosevic's ouster from power in 2000. The soft-spoken party leader first became the president in 2004, by beating Nikolic in a runoff election.