BELGRADE, Serbia – Serbia's Balkan neighbors boycotted President Tomislav Nikolic's inauguration on Monday, claiming statements by the new Serbian nationalist leader reignite wartime tensions and cast doubt over his proclaimed pro-European Union goals.
Although invited, the leaders of Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia and Macedonia — the Balkan states that were embroiled in a bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990's — shunned the ceremonies at Belgrade's downtown presidential headquarters after Nikolic denied that the Srebrenica massacre, during which Bosnian Serb forces killed some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995, was genocide.
Europe's worst slaughter of civilians since World War II was proclaimed genocide by the International Court of Justice and a U.N. war crimes court for the former Yugoslavia that convicted several Bosnian Serbs of taking part in the carnage.
The ex-Yugoslav neighbors also are angry about Nikolic's claims that Vukovar, a Croatian town destroyed by Serb forces during Croatia's war for independence in the 1990s, is actually a Serbian city.
Nikolic's recent statements have fueled fears that his surprise victory in a May 20 presidential runoff vote over pro-EU Democratic party leader Boris Tadic may threaten postwar reconciliation in the Balkans — the key condition for Serbia to become a member of the bloc.
"I wanted to send a message (to Nikolic) that his statements about Srebrenica and Vukovar — the statements that remind us of Nikolic from 10-15 years ago — are unacceptable," Bosnia's presidency chairman Bakir Izetbegovic said in Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, on Monday.
"I think that it is important to send such a message straight away because Nikolic is a man who is trying to change. He had changed his rhetoric, but he has to definitely change his attitudes and to prove he had done so by his future statements. We need to help him with that."
Nikolic, a former ultranationalist politician who has claimed to have shifted from being staunchly anti-Western to pro-EU, has somewhat toned down his rhetoric recently, including on Monday after his talks with EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuelle.
In his speech at the ceremony, Nikolic pledged to press on with his pro-EU policies, declaring that "Serbia's road to the EU is the road to the future." He promised to " help Serbia continue on that road."
In an apparent reference to the regional tensions and disagreements over Serbia's role in the war in which some 100,000 people were killed and millions were left homeless, Nikolic said he won't allow "differences over the past to jeopardize our future." He said, "All our differences we will be solves peacefully through dialogue."
Fuelle was the highest ranking official to attend the inauguration. Most of the countries were represented by their ambassadors accredited to Serbia.
Nikolic said Fuelle is a "proven friend of Serbia" and a "man dedicated" to Serbia becoming an EU member.
Fuelle said he was attending Nikolic's inauguration "as an expression of the trust we have in Serbia to remain and advance on the road to the European Union."
"There is a lot of expectation of Serbia continuing to play an important role in the regional cooperation and pushing forward the reconciliation which is that strong bond of the countries in this region," Fuelle said. "I've been very encouraged by the discussion, Mr. President."
AP correspondent Dusan Stojanovic contributed in Belgrade.