The violence in northern Kosovo around a barricade-clearing operation conducted as Serbia’s new president Tomislav Nikolić was sworn in was a “baptism of fire” for him,Belgrade political scientist Predrag Simić said – while Nikolić threw a few sparks of his own with controversial comments about neighbouring countries.
Simić made the remarks in an interview with Serbian news agency Beta, saying that the June 1 operation by peacekeeping force Kfor was “absolutely connected” with Nikolić’s oath-taking.
The operation “represents some sort of pressure that should determine Nikolić and the future Serbian government’s bad starting position,” Simić said.
When it became clear that Nikolić had won the presidential election, defeating Boris Tadić, influential voices in the European Union on Balkan issues urged a “good neighbourliness” policy.
On May 21, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton congratulated Tadić (who while ousted as president appeared set for the prime minister’s post, with his party seen as most able to form a workable coalition) for everything that Tadić “helped achieve during his time in office, both in European integration and in regional reconciliation”.
Ashton said that the EU looked forward to the early resumption of work in parliament and the rapid formation of a new government committed to reforms and continued European integration.
“Serbia needs a strong government and parliamentary majority to achieve the economic progress its people desire and the European integration that they aspire to. Neither is possible without difficult reforms and political courage,” Ashton said.
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov, who has made the European integration of the Western Balkans a keynote theme of his ministry, said that Bulgaria looked forward to the rapid formation of a workable and viable government that would accelerate Serbia’s European integration process and that would continue the ongoing reforms in the interest of the country’s citizens.
“Bulgaria supports the European perspective of Serbia as well as the deepening of good-neighbourly relations and co-operation on all fronts,” Mladenov said.
The new Serbian authorities faced, he said, a decisive phase in the initiation of negotiations on EU membership “and we expect the newly elected president and parliament to continue the previous efforts in this regard”.
Nikolić would have a key role in this process, Mladenov said.
Bulgaria expected the achievement of further progress in dialogue with Priština, which will lead to a sustainable improvement of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, and a further strengthening of regional stability, said Mladenov, who in a message similar to that sent by Ashton, thanked Tadić, “who, during his term, has done much for the European orientation of Serbia and good-neighbourly relations with Bulgaria”.
Nikolić, on his path to victory in the presidential elections, sought to move away from his hard-line image towards a more pro-European position, although after his victory he made it clear that while the EU was important to him, Serbia was more important.
A keen Russophile at the head of a country that has Moscow as its most ardent backer in its rejection of Kosovo’s independence, Nikolić was nonetheless scheduled to make his first official visit outside the country as head of state to Brussels – although shortly after his election and pending his swearing-in, he made a trip to the Russian capital for a bonding experience with Putin’s and Medvedev’s United Russia party.
But aside from questions of the balance in the relationship between Belgrade and Brussels, it was Nikolić’s reported statements on countries in the neighbourhood that caused the greatest stir.
In Georgia, there was concern – based on previous statements by the new Serbian president – that Belgrade would recognise Georgia’s breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Speaking in an interview with the Voice of Russia on May 26, Nikolić, while reiterating his adamant rejection of independence for Kosovo, said that Abkhazia and South Ossetia “deserve independence”.
He drew a sharp reaction from leaders of Croatia by reportedly expressing regret, in an interview with German media, that his dream of a greater Serbia could not be fulfilled and reportedly referred to Croatia’s Vukovar as a Serbian town. Nikolić denied having made the remarks but the German reporter stuck to his story.
According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Nikolić said in a May 29 interview, “I recognise Montenegro’s existence forever, but I do not recognise the difference between Serbs and Montenegrins.”
Nikolić went on to reject the description of the Srebrenica massacre as an act of genocide, while saying that it was a war crime.
According to Montenegrin state television, as reported by Reuters, Nikolić said, “There was no genocide in Srebrenica. In Srebrenica, grave war crimes were committed by some Serbs who should be found, prosecuted and punished …It is very difficult to indict someone and prove before a court that an event qualifies as genocide.”
Bakir Izetbegovic, the Muslim co-chairman of the Bosnia and Herzegovina presidency, said in a statement that “The denial of genocide in Srebrenica … will not pave the way for co-operation and reconciliation in the region, but on the contrary may cause fresh misunderstandings and tensions”.
It was, however, the day of his swearing-in – Nikolić is due to be inaugurated formally on June 11 and his scheduled trip to European Union headquarters is three days later – that brought the question of relations with Kosovo into immediate sharp focus, if that was needed given the issue’s core place in Serbia’s Euro-integration process.
Nikolić, in a June 1 call for calm, also spoke to Radio Television of Serbia about the dialogue with Kosovo, saying that “continuation of talks with Priština was the only way to finally see what has been agreed on (previously) and what the interim institutions in Priština have been doing beyond the scope of the agreements”.
The dialogue between Belgrade and Priština on practical issues, brokered by the EU, has widely been seen by those who favour progress towards the EU by the Western Balkans as a strongly positive development. As the election mood recedes and the Nikolić presidency gets down to business in the initial phases of its five-year term, all eyes will be on how the dialogue issue is handled.