Serbia’s new president seeks EU answers on Kosovo
BELGRADE, June 8 — Serbia's new nationalist president said today he wants to know beyond a shadow of a doubt whether recognising the independence of Kosovo is a quid pro quo for European Union membership.
Setting a combative tone before his first foreign trip as president, Tomislav Nikolic (picture) told the state news agency Tanjug he was going to Brussels on June 14 not for “instructions, demands or a slap on the wrist”.
“Since they will ask me for straight answers to many questions, I also expect straight answers to questions that I'll raise,” Nikolic said.
“In Brussels I expect to finally find out what no one in Serbia has ever heard: does the EU insist that Serbia accept the independence of Kosovo in order to continue its path to the EU?”
Once the political understudy to firebrand ultranationalist leader and war crimes defendant Vojislav Seselj, Nikolic says he has given up the dream of a 'Greater Serbia' that fuelled the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and now shares the goal of EU accession.
But Western diplomats fear he could take a harder line than his predecessor, liberal Boris Tadic, on the thorny issue of Kosovo, a majority-Albanian territory that declared independence from Serbia in 2008 with Western backing.
Tadic is manoeuvering to take the more powerful post of prime minister at the helm of a new reformist coalition government after an inconclusive May 6 election. But as president, Nikolic will be able to influence government policy on Kosovo and steer debate.
Both Nikolic and Tadic say they would never recognise Kosovo, which many Orthodox Serbs regard as the cradle of their nation.
But the EU is pressing the two countries to cooperate and for Belgrade to loosen its hold on a Serb-populated slice of northern Kosovo, a de facto ethnic partition that the West said it would never allow.
Nikolic was in government with late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 1999 when NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days to halt the killing and expulsion of Kosovo Albanians during a two-year Serb counter-insurgency war.
His surprise defeat of Tadic on May 20 sent a chill through a region still coming to terms with the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, when over 125,000 people died in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.
The EU made clear he was on probation, and has already criticised the new president for saying in a television interview that the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Serb forces in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995 was a “grave crime” but not genocide.
The 27-member bloc, itself divided on the issue of Kosovo independence, has not explicitly called on Belgrade to accept Kosovo as sovereign.
But Western diplomats say Serbia's path to eventual EU membership will require concessions that would imply de facto recognition of the impoverished country of 1.7 million people.
To clinch EU candidate status in March, the last Serbian government struck a series of deals on recognition of Kosovo travel documents, car licence plates and the country's representation in regional conferences.
“It seems to me that we have consciously taken part in some kind of unspoken movement towards independence, resolving certain issues that relate to the so-called independent state of Kosovo,” Nikolic told Tanjug. — Reuters