During his first foreign trip as president, Tomislav Nikolić told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Saturday that Serbia is on a “long and uncertain” path to joining the European Union and will not surrender its claim to breakaway province Kosovo for the sake of membership.
The nationalist Nikolić was elected earlier this month in a runoff election against liberal leader Boris Tadić. Tadić could yet become prime minister because his pro-European Democratic Party did win a parliamentary majority.
On the campaign trail, Nikolić proclaimed himself in favor of membership. “The European Union is our goal,” he said. “We want the EU if the EU wants us.” Members of his populist Serbian Progressive Party were loyal to President Slobodan Milošević during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s however, sparking fears in the West that he will take the country in a more pro-Russian direction.
Although recognition of Kosovo, which has a majority ethnic Albanian population, as an independent state is not a condition for Serbian membership, Brussels does urge Belgrade to “normalize relations” with its former southern province. Serbia considers the region the cradle of Serb civilization. Even Tadić ruled out ever giving it up.
Russia as well as five European Union members do not recognize Kosovo as a sovereign country. Most European states, Turkey and the United States do.
Kosovo tried to assert independence in the late 1990s which prompted the Milošević government in Belgrade to send in military forces to suppress the uprising. NATO responded by bombing the Serbs which compelled them to withdraw their troops and accept a ten year period of United Nations administration in the territory.
Russia criticized NATO’s bombing campaign of Serbia in 1999 and shares an ethnic and religious heritage with the country. “We see Serbia as our spiritual brothers,” is how Putin put it on Saturday.