BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia swore in President Boris Tadic on Friday, two days before Kosovo proclaims independence, the country’s most traumatic moment since it was bombed by NATO in 1999 to end ethnic cleansing in the province.
“I will never give up fighting for our Kosovo and I will, with all my might, fight for Serbia to join the European Union,” said Tadic, who narrowly won re-election this month against a hardline nationalist candidate.
Kosovo, a mountain-ringed province, is steeped in Serb myth and now home to 2 million Albanians, a 90 percent majority.
Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who eclipsed pro-Western Tadic to become the undisputed defender of Serbian sovereignty, told Serbs on Thursday the loss of Kosovo was “about to become a reality” that he could not stop, but would never accept.
Most EU members and the United States will recognize Kosovo. They say Serbia relinquished the moral right to rule its people because of the brutality it used against them under the late Slobodan Milosevic, and because there is no hope of compromise.
The EU and World Bank are preparing a donors’ conference to underwrite the development of the new state, probably in June.
But Serbia’s EU aspirations are under a cloud. Kostunica says Serbia cannot pursue EU membership if EU states approve Kosovo’s secession, and an early election looks inevitable.
Serbia and its ally Russia say the legal rights of sovereignty and territorial integrity are more important than an ethnic minority’s demands for self-determination.
Serbia has offered autonomy to Kosovo Albanians within Serb borders, but no role as full citizens. The West believes this formula is unsustainable in the long term.
Kosovo has been under United Nations administration and NATO protection for nearly nine years. Its leader Hashim Thaci says he can count on recognition by 100 countries.
Prime ministers of both Kosovo and Serbia called for calm in the countdown to Kosovo’s proclamation. Kostunica urged Kosovo’s 120,000 Serbs to stay in the province and Kosovo’s Hashim Thaci urged Serb refugees to return.
“I invite all those who want to, to return to their homes and their property, including displaced Serbs living outside Kosovo,” he told a news conference.
“In Kosovo, there will be security for all citizens. The government is committed to looking forward to the future and overcoming the sad past.”
Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told the United Nations on Thursday Serbia would not use military force, but “all diplomatic, political, and economic measures ... to impede and reverse this direct and unprovoked attack on our sovereignty”.
Hardline nationalism is a powerful force in Serbia. No mainstream politician has taken the risk of conceding Kosovo may have been effectively lost nine years ago when thousands of Albanian civilians were killed by Serb forces.
Only a few hundred attended a rally in Belgrade on Friday to protest against the loss of Kosovo but nationalists say 1 million will demonstrate next week.
Serbian ambassadors are preparing to withdraw from EU embassies for consultations at home.
Russia says the West is letting a dangerous genie out of the bottle by backing secession without U.N. approval. The move would influence its policy towards Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow said.
The West says Kosovo sets no precedent but is a unique case, caused by the savagery of a regime towards an ethnic minority.
“The diplomacy hasn’t stopped. We continue our diplomacy,” U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. “It’s an emotional, sensitive issue, we understand that.”
The United States believed “some form of supervised independence ... will lead to a more peaceful, a more stable region”, he said.
Ethnic Albanians in the borderlands of Macedonia, Montenegro and south Serbia discount concern they too will attempt to secede to create a “Greater Albania” in the Balkans.
But the shockwaves of Yugoslavia’s long and bloody collapse could rumble on. In Bosnia, Serbs who won an autonomous half of the country in the peace deal that ended the 1992-95 war say they too will demand to secede if Kosovo gets its way.
“It is clear that the whole region is entering a sensitive period and there are political groups and individuals who are ready to spill the atmosphere of tension into Bosnia-Herzegovina too,” Haris Silajdzic, the Muslim member of the three-man inter-ethnic Bosnian presidency, told a news conference.
“The institutions in charge are ready to answer the call.”
(Editing by Caroline Drees and Robert Woodward)