BELGRADE, January 21 (RIA Novosti) - The nationalist Tomislav Nikolic appears to have won the first round of Serbia's presidential elections, but will face a runoff, according to preliminary results in Sunday's poll.
With 76% of votes counted, Nikolic leads with about 40% of the vote. The country's current leader, President Boris Tadic, is in second place with just over 35%. The election commission said that final results were likely to remain largely unchanged.
To become president, a candidate needs to gain more than 50% of the vote. The second round of voting is scheduled for February 3.
Turnout was high, with over 60% of eligible voters casting their votes in the polls, which took place at a time of rising tension over the future of Serbia's predominantly-Albanian breakaway province of Kosovo.
Both Tadic and Nikolic are opposed to Kosovo's strive for independence, offering the region a broad autonomy within Serbia. Kosovo Albanian leaders, backed by the majority of Western nations, have pledged to declare independence in the near future.
Both frontrunners were upbeat about their chances of eventual victory in the polls.
"I am looking forward to the second round, and I am absolutely convinced of victory," Tadic said, adding that, "I will not permit pessimism to rule Serbia again ... I will not allow my opponent Tomislav Nikolic to be president. I will not allow us to return to the 1990s."
A one-time ally of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader who led the country into war and international isolation, culminating in the NATO bombing of the country in 1999, Nikolic favors membership in the European Union for his country, but says ties with fellow Slavs and Orthodox believers in Russia are more important.
"Serbia has responded to our drive for change. We have created conditions for victory in the runoff," said Nikolic, deputy head of the Radical Party.
Russia, which has threatened to block any UN Security Council resolution granting Kosovo sovereignty and has insisted on a further search for a compromise, welcomed the preliminary poll results.
"The results of the first round of the elections reflect the Serbian people's will," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, adding that Moscow would now wait for the Serbian people's ultimate decision in the runoff
As Serbia voted, an explosion went off in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, in area where many diplomatic missions are located. Four people were reported to have been hospitalized with minor injuries, police said, adding that shooting was heard after the blast.
No foreign embassies were damaged in the explosion, police reported on Monday. No group has so far claimed responsibility.