Supporters of ultra-nationalist Serbian presidential candidate Tomislav Nikolić show their
colours in a spirited final rally before Sunday’s election

As the crowd in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, waved heart-shaped balloons and clapped their hands, a parade of stiletto-heeled singers crooned folk songs to an accordion-led band.

Humming along was Ljubivoje Rajković, a 55-year-old farmer who hoped elections on Sunday would give Serbia a new president who could restore the country to what he called "its rightful glory".

"Poverty," says Rajković, summing up in a single word the reason he and more than 20,000 others had come to cheer Tomislav Nikolić, the ultra-nationalist presidential candidate for the Serbian Radical Party, at his final pre-election rally.

"In Serbia's towns and villages, we [the workers] have been forgotten."

Rajković says life has only got harder since 2000, when Slobodan Milošević, the former president was removed from power by popular pro-democratic street demonstrations.

Milošević was later indicted for crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the Balkans war in the early 1990s and died during trial at The Hague in 2006.

While the European Union credits Milošević's exit as the catalyst for ending Serbia's international isolation following the war in Bosnia and Croatia, workers like Rajković have watched inflation soar and their earnings lose purchasing power.

Once a construction worker in Belgrade, Rajković now scratches out a living on a small patch of land near the town of Požarevac.

Times are so hard that his son-in-law has left for Austria, where he has engaged in a fake marriage in order to secure a residence permit.

"Things have hit the hardest point, the worst since [Josip Broz] Tito's time," he says, referring to the former Yugoslavian dictator who died in 1980.

"People are desperate for some change for the better otherwise they will take their guns and go to the woods again."

Serbia's crossroads

Ljubivoje Rajković hopes his support for 
Nikolić will restore Serbia to former glories
But for the moment, in the packed Belgrade Arena, normally host to rock concerts and basketball games, the mood among Nikolić supporters is jubilant.

The crowd at the arena is a mixed group: teenagers with pierced eyebrows and grey-haired men in traditional Serbian hats with buttons bearing the image of war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladić.

Like Rajković, though, many are poor and unemployed.

The Serbian economy has been growing steadily in recent years and the signs of rising prosperity are evident across Belgrade. Giant construction cranes dot the skyline and new cafés are appearing on street corners.

But many of Nikolić's supporters feel they have been left behind by the new economy.

"Money has become so important, the focus of everything," says Gordana Ranković, an unemployed 37-year-old nurse and mother of two.

"But salaries are very low. And you need lots of money to school your children."

Resurgent nationalism

Nikolić is running a close race against
pro-Western incumbent Tadić
It is this economic disenfranchisement that is helping to fuel a resurgence of Serbian nationalism. 

Nikolić, once an ally of Milošević but later a political rival, has seen his popularity soar on this nationalistic trend.

In the first round of the presidential elections held on January 21, Nikolić won nearly 40 per cent of the vote.

Polls indicate his rival, the pro-Western incumbent Boris Tadić, has a slight edge in Sunday's run-off, but analysts say the race is too close to call.

Many Serbs see this election for the largely ceremonial post of president as a referendum on whether the country opts for European Union membership or closer ties with Russia; multi-ethnic inclusiveness or nationalism.

The US and many European countries also fear that Serbia will respond more harshly to Kosovo's declaration of independence if Nikolić is elected and that the issue could derail efforts to bring the country closer into the European fold.

Destination: Europe

Dolovac Aldin (r) believes Serbia's
future lies in the EU

While the economy has been the single most important issue for Nikolić's supporters, campaigners for Boris Tadić, the incumbent president seeking a second term, say the best hope for an economic turnaround is for Serbia to join the EU.

They say this should be the country's top priority.

Dolovac Aldin, a 19-year-old who just graduated from high school, is voting in his first presidential election. For him, the choice is clear - Tadić and a European future in which he and his friends will be able to work and travel in the European Union.

"There are people who want Serbia to go backward," he told Al Jazeera.

"Mostly it is older voters. The young people support Tadić because he will create more jobs, bring us into Europe."

Aldin believes that turning westward will further bring Serbia out of its isolation and allow it to move beyond its image - once vilified for the war in Bosnia and Croatia - and into a more liberal future. He says the new promises by the European Union that visa restrictions will be dropped are evidence that Tadic is leading Serbia in the right direction.

Same 'ol rhetoric

In rhetoric, at least, Tadić and Nikolić sound quite alike. Both candidates say they want to join the European Union, but maintain strong ties with Russia. Both promise never to accept an independent Kosovo, although they jointly rule out a military response to a declaration of independence.

But the subtle differences in their positions are telling. Tadić's campaign slogan promises "we'll conquer Europe together", while a video at Nikolić's rally played up his recent trip to Russia. And in an interview with Al Jazeera, Nikolić said Russia was a more reliable ally for Serbia.

He said: "I see both Russia and the EU working with Serbia, but Russia is the more acceptable partner, not just because it offers better economic opportunities, but because it makes no pre-conditions."

"The EU sometimes pushes Serbia away by asking for conditions which no elected Serbian government can fulfill."

Kosovo

Tadić, a pro-west candidate, believes joining
the EU is key to Serbia's prosperity 
Accepting an independent Kosovo is one such demand.

Both candidates make a point of sounding tough on the issue, while quietly acknowledging there is little they can do to stop a declaration of independence by the ethnically Albanian-dominated province or its recognition by many western countries.

And most voters, in both camps, accept that; no one has an appetite for a return to war.

"Of course Kosovo should stay part of Serbia. Serbian blood was spilled there," said Ranković. She shrugged. "But what can we do? It’s inevitable."

Jelena Marković, a spokeswoman for Tadić's Democratic Party, put it more bluntly.

"They are aware that Kosovo is lost for Serbia," she said.

But the Kosovo issue remains an important rallying point, especially for the Radical Party whose final rally was full of nostalgic references to the region, which many Serbs see as the historic and cultural heart of their people.

"Who can tear Kosovo away from my soul?" the folk singers sang in medley, to cheers.

"Serbia, Serbia," chanted the crowd. 

Source: Al Jazeera