In an upset, pro-West democrats declared victory late Sunday in crucial Serbian elections dominated by questions of pride and humiliation, and whether Serbia has a future in the West or must take refuge in old-school nationalism.
Partial returns put the Democratic Party of President Boris Tadic ahead of his ultranationalist rivals, defying preelection surveys. Still, Tadic will have to find coalition partners in order to govern, and he doesn't have many suitors. The nationalists did not concede defeat and said they might try to form a ruling coalition themselves.
"Serbia has shown it doesn't want to go backwards," Tadic said Sunday night after claiming a narrow win. Thousands of his supporters rallied outside party headquarters or celebrated in the streets of Belgrade. "Serbs have undoubtedly confirmed a clear European path for Serbia."
Much was at stake: A win by the nationalists -- led by the Serbian Radical Party, whose leader is on trial for war crimes -- would have posed a threat to stability in this volatile region, analysts said. Propelled by outrage over the U.S.-backed secession of Kosovo, many Serbs were turning to the Radicals, who governed in coalition with the late dictator Slobodan Milosevic during the war-torn 1990s. A Radical government would also deal a major setback to democratic reformers in the post-Milosevic transition, activists said.
In the end, however, it seemed the nationalist vote splintered among several parties, clearing the way for Tadic and his liberal coalition, who have championed Serbia's pursuit of membership in the European Union, to prevail.
Earlier in the day, Tadic had said the elections were "vitally important" for Serbia.
Speaking to his supporters Sunday night, Tadic reiterated his determination to hold on to Kosovo, the majority ethnic Albanian province that unilaterally declared independence from Serbia three months ago. But he sketched an agenda that is otherwise the absolute opposite of the Radicals': He pledged to continue cooperating with the war crimes tribunal at The Hague and to hand over remaining fugitives, and to aggressively tie the nation to Europe.
Serbia's immediate political future remains unclear. No single party will win enough votes to govern alone, and Tadic's Democrats will have to find a coalition partner, although they are outnumbered by nationalist parties.
Tomislav Nikolic, deputy president of the Radical Party, who had advocated a "cautious" approach to the West and a coziness with Russia, was not rushing to concede defeat. Speaking to supporters late Sunday, he held out the possibility of forming a ruling coalition.
Tadic "has the biggest portion of the vote, but you cannot call that a victory," he said.
Nikolic, called the Undertaker because of his profession as a cemetery director, is leading the Radical Party in the absence of Vojislav Seselj, who is standing trial at the U.N. war crimes tribunal.
In one still-viable scenario, the Radicals could team up with the party of outgoing Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, also a hard-line nationalist who has capitalized on Serbian resentment over the loss of Kosovo to rally support.
The Radical Party and Kostunica, who heads the Democratic Party of Serbia, accuse Tadic and his supporters of betraying Serbia's core interests in courting the EU. Much of Europe supported Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence in February.
Kostunica, who defeated Milosevic in 2000 and at the time was seen as the new hope for Serbia, previously allied himself with Tadic. But he has become increasingly nationalistic and anti-West in his policies and rhetoric, and is now hopelessly estranged from Tadic and the liberals.
The campaign was especially nasty. Kostunica and other nationalists routinely branded their opponents as "traitors," a particularly evocative insult in Serbia. Tadic received death threats, and graffiti branded him a Judas. Voters also expressed disillusionment with what they thought their embrace of reform would bring them.
"In 2000, the democratic parties promised us honey and milk, but only bad things have been happening ever since," said Miljan Damjanovic, 24, an economist who works for an Internet company and who voted for the Radical Party.
"We need to change something," said Dragan Petrovic, a historian with a PhD who earns $6,500 a year and who voted for Kostunica's party. "You know somebody has been slapping us all the time and was taking our territory away and we keep bowing to him."
For some voters, that sentiment of humiliation was countered by a sense of promise from an alliance with Europe. In recent weeks, Tadic's government found several sweeteners: 17 European countries lifted restrictions on travel visas for Serbs, and Serbia signed a $1-billion deal with Italy's Fiat that promises to rejuvenate the national auto-making industry.
"I want to travel. I want to go to Europe. I don't want to feel inferior," said Olivera Todorovic, 31, a high school teacher who said she was voting for Tadic's coalition.
With Tadic, she said, "at least we will get a bit closer to the EU. We cannot hope for more."
Special correspondent Cirjakovic reported from Belgrade and Times staff writer Wilkinson from Rome.