World Bulletin / News Desk
Croatia's president said on Wednesday he would not attend the inauguration of his new Serbian counterpart next week in the first sign of regional fallout from the election of nationalist Tomislav Nikolic.
Last month's surprise election of Nikolic, long depicted in the West as the ideological heir to late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic, sent a chill through a region still coming to terms with the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, in which over 125,000 people died.
The European Union, which Nikolic says he wants Serbia to join, made clear he was on probation. Brussels hopes a coalition government currently being negotiated - with liberal leader Boris Tadic possibly in the more powerful post of prime minister - will be able to keep Nikolic in check.
Nikolic immediately stirred controversy by denying that the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica was genocide and by saying the Croatian border town of Vukovar "was a Serb town".
"Our relations with Serbia have been improving in recent years and I want this trend to continue," Croatian President Ivo Josipovic told reporters. "Unfortunately, for reasons I have already explained, I cannot go to the inauguration, but I want this trend to continue," he said.
Josipovic had earlier told Reuters he would only go to Monday's ceremony in Belgrade if Nikolic renounced his past ultranationalist rhetoric.
Vukovar was reduced to rubble during a three-month siege by Serb militia and the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army at the start of Croatia's war of independence in 1991.
The Croatian leader, whose country joins the EU next year, told the Anatolia news agency: "Unfortunately, the views he held before, and which he repeated in his first comments, from Vukovar being a Serb town to Srebrenica not being genocide, are far from reflecting European values."
The Muslim chairman of Bosnia's rotating presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, was also expected to stay away from the inauguration. An official in Izetbegovic's cabinet said he had not yet received an invitation but had other engagements on Monday anyway.
Izetbegovic had hit out at Nikolic for a television interview last week in which he said the Srebrenica massacre, the worst mass killing in Europe since World War Two, did not constitute genocide, despite rulings by the Hague-based U.N. war crimes tribunal for the ex-Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice that it did.
The EU, which is weighing up whether to open membership talks with Serbia, condemned the remark and the U.S. State Department said on Tuesday it was deplorable.
"President Nikolic has an opportunity to set a constructive tone within the region, but such unfounded statements about Srebrenica and other war crimes are counter-productive to promoting stability and reconciliation in the region," it said.
A former cemetery manager nicknamed "Gravedigger," Nikolic was propelled to victory by Serb frustration over economic stagnation, high unemployment and the perceived cronyism of Tadic's Democratic Party.
One month since an inconclusive May 6 parliamentary election, Tadic said on Wednesday he was days away from securing a majority in the 250-seat parliament.
Parties have until September to produce a deal or hold new polls.