BELGRADE, Serbia – Serbia's new nationalist president has been in office for less than a week and he's already rocking fragile Balkan stability and casting doubt over his proclaimed pro-European Union policies.
Tomislav Nikolic, a former ultranationalist ally of Serbia's wartime leader Slobodan Milosevic, revived ethnic tensions in the still volatile region by stating that the Srebrenica massacre, in which Bosnian Serb forces killed some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995, was not genocide but a "grave crime."
"There was no genocide in Srebrenica," Nikolic told Montenegro state TV last week.
Europe's worst slaughter of civilians since World War II was proclaimed genocide both by the International Court of Justice and a U.N. war crimes court for the former Yugoslavia that has convicted several Bosnian Serbs for taking part in the carnage.
In Brussels, the office of EU's Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton condemned Nikolic's comments Monday, saying that "the EU strongly rejects any intention to rewrite history." Spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said that "the massacre in Srebrenica was a genocide ... a crime against all of humankind.
"We should never forget and it should never be allowed to happen again."
Nikolic also told a German newspaper that Croatia's border town of Vukovar, which was bombed to the ground by the Serb-led army during the country's war for independence in 1992, was in fact a "Serb town."
The statements were reminiscent of the war era of the 1990s, when Milosevic launched the wars in Croatia and Bosnia to create a pan-Serbian state after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. They fueled fears that Nikolic's surprise victory over liberal Boris Tadic in a May 20 presidential runoff vote will threaten the volatile process of postwar reconciliation in the Balkans — one of the main conditions set by the EU for Serbia to become a member.
The war in the former Yugoslavia claimed more than 100,000 lives and left millions homeless. The United States and its EU allies have sought to foster harmony in the region, encouraging the Balkan states to put the past behind them and work together to join the EU.
While campaigning, Nikolic — a former right-wing extremist who supported Milosevic's war campaigns — claimed to have become a conservative populist who supports Serbia's integration into the EU. But his resurgent nationalism has triggered alarm in the region and could derail Serbia's EU membership bid.
Bakir Izetbegovic, one of Bosnia's three presidents, said that Nikolic's remarks are "an insult to the victims" of the 1995 Srebrenica killings.
The comments "cast a shadow and seriously brought into question his publicly proclaimed pro-European rhetoric and statements in which he supported regional cooperation," said Izetbegovic, who represents Bosnia's Muslims. He added that "unfortunately, Nikolic has shown that he is not ready to face the events of the recent past."
A prominent Serbian human rights group, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, demanded that Nikolic apologize to the families of the Srebrenica victims. The group said that Nikolic's remarks "added uncertainty to future of the regional relations."
Serbia had slowly started to shake off its troublemaker image under Tadic, who championed the country's pro-EU reforms.
During his eight years in office, Tadic had moved to mend ties with both Croatia and Bosnia. He visited Srebrenica and apologized for the massacre, and parliament passed a declaration condemning the killings. Nikolic now says he won't apologize over Srebrenica.
"If Boris Tadic, the (former) Serbian president, has already been to Srebrenica, if he condemned the crime in Srebrenica, if the Serbian parliament has done the same, then why would I revive that issue again?" Nikolic asked.
While taking important steps on the road to the EU, Tadic fell victim to Serbia's economic crisis and plummeting living standards. Nikolic campaigned on promises of reviving the economy and fighting corruption.
Tadic is still hoping to forge a pro-EU government with Socialist allies and a liberal group, which would sideline Nikolic as a figurehead president because the post of the prime minister is more powerful than that of president.
During his inauguration Thursday, Nikolic pledged to maintain friendly relations with Croatia and Bosnia. But he reiterated that Serbia should abandon its EU ambitions if it means giving up its claim on Kosovo — the former province that declared independence in 2008.
Nikolic said cooperation with Croatia will be "very much welcome and open."
But Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said that Nikolic still needs to revise his wartime stands.
"Once it is clear that Mr. Nikolic is firmly on that road, there will be no obstacle for cooperation," Josipovic said. "But this needs to be shown and proven."
Associated Press correspondent Dusan Stojanovic contributed.