(CNN) -- The runoff for the Serbian presidency on February 3 between Tomislav Nikolic and Boris Tadic is far more than just another battle for local power between two veteran politicians.
Serbia's voters face a choice between incumbent president Boris Tadic, left, and challenger Tomislav Nikovic.
It is a contest which could help to determine the future of the Balkans and which could have a significant knock-on effect in relations between Russia and the European Union.
Both men oppose the plan by the UN-administered Serbian province of Kosovo -- where the Prime Minister is now the former Kosovo Liberation Army chief Hasim Thaci -- to declare independence soon after the Serbian presidency contest is decided.
Like most Serbs, Nikolic and Tadic see Kosovo as the cradle of their culture, religion and identity even though its population is now 90 per cent Albanian. But the two would be likely to take Serbia in different directions when Kosovo does declare its independence.
The western-leaning Tadic, president since he defeated Nikolic in the 2004 run-off, has worked steadily to lead Serbia towards European Union membership.
While no Serbian president could afford to be seen taking Kosovan independence lightly, he would not want to burn any European bridges.
Though there would be a rough ride for a period, if he were re-elected as president then Tadic would remind Serbs of the economic advantages of pursuing a European future.
He would receive practical support from an EU which sees eventual Serbian membership as the key to permanent stabilization of the Balkans.
Nikolic, a hardline nationalist who was an ally of Slobodan Milosevic, is standing in as head of the Serbian Radical Party for Vojislav Seselj, still on trial at the Hague for alleged war crimes.
Though he says he would cooperate with the EU, Nikolic would be more inclined to exploit any nationalist backlash against EU countries recognizing Kosovan independence.
He would reaffirm Serbia's traditional links with Russia, which is backing its case against Kosovan independence and warning that it would make sure that an independent Kosovo would never get UN membership.
Nikolic has also made clear he would be unlikely to press for efforts to find General Ratko Mladic, wanted at the Hague for war crimes such as the Srebrenica massacre, which the EU has made a condition for further progress towards Serbian membership of the 27-nation club.
Although the presidency is largely a ceremonial position, the president is head of the armed services. And while Tadic has said that Serbia will "not resort to violence and war" over Kosovo, Nikolic has indicated in the past that he could support military intervention in the event of a Kosovar breakaway.
February 3 therefore becomes a crucial choice not just for Serbians but for many across the Balkans who fear a further decade of instability and economic stagnation.
The EU, Russia and the United States, which is backing early Kosovan independence, will all be watching closely. E-mail to a friend
All About Serbia • Kosovo • European Union • Russia