2nd Round Likely in Serbian Elections

BELGRADE -- Serbs voted on Sunday in the first round of a presidential election that could decide future ties with the West after the expected loss of its breakaway Kosovo province.

Opinion polls gave hard-line challenger Tomislav Nikolic a slim lead over pro-Western President Boris Tadic, but not enough for outright victory. Analysts say a Nikolic win would stall reforms and complicate Serbia's path to the European Union.

"I voted for a better future, for Nikolic," said 47-year-old Nada Bilandzic, an early voter in a Belgrade suburb.

"I am convinced that his is the only party that can open factories and restore the economy."

Polls suggest Nikolic will win 33 percent of the first-round vote and Tadic around 30 percent.

Half of the 6.5 million electorate may stay home, reflecting disappointment with democratic politics seven years after the fall of late nationalist autocrat Slobodan Milosevic took Serbia out of isolation and into a bumpy transition.

To win the Feb. 3 runoff, the two candidates will try to attract third party votes with promises of higher living standards, jobs and the defense of Kosovo, which is heading for independence with Western backing within months.

Nikolic, whose Radical Party supported the policies of Milosevic during the 1990s, puts his trust in Russia and favors a neutral stance between East and West.

He has toned down his rhetoric to appeal to moderates as well as the one-third of Serbs who live just over the poverty line. He has rejected accusations of isolationism and war mongering.

"There will be no more blackmail and humiliation," Nikolic told reporters after voting on Sunday.

"Russia is a much closer partner to Serbia, but if the European Union wants to open up its doors and no longer impose obstacles, we will be glad to join the EU."

The main humiliation Serbs see coming from the West regards Kosovo, which has been a United Nations protectorate since 1999, when NATO expelled Serbian troops accused of atrocities against ethnic Albanians there.

Indications by Washington and most EU member states that they will recognize Kosovo as independent within months have irked Serbs who feel the country has paid enough for its role in the wars of the 1990s, and could cause a nationalist backlash.

Tadic also opposes independence for Kosovo, regarded by Serbs as their historic heartland, but favors signing a first-level agreement with the EU even if the bloc takes over Kosovo's supervision as a prelude to recognizing the territory.

"This vote is the first half of the match," Tadic said after casting his ballot. "The second half, on Feb. 3, will be a chance to once again decide to conquer Europe, a better life, better salaries and pensions, greater security."

Tadic has warned that a Nikolic victory would drive the country back to the Milosevic days. Some analysts, as well as Serbia's central bank governor, Radovan Jelasic, say a hard-line president would scare off investors seeking stability.

Three other candidates are expected to win about 6 percent each. They include Cedomir Jovanovic, the only candidate prepared to tell Serbs that Kosovo is lost and that their country should move on.