Just days after Serbia became a candidate for EU membership, the country's president called for parliamentary elections to be held May 6, setting up a showdown between the ruling Democratic Party and nationalists likely to mount a strong challenge.
Boris Tadic signed a decree setting the key vote for the 250-seat national assembly. Serbia's parliament speaker also scheduled local municipal elections for the same day.
Tadic's ruling pro-EU coalition is blamed by nationalists for deep economic problems, rising unemployment and corruption. Serbia formally became a European Union membership candidate this month.
Tadic's Democratic Party is trailing opposition nationalist Serbian Progressive Party of Tomislav Nikolic by a few percentage points in all pre-election polls. But Tadic is likely to get a majority parliamentary support from smaller parties to form a new government after the vote.
After the announcement of the elections, Tadic urged the Serbian citizens to vote in large numbers and said the future government should be formed immediately after the election so that it would tackle Serbia's many problems.
"The future government will have to make tough and complex decisions to secure a better future for the citizens," he said.
Tadic chose the EU path, even when his pro-Western policies suffered a major setback in Serbia with the 2008 declaration of independence by former province of Kosovo, which was supported by the U.S. and majority of EU countries.
Tadic is blamed by ultranationalists for selling off Kosovo — considered the cradle of Serbian statehood and religion — at the expense of uncertain and distant EU membership goals.
Tadic recently said the vote "will be crucial in preventing the people who created violence and self-destruction from coming back to power." That was a clear reference to Nikolic, a former ally of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who was ousted from power in 2000 after his nationalist policies triggered wars in the Balkans in the 1990s.
"They could set the entire democratic process that began in 2000 in a backward direction," Tadic told his party leadership over the weekend.
However, Nikolic's populists have capitalized on widespread discontent with falling living standards amid the global economic crisis.
"The most important thing for the Serbian Progressive Party in the next election will be economy, development of Serbia, investments and employment, something the current government was unable to solve," said the deputy leader of the Progressives, Aleksandar Vucic.
In recent years, Nikolic has succeeded in attracting disenchanted Serbs by railing against corruption and social injustice, while distancing himself from the founder of the Serbian Radicals, Vojislav Seselj, who is standing a war crimes trial at a U.N. war crimes tribunal in the Netherlands.
In the process of his political transformation from a hard-liner to a moderate nationalist, Nikolic has claimed to have shifted from staunchly anti-Western, to pro-EU.
Nikolic and his party appear to be Kremlin's choice for Serbia's new leaders. He made several recent trips to Moscow for consultations with top Russian officials.
Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.