- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 20, 2007

BELGRADE, Serbia — January may be the coldest month, but the current political heat here in former Yugoslavia is going through the roof. Today’s elections for the 250 seats of the national parliament climax more than two months of intense, exhausting and, very often, dirty campaigning that opened old wounds.

The election campaign also raised new questions without providing answers the nation needs, after years of domestic wars, international sanctions, isolation, NATO intervention and economic hardship that followed the darkest period of modern Serbian history.

There were several elections in Serbia after October 2000, when autocratic leader Slobodan Milosevic was defeated by unified democratic opposition and eight months later sent to The Hague War Crimes Tribunal.

But today’s elections are crucial not only for the more than 7 million citizens of Serbia, but also for their Balkan neighbors and other countries that see Serbia as potentially the last crisis hot spot in Europe.

“Serbia has reached a turning point and your citizens are going to decide in what country they want to live,” said U.S. Ambassador Michael Polt in Belgrade.

“The United States does not support individuals or political parties in foreign countries. We support principles of democracy and freedom. Our interest is to see fair and transparent elections in Serbia, with the outcome of a functional democracy,” he said after recent consultations at the State Department.

In recent months, many friendly messages came from Washington, Brussels and other world capitals, reminding authorities in Belgrade of “the three most important things” for post-election Serbia: its economy, its economy and its economy.

But among leading politicians in the Serbian capital, one cannot find many open ears for these Western tunes. No, for them there are two more important election campaign topics: Kosovo and The Hague tribunal.

Both are politically urgent and explosive; both could slow or stop Serbia’s effort to join the club of new European democracies.

“The European Union considers this election very important, having in mind our interest that Serbia integrates with our union as soon as possible,” said Olli Rehn, the EU Enlargement Commissioner.

He expressed optimism that victory of “the democratic forces” will enable the next government of Serbia to fulfill its responsibility to arrest and transfer the six remaining war-crime suspects to The Hague.

The six include the former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and his military chief, Ratko Mladic, both indicted on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in the 1991-95 ethnic wars.

Last summer the European Union postponed association talks with Serbia after Belgrade failed to keep its promise to arrest and deliver the remaining six indicted to the International War Crimes Tribunal.

EU ministers are not ready to wait any longer and tomorrow they will consider the outcome of Serbia’s parliamentary elections.

The mood in Brussels can be foreseen from the statement of Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, that Belgrade can expect “speedy progress” toward joining the European Union if voters in Serbia “leave their nationalistic past behind in crucial elections.” Similar messages are also arriving from Washington.

The other issue is Kosovo, where leaders of nearly 2 million ethnic Albanians are not ready to accept anything but full independence for their province.

The Belgrade government, which represents the Kosovo Serbs numbering about 100,000, claims the province cannot be anything but part of Serbia.

A cheerful image of Serbian President Boris Tadic was featured on a billboard in Belgrade, Serbia, last week. Political parties have engaged in intense and dirty campaigning in the run-up to today’s elections.

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