Pro-West Candidate Beats Rival in Serbia

BELGRADE -- Boris Tadic celebrated his re-election as Serbia's president by pledging Monday to stay on a pro-Western course despite nationalist anger over a looming declaration of independence by Kosovo province.

The state electoral commission said Monday that Tadic won 50.5 percent, while his ultranationalist challenger, Tomislav Nikolic, had 47. 7 percent -- a difference of some 128,000 votes among the 4.5 million ballots cast. The remaining 1.8 percent of ballots were invalid.

"This is Serbia, which is going straight to the European Union," Tadic said early Monday as he addressed thousands of his jubilant supporters, waving Serbian and EU flags in downtown Belgrade. "This is a victory for the whole of Serbia and its democracy."

The outcome of Sunday's runoff election indicated that a majority in Serbia wants closer ties with the EU despite nationalist anger over the West's plans to recognize the expected Kosovo independence declaration later this month.

Nikolic's defeat also indicated that Serbians had opted for closer ties with the West instead of getting closer to Russia, which the ultranationalist candidate advocated as an expression of gratitude for Russia's support in blocking Kosovo's statehood at the United Nations.

"The citizens of Serbia have more than clearly opted for their future in the European Union," said Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, of Tadic's Democratic Party.

"Now, there is no going back," he said.

The European Union was quick to congratulate Tadic and said it wanted to speed up Serbia's progress toward membership in the bloc.

The Tadic victory diminishes fears in the West of a violent Serbian reaction to Kosovo's breakaway. Although no one had expected a new Balkan war if Nikolic had won, he and conservative Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica would have been likely to have unleashed a destabilization campaign in the region with a strident anti-Western campaign.

Both Tadic and Nikolic oppose Kosovo's independence, but Tadic has ruled out the use of force and would likely seek to preserve close ties with the EU and the United States even if they recognize Kosovo statehood.

Tadic's win could destabilize his coalition government with Kostunica, who refused to endorse Tadic in the vote, saying Tadic first had to abandon his pro-EU policies.

Tadic's Democrats played a key role in the ouster of former autocratic President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. The soft-spoken Tadic first became the president in 2004, beating Nikolic in another runoff election.

Nikolic, deputy leader of the Serbian Radical Party, served as a deputy prime minister during Milosevic's 1998-99 war in Kosovo, when NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days to stop his brutal crackdown against the province's separatists.