Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Serbia headed for crunch election in December

BELGRADE, Sept 27 (Reuters) - Signs multiplied on Wednesday that Serbia will hold a snap general election before Christmas, with Serbs facing hard questions about handing over a war crimes suspect and the possible loss of their Kosovo province.

There has been no official announcement. But in parliament, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's ruling party coyly advanced the "emergency selection" of an electoral commission as "preparation for expected forthcoming activity".

"It's obvious an election is being prepared. They're mobilising," said analyst Zoran Lutovac. Political sources said it would be on Dec. 17 or 24. Whatever the date, it promises to be a tight race between reformists and ultranationalists.

"I think December is possible. But let's wait a few more days to get an exact date," reformist President Boris Tadic told Reuters.

Serbia is transfixed by two crucial issues dividing a people still partly under the sway of post-war nationalism.

They are whether to hand over war crimes fugitive General Ratko Mladic to the Hague tribunal and whether to strongly oppose or reluctantly accept an expected United Nations decision to grant a form of conditional independence to Kosovo province.

The ultranationalist Radical Party, Serbia's most powerful with 35 percent support, says it is treason to hand over Mladic or concede Kosovo. The two main pro-Western parties, rivals commanding a potential 37 percent if they teamed up, favour arresting the general, but oppose any amputation of Kosovo.

The EU says Serbia cannot hope to advance towards its goal of membership unless Mladic is handed over for trial.

The U.N. and major powers are sympathetic to demands from Kosovo's 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority to be free of Serbia, after a 1998-99 war in which they lost 10,000 people to Serb forces.


Nearly half of Serbs polled oppose handing over Mladic, the Bosnian Serb Army commander charged with overseeing the 1995 slaughter of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim captives at Srebrenica and the ruthless 43-month siege of Sarajevo.

A majority also opposes the independence of Kosovo, the "cradle of Serbdom". But polls suggest many ordinary voters realise it is as good as lost, whatever the politicians say.

Fearing accusations of a national sellout, the two big pro-Western parties have tip-toed around the issues, wrapping them in obfuscation with "hints and nods and subtext" as one Western diplomat put it this week. But time is running out.

To ensure they do not carry the blame for an imposed Kosovo decision, they have drafted a new constitution saying Kosovo is part of Serbia, expected to go to referendum next month.

But Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica may be heading a caretaker government by then, because his key coalition partner, the liberal G17 Plus party, plans to quit government by Sunday if EU talks with Serbia do not resume.

That hinges on U.N. war crimes tribunal chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte's report to the EU on Friday on Serbia's efforts to catch Mladic, in hiding for 4 years.

If she is negative and the EU says talks with Belgrade must remain frozen, a G17 walkout will bring down the government, triggering an election.

Once the heart of federal Yugoslavia, Serbia now stands alone after 15 years of disintegration in war and disaffection.

Montenegro, its partner in language, culture and religion, chose independence in May and started EU talks this week.

A U.S. envoy this week said it was the "cheap alcohol" of nationalism that had poisoned Serbia, leaving a hangover of "unjustified grievance and self-pitying aggression".

Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried was a diplomat here 20 years ago. Were it not for nationalism, he said, Yugoslavia would already be an EU member.

Fried said Serbs now face a moment of choice "and I believe this time they will pick another horse".

(Additional reporting by Gordana Filipovic and Beti Bilandzic)

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