BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — European Union leaders urged Serbia's new prime minister, a nationalist who served as Slobodan Milosevic spokesman during the Balkan wars, to reopen talks with the former province of Kosovo and move forward with pro-EU reforms.
Prime Minister Ivica Dacic was sworn in Friday, marking the first time the late Milosevic's Socialist party will dominate the government since ruling Serbia for a decade in the 1990s — an era of wars, international sanctions and economic downturn.
During the Balkan wars Dacic was nicknamed "Little Sloba" for his admiration of Milosevic. But he has embraced a reformist course in recent years and European leaders congratulated him Friday, signaling openness to a democratically elected leader in a country that has made steady democratic strides since ousting Milosevic in 2000.
Milosevic was widely blamed for instigating the Balkan wars that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, conflicts that claimed more than 100,000 lives and left millions homeless.
Post-Milosevic authorities have reconnected Serbia with the world and launched a process to one day join the European Union, as they also have worked to patch up ties with former wartime foes in the Balkans.
Dacic and other nationalists have also sought to distance the country from the war era. But they have maintained strong ties with Russia and have suggested in the past that they could drop the EU bid if it meant they must give up their claim on Kosovo, which declared its independence in 2008. Serbia refuses to accept Kosovo's independence.
During a parliamentary debate on Thursday ahead of the vote that approved the new government, Dacic reiterated that Serbia will never recognize Kosovo, but stated that his government was ready to "immediately" reopen EU-brokered talks. "There has been enough blood in the Balkans," Dacic said.
In Kosovo, the ethnic Albanian authorities were not convinced. Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj called Serbia's new government "antidemocratic and anti-European" and "rooted in the past."
Dacic's Cabinet was approved with 142 votes for and 72 against in a 250-member assembly, ending nearly three months of political uncertainty that followed an inconclusive election on May 6.
After the vote, Dacic said he was pleased with the wide backing he received. He promised not to stray from the EU bid, saying that he has already spoken on the phone with EU's top foreign policy official, Catherine Ashton.
"Serbia stands firmly on the EU path," Dacic said in a statement.
In Brussels, Ashton and Enlargement commissioner Stefan Fule said Serbia "needs an effective government" that will "continue to deliver on the European integration agenda, regional cooperation and reconciliation, including through the early resumption of dialogue" with Kosovo.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also urged "normalization of the neighborly relations with Kosovo."
The EU wants Belgrade to normalize ties with Pristina as a precondition for EU membership. EU integration is crucial for Serbia as it faces widespread joblessness amid deepening economic crisis. The average monthly salary in Serbia is around €350 ($429) and poverty is widespread.
Dacic's coalition government includes ministers from his own Socialist Party, from the nationalist Progressive Party of President Tomislav Nikolic and from several smaller groups. Some of the government members were prominent figures in the Milosevic era.
Aleksandar Vucic — who is in charge of defense and security in the new government — was Milosevic's former information minister and was notorious for his extremist views during the 1998-99 Kosovo war. The government's new General secretary, Veljko Odalovic, also was a senior official in Kosovo during the conflict.
Slobodan Lekic and Don Melvin in Brussels and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.