February 19, 2008 / 6:05 PM / 10 years ago

INTERVIEW-Serb nationalist leader expects Bosnian break-up

By Ellie Tzortzi

BELGRADE, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Western support for Kosovo’s independence gives Bosnian Serbs the right to secede and this could come very soon, the head of Serbia’s strongest party said on Tuesday.

Nationalist Tomislav Nikolic, who narrowly lost to pro-Western Boris Tadic in a presidential election this month, said Belgrade should halt all steps to get closer to the EU, whose main powers have recognised Serbia’s breakaway province.

"We must see who is our friend, and who isn‘t," the opposition Radical Party leader told Reuters in an interview. "We must put on hold our relations with the European Union and all countries that recognise Kosovo’s independence."

"We should make no gestures to suggest we recognise Kosovo," he said. "Talks (on closer ties) with the EU would be seen as accepting independence."

The issue risks tearing apart Serbia’s ruling coalition, which is divided over how to respond to Monday’s Western recognition of Kosovo, a U.N. ward for nearly nine years.

Nikolic predicted that the biggest fallout from Kosovo’s secession on Sunday would be in Bosnia, which was split into Serbian and Muslim-Croat halves after the 1992-95 war. "Bosnia’s Serb Republic was always more of a state than Kosovo," he said. "Why shouldn’t it have the right to a referendum and secession, how can the EU say they’re not entitled? I expect it (secession) will happen very soon." Worried about their own restive ethnic minorities, Spain and some smaller EU countries will not recognise Kosovo. Serbia’s ex-Yugoslav neighbours are also cautious, weary of damaging ties that are only now healing after a decade of war in the 1990s.

The Radicals’ official leader, Vojislav Seselj, in on trial at the Hague for inciting murder and expulsion of non-Serbs from Croatia and Bosnia in his quest for a "Greater Serbia".

Nikolic said if Croatia recognised Kosovo it could reopen wounds over the fate of ethnic Serbs who fled there in 1995. Commenting on violent protests in Serb-held northern Kosovo after the declaration of independence, Nikolic said he saw little prospect of Serbs living well in an Albanian state.

"Albanians don’t want to live with Serbs, they want an ethnically cleansed state," he said -- using a term first coined by Bosnian Serb leaders in the war.

He said Serbia would never support a partition that annexes northern Kosovo to Serbia, as this would legitimise the loss of the rest of the province.

Belgrade should pay Serbs a "national salary" so they could stay living as a minority in Kosovo, Serbia’s religious heartland.

"If there are no Serbs left in Kosovo, there will be no reason to keep fighting for our rights as a nation," Nikolic said. (Editing by Richard Meares)

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