Democracy on trial in Serbia's elections

BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbians head to the polls Sunday for crucial parliamentary elections, still bitterly divided between nationalist anger and tentative optimism about a European future.

With the breakaway province of Kosovo's Feb. 17 declaration of independence still a fresh wound, however, the fragile pro-democracy forces that have governed this remnant of the former Yugoslavia since 2000 could be swept out of power by a nationalist coalition led by a party once allied with former strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

There's a sense of deja vu among Serbians, who are participating in their third election in 18 months, each of them billed as a crucial referendum on the country's future. In January, Serbs narrowly returned their pro-Western president, Boris Tadic, to office. A year before that, parliamentary elections produced a fragile coalition between Tadic's party and that of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, a constitutional lawyer and former hero of pro-democracy forces turned fierce nationalist.

Kosovo's declaration of independence shattered that union, leaving the two parties bitter enemies and Serbia in a state of wounded paralysis. Tadic's bloc wants to continue moving toward European Union membership even though most European Union countries support Kosovo's independence, but nationalist parties say they'll join the EU only with Serbia intact.

No party is likely to win a majority on Sunday, and any potential coalition is likely to be unstable. But Western countries and pro-democratic forces in Serbia fear the rise of a coalition between Kostunica and the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, which is expected to win the most seats in parliament. That would seriously dent hopes of drawing Serbia into the EU and likely prolong the stalemate over Kosovo.

No one in Serbia wants to return to the dark days of the 1990s, when the country lost four wars and suffered under international sanctions and a NATO bombing campaign.

Many, though, believe that democracy has benefited only a powerful few. Angry at their declining economic situation and at Kosovo's independence declaration, which was backed by the United States and other Western powers, they're also roused by the drumbeat of wounded nationalism.

Dragan Dstojic, for example, once believed in democracy, but when he looks back over the eight years since Serbs drove Milosevic from power, its fruits don't seem very sweet. He lost his job when the state-owned company he worked for was privatized. A handful of tycoons grew rich. Kosovo, where he was born, declared independence.

"In Milosevic's time, everyone believed things would be better when there was a democratic government. But everything has gotten worse," said the 44-year-old shop owner, who plans to vote Sunday for the Radical Party, whose fiery leader, Vojislav Seslj, is facing war crimes charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague. "Now, Milosevic doesn't seem so bad."

"The international community destabilized Serbia by supporting Kosovo's independence," said Sasa Mirkovic, the president of the pro-democracy B92 television and radio network.

In the parts of Belgrade where democracy has brought visible changes, the sentiment is more optimistic. In richer neighborhoods, the streets are lined with stores selling Western brands, and huge construction cranes clog the skyline.

Across Belgrade, on a tree-lined street of well-tended houses, students wearing the latest styles pour out of the information technology and management school of the University of Belgrade. Most are weary of elections and cynical about politics, but they see no future except with the West and are fearful of a nationalist victory.

"I'm just voting against the Radicals," said Misa Popovic, a 22-year-old student of information technology with shaggy hair and glasses. "That's what matters, not to bring us back to the 1990s and war."

(Itano is a McClatchy special correspondent.)