On Sunday, the people of Serbia went to the polls to vote in the first parliamentary election since Serbia and Montenegro split last year. In these elections, one issue dominated: Kosovo. All major parties supported keeping Kosovo (which has been a UN protectorate for seven years) as part of Serbia, but the ruling moderates promised to resolve Kosovo’s final status by peaceful means only, and have offered broad autonomy for the Kosovar Albanians in UN-sponsored negotiations. The opposition nationalists, however, made no such conciliatory offers, and campaigned on a nationalist platform, stirring restive Serbs angry about the prospect of an independent Kosovo.

BBC map

The following is my short summary of the main events that preceded Sunday’s election.

Fearful that the nationalists, whose voting base is comprised of many Milosevic sympathizers, would win in the upcoming January, 2007 elections, NATO admitted Serbia into the Partnership for Peace in December, 2006. It was hoped that this gesture would show the Serb people that their moderate leaders were bringing them back into Europe, and ending Serbia’s ostracism from the international community. It was gamble, and NATO officials admitted this at the time. Nationalism runs deep in Serbian society, and nationalist parties exploit the poverty and bitterness of the population.

When I visited Serbia in late November of last year, I had a chance to speak with officials from the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Serbian negotiating team for the Kosovo final status talks.

Sitting in the main hall of the Serbian Diplomatic Academy, my classmates and I drank strong Turkish coffee and listened to a panel of mostly moderate Serb diplomats discuss Serbia’s future; as part of Europe, as a potential EU member and NATO, in the UN, and in the international economy. They were proud of how far Serbia has come as a democracy since Milosevic was handed over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague, but also their fears of what might happen if the radicals won in January, 2007. The trepidation of the diplomats was palpable when they spoke about the upcoming elections. One woman, a member of the UN negotiating team, wrung her hands when she spoke about the deadlock in the negotiations with her Kosovar Albanian counterparts, and how the nationalists were spinning this in the Serbian media. I bluntly asked the panel if they thought they would still have jobs if the moderates lost, and the female diplomat answered that she wasn’t sure what would happen, but she was worried, and so were her colleagues. The upcoming elections, she said, might well determine Serbia’s future as well as that of Kosovo. 

The female negotiating team member was, in many ways, the face of the Serbia that could be. She empathized with the Albanians without agreeing with them, supported the work of the ICTY, and spoke of compromises and bridge-building. She was married to a Georgian diplomat, and seemed to posses no sense of ethnic superiority. Her fears for the safety of the Serbs in Kosovo were based on fact, not rumor or prejudice.

It is true that Kosovar Serbs have faced discrimination and revenge attacks since the end of the Kosovo War, and now live in ethnically homogenous enclaves that they cannot safely leave in many parts of Kosovo. Relations between Kosovo’s Albanian, Serb, and Roma communities are highly strained today, and NGOs face an uphill battle promoting integration and reconciliation.

Unfortunately, this may not get better in the near future, and may in fact worsen significantly. When the election results were announced today, the radicals made significant gains. They did not win enough seats to completely dominate the legislature, but perhaps enough to push Serbian politics away from moderation on the Kosovo issue.

For the sake of the peoples of Serbia and Kosovo, I hope 2007 does not bring renewed violence or instability. I will be following developments in this troubled region closely, and hoping for the best.

More Serbia and Kosovo news and commenatry from the Transatlatic Assembly, the IHT, and the BBC.