By Ellie Tzortzi
BELGRADE, Jan 14 (Reuters) - Serbia cannot return to the isolation of the 1990s but it must also not sell out on key issues such as Kosovo for the sake of European Union membership, nationalist presidential challenger Tomislav Nikolic said.
Nikolic is expected to have a small lead over pro-Western incumbent Boris Tadic in a Jan. 20 election that will go down to the wire in a second round on Feb 3.
The vote is fought in the shadow of an imminent declaration of independence by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo province, a United Nations protectorate since 1999, when NATO drove out Serb forces accused of atrocities in a counter-insurgency war.
"Our problem is that the EU doesn’t understand how much Kosovo means to us," Nikolic said in a weekend interview. "I’d be first to back EU membership if they treated us like normal people, without conditions that were not set for others."
The EU takes over stewardship of Kosovo in coming weeks. The United States and most EU members are ready to recognise it as independent in the spring over the objections of Serbia and its ally Russia.
His pledge to voters was "no more false promises," Nikolic said, criticizing rivals seeking to be all things to all people.
"They tell the West what it wants to hear, and at home they pretend to be great patriots," he said. "They say we should join NATO, then want Russia’s veto on Kosovo, they want to join the EU and also keep Kosovo. I am not prepared to lie like that."
His vision was of a Serbia balanced between East and West.
"Some say we must shun Russia and only look to the EU," Nikolic said. "But the Europeans themselves do great business with Russia, so I don’t see why Serbia cannot work with both."
NOT ANOTHER MILOSEVIC
The Radical Party emerged as Serbia’s strongest single party in the 1990s, when the country was an international pariah for its role as aggressor in the Yugoslav wars. The party’s official head Vojislav Seselj is still on trial for war crimes.
Nikolic, a lanky 55-year-old with a dry wit, has tried to reposition the party to appeal to moderates, with fiery speeches against corruption and poverty.He rejects the option of war over Kosovo, and Seselj’s image has not featured in his campaign.
He conceded the wartime image still weighed, but said the stereotype of ‘the bad guy’ was due to domestic rivals setting him up as a bogeyman to scare the West into concessions.
He dismissed suggestions that he would return Serbia to the days of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic, a man blamed for wars, repression and economic ruin.
"I think I’ve dispelled fears of war, sanctions, isolation, all that cannot happen again," he said. "I was never a lackey of Milosevic’s regime.
If he wins, he expects a furore, like the Europe-wide alarm that greeted his election as parliament speaker in May. He was voted out after 5 days. But he thinks it will be short-lived, as the West "get to know me as a man they can talk to, work with."
But the West is so worried at the prospect of a Nikolic win that the EU is considering signing a key pre-membership accord with Serbia on Jan. 28 to improve Tadic’s chances in the second round.
The Stabilisation and Association Agreement has been long held up due to Belgrade’s failure to hand over war crimes suspects such as Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic.
Nikolic said a signing would be a ‘marketing ploy’, as Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has indicated he will not ratify it if it meant tacit agreement with the EU’s mission to Kosovo.
"I ask the EU to reconsider," Nikolic said. "Signing the SAA in the middle of the campaign to give Tadic a boost is meddling in our elections. It wouldn’t be a good move, just empty talk."
(Editing by Giles Elgood)