Minister warns of Serb govt crisis if no election

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BELGRADE, Sep 14 (Reuters) Serbia's governing coalition could soon break up if parties do not agree to hold a presidential election this year, Labour Minister Rasim Ljajic was quoted today as saying.

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia and the opposition Radical Party say no vote should be held until the fate of the breakaway Kosovo province is settled.

Instead of being distracted by elections, they say, Serbia should focus on trying to prevent a possible unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo's 90 percent Albanian majority with United States and European Union support.

But Kostunica's coalition partner, President Boris Tadic, does not agree. Despite their coalition, forged specifically to close ranks in the battle for Kosovo, the two men remain rivals.

Tadic's Democrats and other, smaller pro-Western parties want the presidential election held before the end of the year.

''If parties in the ruling coalition do not quickly agree on a date for presidential elections and on a response to a possible unilateral recognition of Kosovo's independence, we will have a serious political crisis which can lead to the fall of the government,'' Ljajic told the Vecernje Novosti newspaper.

Ljajic stopped short of mentioning a scenario aired by many politicians and analysts -- that a government collapse could lead to a new coalition deal between Kostunica and the hardline Radicals, who favour turning Serbia's back on the West to make an alliance with Russia.

''I believe all parties in the ruling coalition should support Tadic as their candidate and that presidential elections should be held by the end of the year,'' said Ljajic, who is from a small party allied to the Democrats.

According to the constitution the presidential election must be scheduled by the end of the year and held within 60 days of that scheduling.

Kostunica has turned to Russia for support in resisting the independence of Kosovo. He has attacked the United States for saying it will recognise independence if a new bid to find an agreed solution, through talks that began last month, fails to find compromise by December 10.

A senior former diplomat, Zivorad Kovacevic, said coalition strains over how to deal with Kosovo were getting out of hand.

''Serbia should neither bend to Russia nor to the United States.

It's an absurd dilemma,'' the former Yugoslav ambassador to the US told the Blic daily.

Kovacevic, who now heads a foreign ministry council set up to guide strategy for the next ten years, said the next election would give voters a say in those decisions.

''Thus far it was unquestionable that the fundamental and long-term orientation of Serbia was European and Atlantic integration. This is now being put in question,'' he said.

REUTERS SBC PM1610

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