President Boris Tadic says party ready to ‘close door on Balkan past’

BELGRADE (Reuters) – President Boris Tadic and his opposition Democratic Party plan to focus on Serbia’s «European future» and close the door on its «Balkan past» by defeating the ultranationalists in a snap election expected by late December. As Serbs head into what he says is one of the most difficult periods in their history over the next six months, Tadic is trying to offer clarity of purpose and consistency of vision to a troubled electorate facing stark choices. In an interview with Reuters, he said the West is right to insist on the handover of war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic, which is good for Serbia, but wrong to rush into granting independence to province of Kosovo, which will be very bad. The two issues lie in the middle of Serbia’s path to European Union membership, which is Tadic’s main goal. Mladic must face justice, he said, but a solution for Kosovo must not be rushed. «It must be handled carefully by the international community. I am not asking for a postponement of negotiations but I am asking for patience and a clear and sustainable decision.» Western powers intervened to force Serb troops under the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic out of Kosovo as the civilian death toll in their counter-insurgency war against Albanian separatists rose to 10,000 amid mass ethnic cleansing. Seven years later, they are sympathetic to demands from the 90 percent Albanian majority for independence. They fear violence unless it is granted soon and see no reason to delay. But Tadic said Serbia’s neighbors sympathize with Belgrade. «All Balkan countries are complicated, all have large national minorities,» he said. «Two million Hungarians live in Romania; there’s a significant Turkish minority in Bulgaria. In Montenegro there is a strong Bosnian and Albanian minority. In Macedonia [FYROM], a third of the population is Albanian.» Was the West considering the potential negative consequences of a precedent-setting decision to make Kosovo independent? Highly energized after a hectic bout of international diplomacy as Serbia pleads its case, Tadic said Serbia was prepared to grant Kosovo the fullest autonomy. Kosovo would have «no seat at the United Nations, no armed forces and no internationally recognized borders but also no Serbian interference in its internal affairs,» he said. It is highly unlikely that Serb voters would back any party advocating that Serbia concede Kosovo – home to 1,000 years of Serb history – to the ethnic Albanians, or kneel to an imposed solution. But this is what they may face as the campaign peaks. Tadic nevertheless said he was convinced reformist parties would defeat Serbia’s opposition Radicals, the country’s largest party with around 35 percent support, in an election newspapers now predict will be held on December 17 or 24. Radical rhetoric harks back to claims of a «Greater Serbia» that reaches into neighboring territory. They oppose handing over Mladic and would declare Kosovo an «occupied territory,» creating a cold war that could last for years. «I don’t pay too much attention to their arguments,» said the 48-year-old president. «Today we only have two choices. One is the European future, the other is the Balkan past. This is represented by the Serbian Radicals.» He did not say whether he and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, a conservative who seldom sees eye to eye with Tadic, had concluded any formal pact to fight the election together. Asked if he could share power with Kostunica, he said: «Anything’s possible.» Asked if Kostunica could team up with the Radicals to form a coalition, he repeated: «Anything’s possible.» (Additional reporting by Monika Lajhner)