|Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of Serbia attended a final preelection rally for his party in Belgrade in January (Getty Images/file)|
BELGRADE - Serbia's government collapsed yesterday over an impasse between the nationalist prime minister and the pro-Western president on how Kosovo's independence affects the Balkan country's pursuit of European Union membership.
"The government, which does not have united policies, cannot function," Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said as he announced the fall of his Cabinet. "That's the end of the government."
Kostunica said he will convene a session of the caretaker government tomorrow, which will propose to President Boris Tadic to dissolve the Parliament and call new elections for May 11.
Tadic said in a statement that he will call early elections because they are a "democratic way to overcome the political crisis." But he disputed Kostunica's suggestion that their clash was over Kosovo, the Serbian medieval heartland that proclaimed independence last month with the backing of the United States and several European Union nations.
"Kosovo is of course an integral part of our country," Tadic said.
"I believe the issue is that the Serbian government does not have a united position over European and economic perspectives of Serbia and its citizens."
Kostunica said the government "will function in a reduced capacity until the elections are held." He insists that EU governments recognizing Kosovo must rescind their decisions before Serbia resumes initial membership talks with the 27-nation bloc. Within his government, Kostunica accuses pro-Western ministers of failing to support his efforts to preserve Kosovo as part of Serbia.
Tadic opposes tying Serbia's EU membership to the issue of Kosovo, which has been recognized as an independent state by several leading European Union nations, including Britain, France, and Germany.
"All parties want Serbia to join the EU, but the question is how - with or without Kosovo," Kostunica said. "There was no united will to clearly and loudly state that Serbia can continue its path toward the EU only with Kosovo."
Mladjan Dinkic, a pro-Western minister, said Kostunica's decision was "honorable, democratic and the only possible solution."
New elections could determine whether Serbia continues toward the EU and Western institutions or takes a more isolationist approach reminiscent of Yugoslavia in the 1990s under the late Slobodan Milosevic.
The Democratic Party, led by Tadic, and the G17 Plus party would be expected during the campaign to highlight the benefits that EU membership will bring to Serbia through investment, jobs, and higher living standards. Kostunica will probably campaign on his record of defending Kosovo and opposing the EU ties as long as the bloc continued to back independence for the territory.
The ultranational Serbian Radical Party has stressed Serbia's strong emotional ties to Kosovo. It also contends that the poor would get relatively few benefits out of membership in EU.
The Serbian government's Cabinet, made up of Kostunica's conservatives and pro-Western democrats, was formed in May, after months of strained negotiations following the last parliamentary elections in January 2007.
Cedomir Jovanovic, leader of the Liberal Party, said the elections should offer a "clear chance to break up with the past policies that have divided the people and pushed it away from the world." Jovanovic called for a new policies on Kosovo and said future government leaders should "tell the truth" about Kosovo and immediately arrest the remaining Serb war crimes fugitives.
Capture of General Ratko Mladic and other suspects still at large from the wars of the 1990s is the condition set by the EU for Serbia's further integration into the bloc. In Kosovo, deputy Prime Minister Hajredin Kuqi expressed hope Serbia's voters will leave the past behind in the new elections. "For Kosovo it is very important to have a government in Serbia that is pro-Western and works for cooperation," he said.