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Thursday, 31 January 2008

1 February 2008

By the time you read this, I’ll be on my way to the US, weather permitting, to taste for myself the full delights of the presidential election campaign as it enters what may well be its most crucial week.

But before I leave, winter woollies safely packed, I thought I should draw your attention to another election which may well have some impact on the way the rest of 2008 unfolds. On Sunday, the people of Serbia will be voting in the second round of their presidential election – and what they decide could have a profound influence on the future of the Balkans.

Remember the Balkans? The wars in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo? It was less than 15 years ago, when a corner of Europe was in flames – tens of thousands of people were killed, injured and traumatised, hundreds of thousands fled their homes in terror.

So on Sunday the people of Serbia have a choice, and as Serbia has long been the dominant power in this part of Europe, their neighbours are watching anxiously. The candidates are Boris Tadic, the incumbent (usually described as “pro-Western, liberal”, in other words the good guy), and Tomislav Nikolic (“pro-Russian nationalist”, in other words, the bad guy).

And if Mr Nikolic wins on Sunday, it’s more than likely that within just a few days, the province of Kosovo will unilaterally declare its independence from Serbia and mark the beginning of a new and dangerous chapter in Balkan history.

Remember Kosovo? To the Serbs, it is the cradle of their history and their culture, home to some of the most beautiful Serbian Orthodox medieval monasteries (I have visited some of them, and, believe me, they are very beautiful). But the vast majority of the people who live there now are ethnic Albanians, and to them Serbia is a menacing threat, an oppressor whose shackles were broken with the help of NATO back in 1999 and must now be hurled away once and for all.

The US, the UK and many other EU nations believe independence is the only answer for Kosovo. And if Mr Nikolic is to be the next Serbian president, they’ll see little point in pressuring Kosovo’s leaders to delay their declaration of independence. If it’s Mr Tadic, on the other hand, they may still try to slow things down a bit, in the hope that by continuing to dangle the prospect of eventual EU membership, they may be able to gain some extra leverage.

Here’s what might happen as soon as Kosovo declares independence: the Serb minority might pack their bags and either huddle in the few remaining Serb enclaves or flee into Serbia “proper”. The Serb authorities might halt all trade across the “frontier” with a territory they will regard as a secessionist province and maybe even cut off energy supplies. Moscow will react with fury against what it will call a Western plot to destabilise the region.

The US and some EU nations – the UK, France and Germany – will immediately recognise the new “nation”. Others – Greece, Romania, Slovakia – will wait a bit. Kosovo’s leaders will ask the UN to recognise them as a new member state; Russia will block the application.

And so the stage will be set for many months of tension, uncertainty, fear and anger. Not an enticing prospect.

I hope to be on air from the US next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – and I’ll try to blog as I go. If you haven’t found the blog yet, now’s a good time to look for it: it’s at www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/worldtonight.

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