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US Decries 'Hate Speech' in Serbian Political Debate

The United States Tuesday appealed for moderation in the political discourse in Serbia after a hard-line nationalist figure was elected speaker of parliament. Serbian legislators have been unable to agree on a new government, at a time of critical international diplomacy on the future of Kosovo. VOA's David Gollust has a report from the State Department.

The State Department had no specific comment on the election of political hardliner Tomislav Nikolic as Serbia's new parliamentary speaker.

But it did express concern about the tone of debate leading up to his election early Tuesday, which it said was reminiscent of the inflammatory rhetoric of the Slobodan Milosevic era.

Nikolic, leader of the Serbian Radical Party, is described by critics as the political heir of Milosevic, who led the former Yugoslavia through a decade of conflict and international isolation.

He won election to head a divided parliament, which has been unable to form a coalition government three months after a general election, and a new election may have to be called.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said reports of the debate leading to Nikolic's election suggest it harkened back to the bad days of "hate speech" of the Milosevic era, where politicians were characterized as either patriots or traitors depending on whether they supported the regime.

McCormick urged Serbian politicians to tone down the rhetoric and act in the best interest of the country's future:

"Nobody wants to see individuals try to whip up nationalism in destructive ways," McCormack says. "That doesn't help Serbia, that doesn't help serve this process, to move forward to help build a more stable Balkan region. So what we would hope is that in the wake of this particular parliamentary debate, that emotions cool, that the rhetoric be toned down, and that parliamentarians and Serbian leaders focus on how to better integrate Serbia into the rest of the world."

Nikolic and his party have strongly opposed independence for Kosovo, but Spokesman McCormack would not say if he believed his elevation to speaker would affect current diplomatic efforts to resolve the province's political future.

The United States strongly backs the plan of United Nations envoy Martti Ahtisaari for supervised independence for the majority ethnic-Albanian Serbian province. Kosovo has been administered by the U.N. since 1999, when a NATO air campaign drove out Serb forces engaged on a brutal crackdown against separatist forces.

The Ahtisaari plan is currently under discussion in the U.N. Security Council, where veto-wielding Russia has indicated it will not back a settlement plan opposed by its traditional ally Serbia.

Senior U.S. officials, however, have said in recent days they believe Russia will be able to accept a formula based on the plan of the former Finnish president, which includes specific guarantees for Kosovo's minority Serbs.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed Kosovo, among other issues, in a meeting Tuesday with Albania's newly named Foreign Minister Lulzim Basha.

Spokesman McCormack said the Albanian minister assured Rice the Tirana government is actively counseling Kosovo Albanians to be patient with the diplomatic process and not resort to any actions or speech that incites or raises regional tensions.

Kosovo Albanian leaders have talked about a unilateral independence move if U.N. consultations on the Ahtisaari plan do not produce a solution in the coming weeks.

Foreign Minister Basha told a Washington study group Monday he rejects the idea that Albanians in the western Balkans see a separate Kosovo as a prelude to a so-called "greater Albania."

He said his government's policies have only one goal which is gaining membership in the European Union and NATO as soon as possible.

At the same time, Basha cautioned against changes in the Ahtisaari plan, which he said was the best possible deal for all. He said alterations could cause the entire settlement effort to unravel.