Serbia pledges support for single Bosnia amid secessionist rhetoric

SARAJEVO Tue May 13, 2014 11:49am EDT

A Bosnian and Herzegovina national flag is seen on a damaged government building in Sarajevo February 8, 2014. REUTERS/Antonio Bronic

A Bosnian and Herzegovina national flag is seen on a damaged government building in Sarajevo February 8, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Antonio Bronic

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SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Serbia's new prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, pledged support for neighboring Bosnia's integrity on Tuesday, making clear Belgrade would not encourage calls by Bosnian Serbs for a Crimean-style secession of their half of the country.

Vucic, a former ultra-nationalist who has converted to the pro-EU cause, was sworn in as prime minister on April 27. He has announced deep economic reforms and a drive to get Serbia into the European Union after his Progressive Party scored a landslide victory in a March election.

Sarajevo was chosen as his first stop abroad to show Belgrade's shift from its nationalist rhetoric of the 1990s, when Serbia supported its ethnic kin against the Muslim Bosniaks and Croats during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia.

The U.S.-sponsored Dayton peace accords ended the conflict, splitting the country into two autonomous regions, the Serb Republic - or Republika Srpska - and the Federation, dominated by Bosniaks and Croats.

"I came to visit Sarajevo and Bosnia as a friend ... representing a country that respects Bosnia's territorial integrity, which respects Republika Srpska, the Dayton agreement, all the people who live here," Vucic told a news conference.

In the Serb Republic, however, President Milorad Dodik has been calling for the country's secession. Neither region has the right to break away under the Dayton treaty, but Dodik has intensified his threats about an independence referendum, after Crimea seceded from Ukraine in a referendum and joined Russia.

Most analysts say his rhetoric is intended primarily to mobilize voters before a general election in October.

Serbia, which fomented the wars in the former Yugoslavia, has swung behind the goal of EU membership since the fall of strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. It does not want to be seen as encouraging Bosnia's breakup.

"Nobody can destroy either Bosnia-Herzegovina or Republika Srpska," Vucic said. "The stability of the whole region is important for us."

Bosnia's Prime Minister Vjekoslav Bevanda, a Croat, said that meeting confirmed good relations between the two neighbors. "Our common assessment is that we need to look forward and close the divides of the past," he said.

Bosnian Serbs have resisted any reforms at the central level, which they see as infringing on their autonomy. That has slowed progress towards the European Union and NATO, which two other former Yugoslav republics, Croatia and Slovenia, have already joined.

(Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Zoran Radosavljevic and Larry King)

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