Serbia's Nikolic rattles Balkans wartime ghosts
(BELGRADE) - Serbia's new President Tomislav Nikolic rattled the Balkans by denying that the 1995 Srebrenica massacre was a genocide, sparking fears of a return to wartime rhetoric in the volatile region.
In an interview broadcast just hours after he was officially sworn in, Nikolic said that the massacre of 8,000 Muslims in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica amounted to "grave war crimes" but not genocide.
The remarks immediately prompted fears from Serbia's neighbours that Nikolic has not really shed his ultranationalist past harking back to the 1990s collapse of the former Yugoslavia.
The Muslim member of Bosnia's presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, said "denying the Srebrenica genocide... is not a step on the road to cooperation" but a "source of new ... tension" in the region.
"Our neighbours expect Nikolic to change his rhetoric and convince everyone that he has moved away from his past positions," Serbian human rights activist Natasa Kandic told AFP.
Until 2008 when he formed his own party, Nikolic -- a onetime ally of late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic -- was the number two in the ultranationalist hardline Radicals whose leader Vojislav Seselj is currently on trial before the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
Since breaking with the Radicals, Nikolic transformed himself from an anti-Western hardliner to a conservative pro-European Union nationalist.
"In this region, the ghosts of the past always reign... The past will follow Nikolic like a shadow," said Bosnian Serb political analyst Tanja Topic.
The fragile process of reconciliation between the former foes from the 1990s Balkan wars -- Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia -- started during the eight-year rule of Nikolic's predecessor Boris Tadic, could slow down, analysts warn.
Although he cautiously avoided using the term genocide in public, Tadic did apologise to Srebrenica victims when he attended the 2005 commemoration of the massacre, the bloodiest episode in the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
"Nikolic has to prove himself... (as a) politician ready to build a better cooperation with Serbia's neighbours," said Croatian daily Jutarnji List in an opinion piece.
The paper warned that the Serbian leader must not count on the Balkans countries forgetting what has happened: "reconciliation should be built on a condemnation of past crimes, not oblivion".
Last week Croatia was shaken by Nikolic's remarks to a German paper that Vukovar -- a town that for many Croats is a symbol of the horrors of the 1991-1995 war with rebel Serbs -- was a "Serb town" and Croat refugees "did not have to return there".
Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said that cooperation with Belgrade "depends on the politics Nikolic will lead" adding that he hopes the Serb leader "will revise his attitudes".
Bosnian analyst Esad Hecimovic warned that Nikolic's remarks on sensitive war-time issues could "hamper political processes in the region and thus stop European integration" of the former Yugoslav republics.
In Kosovo, where tension has remained high since the majority ethnic Albanian leadership unilaterally proclaimed independence from Serbia in 2008, Nikolic's election sparked fears of further deterioration of relations with Belgrade and Kosovo Serbs.
Nikolic was deputy prime minister in Milosevic's government during part of the 1998-99 Serb crack-down on independence seeking Kosovo Albanians.
"We have reason to be concerned about the potential radicalisation of the Serbian policy towards Kosovo," warned analyst Ardian Arifaj in Pristina.
However, analyst Azem Vllasi said Nikolic's mandate "will be marred by his personal struggle between his nationalist beliefs and the new reality."
"I believe he will continue the (EU-brokered) dialogue with Kosovo, not because he likes it but because Europe wants it," Vllasi said.
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