Serbia's presidential campaign will begin earlier than planned after President Boris Tadic on Wednesday announced his resignation and called for early elections, which will be held on May 6. Both Tadic, who is running for re-election, and Tomislav Nikolic, the leading opposition candidate, support Serbia's accession to the European Union. At the same time, both candidates have said they will not relinquish Kosovo, a move the European Union deems critical to the prospect of Serbian accession. The problem for Tadic and Nikolic is that these goals are practically irreconcilable.
When Nikolic was asked if he would be willing to relinquish Serbia's claims on Kosovo so his country could be admitted into the union, he replied, “That would be like asking a man who has two children to choose which one he wishes to renounce.” His answer sums up the geopolitical dilemma that Serbia faces today. On one hand, Serbia aspires to join the European Union. On the other hand, Serbia does not want to give up its claim to Kosovo.
Belgrade has spent the last ten years negotiating an agreement with Brussels that would allow Serbia to join the European club. In March, Serbia obtained EU candidate status after apparent progress in its talks with Kosovo and the arrest of war crimes suspects.
For Belgrade, EU accession is not a purely economic goal; Serbia also considers it a way to regain what it sees as its rightful place in the West. The Serbs have always seen theirs as a Western country. To a large extent, they believe that Serbia's sacrifice before the Turkish Empire in the sixteenth century protected Europe from being overrun by invaders.
However, an independent Kosovo is a high price to pay for EU membership. Kosovo has profound symbolic and emotional value for the Serbs. The Serbian kingdom was born in Kosovo in the twelfth century, so it is seen as the heart of Serbian identity. Consequently, for Serbians, giving up on Kosovo means relinquishing a great deal of who they are. In the 1990s, Belgrade used military force to prevent the secession of the rebel province.
From a financial perspective, accepting the loss of Kosovo and moving closer to the European Union makes perfect sense for Belgrade since Serbia would receive development funds and access to the EU market. But in Serbia, history and politics often outweigh economic needs. Moreover, while EU membership remains a promising target, its appeal continues to diminish with the economic crisis. If entry into the bloc no longer guarantees prosperity, the demand to give up Kosovo could be seen as excessive.
At the same time, the economic crisis in Serbia carries the danger of a resurgence of nationalism. As unemployment grows and the economy contracts, leaders of any political party can ignite the spark of Serbian nationalism. And in the Balkans, extreme nationalism very quickly leads to violence.
Serbia is still trapped in its centuries-old contradictions. Like a father being made to decide which of his children he loves more, the winner of Serbia's elections will face hard choices. In some cases, what is won could be as precious as what is lost.