Serb minister elected next General Assembly head

The U.N. General Assembly on Friday elected Serbia's foreign minister as president of its next session, a sign of his country's rehabilitation on the world stage after the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Vuk Jeremic, the first Serb to hold a top U.N. post, defeated Lithuania's U.N. Ambassador Dalius Cekuolis by a vote of 99-85 on the first ballot after an intense behind-the-scenes campaign. There was one abstention and several absentees in the 193-member world body.

"A painful era has now come to an end," Jeremic said. "Today our nation can proudly stand before the world again."

The one-year presidency of the General Assembly rotates among regions, and this was the first contested election since 1991. Usually, a region puts forward a single candidate, but this year Eastern Europe had two contenders.

It was not immediately clear whether the 36-year-old Jeremic would be the youngest president of the General Assembly when he takes over from Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser of Qatar on Sept. 18 at the start of the 67th session.

Unlike the more powerful 15-member Security Council, whose decisions are legally binding, the General Assembly's resolutions carry no legal force, but it is the world's primary forum for debate. It adopts new treaties, controls the U.N. budget and decides how much each nation should contribute.

Jeremic told diplomats he viewed his election primarily as a tribute to the people of Serbia.

Looking back at the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, he said the "ferocious internal strife, the ensuing devastation and fratricide left deep wounds in their wake."

Jeremic said Serbia, once the largest of Yugoslavia's republics which became a U.N. member in 2000, has in the past few years offered "a hand of friendship and reconciliation" to its neighbors.

Jeremic, who has been foreign minister for the past five years, has been a frequent visitor to the United Nations, appearing before the U.N. Security Council on numerous occasions when it has taken up Kosovo. The former Serb province declared its independence in 2008, but Serbia does not recognize Kosovo's secession.

Serbia has close cultural and political ties to Russia, and diplomats pointed to Moscow's support for Jeremic as a key to his victory. Last week, Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said he was sure Jeremic would be elected.

Cekuolis angered Russia at the General Assembly during its commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2010 when he said the war's end "did not bring freedom to our nation."

"It resulted in new Soviet occupation and annexation," he said. "My country fell under a totalitarian regime, Soviet communism."