BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia’s neighbors in Croatia, Hungary and Bulgaria dealt a blow to the Serb campaign to overturn Kosovo’s month-old independence on Wednesday by announcing they would recognize the new republic.
In a joint statement issued in Zagreb, Budapest and Sofia, they said the decision was based on “thorough consideration”. They also underlined the importance of protecting the Serb minority in Kosovo’s 90 percent ethnic Albanian republic.
“The government has made a decision to recognize Kosovo,” Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader told reporters.
“I do understand this is a difficult one for Serbia to swallow. That’s one of the reasons we have waited until now. But I don’t expect a worsening of political and economic relations because there is no alternative to good neighborly relations”.
The Croatia mission in Belgrade, near the U.S. embassy which was attacked and burned by Serb protesters last month, was closed for the day behind new steel shutters.
Some Bulgarian families worried about security left Serbia, diplomatic sources said. Police protection at the embassies was at normal levels when the news was broadcast in Serbia.
A Hungarian diplomatic source told Reuters there was concern in Budapest about potential attacks on the ethnic Hungarian minority of some 300,000 in the northern province of Vojvodina.
“Unfortunately, it can happen (but) independent Kosovo is a reality and recognition cannot be avoided,” he said.
Serbia’s pro-Western foreign minister Vuk Jeremic acknowledged the neighbors’ decision “with sadness”.
“Countries that take this decision cannot have good ties with Serbia,” he said in Greece, a traditional ally which has not recognized Kosovo.
Canada announced recognition on Tuesday, reiterating the Western case that forcing its 2 million Albanians to rejoin Serbia after nine years under United Nations rule is not a viable option. Over 30 countries have now recognized Kosovo.
Serbia’s pro-Western President Boris Tadic said this week that ties with Croatia would suffer further. Serbs and Croats fought a war from 1991 to 1995 over the breakup of Yugoslavia.
“We want to have the best possible relations with this country,” Tadic said. “But recognition of Kosovo is certainly not an act of goodwill between neighbors.”
In the Kosovo Serb stronghold Mitrovica, United Nations police returned to the base they were forced to abandon on Monday in the worst riots yet over Kosovo’s independence.
NATO says the violence was orchestrated by the hardline faction in the Serbian government. The Belgrade daily Blic on Wednesday cited sources as saying hardliner Slobodan Samardzic, the minister for Kosovo, had advocated keeping tensions high.
Diplomats say Samardzic had proposed what amounted to the partition of Kosovo but the U.N. administration turned down the idea of allowing Serbia to govern scattered Serb enclaves.
Diplomats said recognition by the neighbors was a wake-up call to Serbia that European recognition of an independent Kosovo was not going away.
Kosovo’s deputy prime minister, Hajredin Kuci, told Reuters it was good news for Kosovo “because we need to have good bilateral relations with them”.
“But at the same time it’s very good for the Serbian perception and the people of Serbia that everybody who is in the neighborhood is recognizing the new reality and they are for regional cooperation and EU integration,” Kuci added.
Serbian neighbors Romania, Bosnia and Macedonia have not yet recognized Kosovo.
And Russia, which is Serbia’s main ally in its struggle against the secession, shows no sign of softening its stance.
Diplomatic sources said Serbia was likely to withdraw its ambassadors temporarily from the latest capitals to recognize Kosovo. But further retaliation was not expected.
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica assured members of the Foreign Investor Council that business would not suffer.
“Further developing economic relations with states with which Serbia has political problems is the message we wanted to hear and the one we’ve got,” a source familiar with the meeting told Reuters. “We’ve got guarantees for the stability and safety for our future business activities.”
Reporting by Igor Ilic, Mark John, David Chance, Ivana Sekularac, Karolos Gohmann, Shaban Buza, Matt Robinson, Gordana Filipovic and Anna Mudeva; Editing by Elizabeth Piper