BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia’s coalition government, torn by division over the loss of Kosovo, was formally dissolved on Monday, opening the way for an early parliamentary election.
The decision was taken at a brief cabinet session following Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica’s Saturday announcement that the government could not stay in office owing to disunity over the conflicting goals of defending Kosovo and joining the European Union.
“The government did not have a united and common policy any more,” a statement said, “and this kept it from performing its basic constitutional function, to define and lead Serbia’s politics.”
President Boris Tadic must now disband parliament and set a date for the election, probably on May 11. It will be the most important election since voters ended the era of the late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.
The vote will be a close race between the Democrats and the nationalist Radicals, the strongest party.
Kostunica, whose party lies a distant third, quit after tacitly accusing his coalition partners, the Democrats and the G17 Plus party, of giving up on Kosovo, the 90-percent ethnic Albanian province which seceded last month with Western backing.
Not all of the 27 EU members have recognized Kosovo, but Brussels is deploying a supervisory mission that will monitor the territory’s progress as an independent state.
Tadic, also the head of the Democrats, said on Sunday that attempts to divide Serbs into patriots and traitors over Kosovo would backfire at the polls. A strong and stable Serbia would be in a better position to defend its interests, he added.
“If we join the EU, then we can make sure that this outlaw state (Kosovo) never becomes an EU member,” he said on a TV talk show.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters that Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic would address an open session of the Security Council on Kosovo on Tuesday at 3:00 p.m. EDT.
The 15-nation council has been deadlocked for months on the situation in Kosovo due to sharp disagreements between Serbia’s ally Russia and fellow permanent council members Britain, France and the United States, which support Pristina.
“We see that things are very wrong (in Kosovo) in a number of respects in terms of the actual situation on the ground, the very difficult relationship between the Serbs in Kosovo and the Albanians in Kosovo,” Churkin said.
Western diplomats said another meeting on Kosovo would change nothing but they were happy to oblige Moscow and Belgrade.
Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said he hoped for a victory for pro-European parties in Serbia’s upcoming election.
“To be quite frank, I don’t think there is any other possibility for our Serbian friends than the European Union. Where should they go?” he said in Brussels on Monday.
Serbia spent almost five months in limbo under a caretaker government in 2007, also under Kostunica, until he and the Democrats hammered out a policy they could both stand by.
Their deep differences meant the government worked in fits and starts, between compromise and crisis, moving slowly on reforms and ending up last in the Balkan queue of EU hopefuls.
Polls indicate the election could produce a hung parliament and a coalition deal might need long negotiations.
Such a delay could stall urgent legislation and the arrest of war crime suspects — a key condition for EU membership. But Kostunica’s officials say the caretaker government will stay firm in its total opposition to independent Kosovo.
“Serbs and other loyal citizens in Kosovo shouldn’t worry,” said Minister for Kosovo Slobodan Samardzic.
Belgrade is instructing Kosovo’s 120,000 remaining Serbs to sever ties with Kosovo’s government and ignore a new EU mission. The Serb-dominated north is a flashpoint for any move towards a de facto partition.
The EU urged the U.N. mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) to step up security along the border with Serbia amid fears of such a partition.
EU diplomats said the bloc would call on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to ensure UNMIK did not slacken in its security duties. U.N. officials said Ban had not received any EU call.
Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, who has warned Belgrade against trying to carve off part of the territory, said on Sunday Kosovo had contributed to Serbia’s democratization.
“In 1999, when we pushed the police, army and administration out of Kosovo, Milosevic’s fall from power started,” he said at a border crossing where he unveiled a ‘Welcome to Kosovo’ sign.
“Now, with Kosovo’s independence, Kostunica has fallen, the mentality of the past has fallen in Serbia.”
Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations and Mark John in Brussels; editing by Mohammad Zargham