(CNN) -- Incumbent Boris Tadic narrowly won a second term as Serbia's president after a runoff Sunday with ultranationalist rival Tomislav Nikolic, according to preliminary figures from election monitors.
Tadic, who supports Serbia's eventual membership in the European Union, edged out Nikolic by a margin of 50.5 percent to 47.9 percent, according to the Belgrade-based Center for Free Elections and Democracy, or CeSID.
Nikolic was an ally of former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic, and he supports closer ties with Russia, Serbia's historical ally. He forced Tadic into a runoff in the first round of voting January 20, leading a field of nine with about 39 percent of the vote.
At stake Sunday was whether Serbia forged closer ties with Europe or embraced the kind of nationalism that fueled the wars that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in 1991. Looming over the campaign was the drive for independence by the Serbian province of Kosovo, which has been under U.N. administration and policed by NATO peacekeepers since 1999.
Both Tadic and Nikolic opposed independence for the majority-Albanian province, which nationalists consider the cradle of Serb civilization. But Jelena Subotic, an analyst at Georgia State University in Atlanta, said the candidates differed in "how they will deal with the political reality."
"What this does, actually, is it allows Tadic a little more breathing room domestically to prepare Serbian public opinion for what is pretty obviously an inevitable conclusion," Subotic told CNN. CNN's Robin Oakley looks at the issues in the election »
A NATO bombing campaign forced a halt to a Serb-led campaign against Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population in 1999, and about 16,000 allied peacekeepers remain in the territory. Leading European Union members and the United States support the territory's independence after years of international administration -- but Russia has objected vociferously to any unilateral declaration, fearing it would encourage other separatist movements in the region.
In December, the full EU stopped short of endorsing independence, but agreed to send an 1,800-member security force to maintain stability there. And last week, the organization offered Serbia a package of incentives as part of a deal to put it on the path toward membership, including closer political ties, a free trade agreement, visa liberalization, and cooperation in education.
But Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, said in December that any expedited steps toward membership also would depend on Serbia's cooperation in the arrest of Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb commander who faces war crimes charges before a U.N. tribunal. E-mail to a friend
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