Serbia's pro-Western president declared victory in Sunday's parliamentary elections — a stunning upset over ultranationalists who tried to exploit anger over Kosovo's independence and thwart the nation's ambitions to join the European Union.
"This is a great day for Serbia," Boris Tadic proclaimed after an independent monitoring group that carried out a parallel vote count nationwide said his bloc won 39 percent — about 10 percent more than the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party.
"The citizens of Serbia have confirmed Serbia's European path," he said. "Serbia will be in the European Union. We have promised that, and we will fulfill that."
But Tadic said he wasn't celebrating, because his nationalist rivals could still team up against his Coalition for a European Serbia and try to form Serbia's next government.
"I'm sure that those who wanted to return Serbia to the 1990s will try to overturn the electoral will of the people, but I will not allow it," he told supporters, adding that he would propose a new prime minister from his own bloc.
"I'm getting ready for tough negotiations on the next government ... those talks will not be easy," Tadic said as thousands of his supporters waved party and EU flags and honked horns in central Belgrade.
Tadic's opponents said their own vote tabulations confirmed the pro-Western forces' victory — an astonishing turnabout after weeks of speculation that the Radicals would sweep to power together with Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's conservative coalition.
Official results were not expected until Monday, but the state electoral commission issued partial results that corresponded to the projections of the Center for Free Elections and Democracy and the tabulations of the main parties.
The respected center, whose representatives observed vote tallying at polling stations across Serbia, said Tomislav Nikolic's Radicals were running a distant second with 28.6 percent, and that Kostunica's bloc had about 11.6 percent. It said the Socialists had about 8.2 percent — their best result since Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic's ouster in 2000.
"Let's wait until tomorrow and see what we'll do," said the Socialists' deputy leader, Zarko Obradovic.
Victory follows Kosovo's independence
The pro-Western coalition's surprisingly strong showing came just three months after protesters outraged by Kosovo's Feb. 17 independence declaration set fire to part of the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade.
That anger had stoked expectations of an electoral backlash and a Radical victory that would have squelched Serbia's efforts to prepare for eventual EU membership. The Radicals had vowed to steer the country away from the West and toward Russia, and openly defy international demands for the arrest of Gen. Ratko Mladic and other fugitive war crimes suspects.
Sunday's elections were the first in Serbia since Kosovo declared independence. Many had expected widespread anger to propel the Radicals to victory, and warned that it could plunge the country into fresh isolation.
Officials said turnout was about 60 percent — lower than in January's presidential elections, but strong for a parliamentary vote.
Dragan Sutanovac, Serbia's defense minister and a leading member of Tadic's Democratic Party, said voters "have chosen life over myths," referring to hard-liners' claims that life could not go on without Kosovo. He said Tadic's party was open to talks with any party except the Radicals on forming a new government.
Voters also cast ballots Sunday in Kosovo, where Serb leaders organized parallel local elections in defiance of international authorities. The U.N. branded the local elections illegal, but did not stop people from voting, and NATO peacekeepers stepped up patrols as a precaution. No incidents were reported.
Sense of betrayal
Kostunica and Nikolic had tried to capitalize on an acute sense of betrayal after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February and gained formal recognition from the U.S., Canada, Japan and key European powers.
Serbs consider Kosovo the heart of their ancient homeland and Serbian Orthodox faith, and their bitterness has nudged the country toward ultranationalists promising to restore bruised national pride.
"I want Kosovo to remain in Serbia — that's why I voted for Serbian patriots," said Zoran Jovanovic, a 66-year-old retiree. "The European Union and the West want to take Kosovo away from Serbia. That's why there is no place for us in that bloc. Russia is our true friend."
The nationalists also sought to exploit disenchantment with 30 percent unemployment, rising prices and corruption.
But Tadic had expressed confidence earlier Sunday that Serbs would make a clean break with their turbulent past.
"I am convinced that people will vote for a European future," he said. "I am totally sure that a return to the 1990s would not be good for our country, which would happen if the Radicals return to power."
Tadic, who opposes Kosovo's independence and reiterated Sunday that he would never recognize its statehood, claimed last week that he had received death threats.
He also has been publicly denounced as a traitor for signing a pre-entry aid and trade pact with the EU — a deal that Kostunica and Nikolic contend amounts to blood money in exchange for giving up Kosovo.
Yet many Serbs responded to Tadic's message that the country's future lies with the EU.
"I voted for Europe and against the road that leads us back to the misery of the 1990s," Milica Ostojic, a 22-year-old university student, said Sunday after casting her ballot at a packed polling station in Belgrade.
Milosevic was ousted by a pro-democracy movement in 2000, and the former leader — who presided over the bloody 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia — died in March 2006 in a prison cell in The Hague, Netherlands, where a U.N. tribunal was trying him for atrocities in the Balkans.