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Serbia at political crossroads as election called

Serbia's president called an early election Thursday that should determine whether the country aligns itself with the West or returns to its isolationist past.
Image: Serbia's president Boris Tadic signs document to dissolve parliament.
Serbian President Boris Tadic signs the document which dissolved the country's parliament on Thursday, paving the way for early elections.Nenad Djordjevic / Presidential Press Service via A
/ Source: The Associated Press

Serbia's president dissolved parliament on Thursday and called an early election that should determine whether the country aligns itself with the West or returns to its isolationist past.

The coalition government in Belgrade collapsed last weekend following a rift between pro-Western President Boris Tadic and nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica over Kosovo's independence and Serbia's European Union integration.

Tadic said in a statement that the early parliamentary vote would be held on May 11. "Elections are a democratic way for the citizens to determine how Serbia should develop in the years to come," he said.

Tadic added that the vote would be a "new chance to strengthen ... the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country, to strengthen our economic perspective through European integration ... and change things for the better."

Key decision
The election is considered crucial for Serbia because it stands at a political crossroads between a future in the EU and a return to the isolationism of the 1990s, when the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic held power.

"Once again, Serbia is to choose on whether to move forward or go backward," said Dragan Bujosevic, a political analyst of independent NIN weekly.

Last month, Tadic narrowly defeated Tomislav Nikolic, an ultranationalist former ally of Milosevic, in a presidential vote seen as a referendum on the country's membership in the EU.

However, Nikolic's Radicals -- the largest group in the dissolved parliament -- said they could team up with Kostunica in the upcoming vote to forge a majority for the next Serbian government.

"We want to form the new government alone, but if that is impossible, we'll form coalitions with the parties which consider Kosovo Serbia's territory," Nikolic said.

Marko Blagojevic, of an independent Belgrade polling group, said that Serbia is so split between pro- and anti-Western camps that the vote will be "extremely tight."

Kosovo row
On Saturday, Kostunica dissolved his government, saying his conservatives could not function in the Cabinet alongside the president's pro-Western Democrats because of their insistence on pursuing EU membership, even though 18 of the bloc's 27 nations have recognized Kosovo's independence.

Kostunica insists Serbia must not join the EU unless the bloc confirms Kosovo is part of Serbia. Tadic refuses to tie the Kosovo issue to Serbia's EU future, saying membership would put Serbia in better position to assert its rights over Kosovo on the international stage.

Kostunica said in a statement Thursday that the important May 11 election could lead "to the formation a nationally responsible government which would be able to fight for the preservation of Kosovo" within Serbia's borders.

Kosovo, predominantly ethnic Albanian, declared independence from Serbia on Feb. 17. Kosovo had been under U.N. control since 1999, when NATO used an air war to stop Serbia's crackdown on separatists in the territory.

Serbia, which considers Kosovo its historic and religious heartland, has rejected Kosovo's independence as illegal under international law. Serbia has the backing of Russia and China in the U.N. Security Council.