Macedonian Presidential office is playing down the significance of Gjorge Ivanov’s absence from Monday’s inauguration of his Serbian counterpart, Tomislav Nikolic.
Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov
“We got the invitation but we decided not to go,” President Ivanov’s office said, explaining that the no-show should not be interpreted as a sign of a rift between the two leaders, who are due to meet later this week in Belgrade at a conference on regional cooperation.
But Ivanov’s decision not to travel to Belgrade for the inauguration has annoyed Macedonia's small Serbian minority.
The small opposition Macedonian Democratic Party of Serbs, DPS, said it was “suspending relations with Ivanov” in protest over his absence.
They accused the President of signing up to “an unprincipled regional coalition that disrespects the legitimate and legal choice of the Serbian people” - referring to leaders of Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia who also boycotted the event in protest over Nikolic's nationalist remarks.
On Monday, Montenegro's head of state, Filip Vujanovic, was the only president of a former Yugoslav republic to attend the inauguration. All the other presidents decided to miss the event.
Former Foreign Minister Denko Maleski told Balkan Insight that the absence of Ivanov, as well as the absence of the other presidents, was “an understandable form of pressure” and a “warning signal over his [Nikolic’s] behaviour.
“Nikolic’s past is problematic and his future moves are a big unknown for the region”, Maleski said, noting that he had already managed to upset neighbours with recent statements.
He caused particular controversy by describing the town of Vukovar in Croatia - a symbol of Croatia's fight for independence in the 1990s - as "Serbian", and by denying that the mass slaughter of Bosnian Muslims in the town of Srebrenica in 1995 was an act of genocide.
The unexpected presidential victory of former radical nationalist over the liberal incumbent Boris Tadic has made surrounding countries uneasy.
Nikolic rose to prominence in the 1990s as a member of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, of Vojislav Seselj, which advocated a Greater Serbia covering all of Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia and most of Croatia. Seselj is now standing trial for war crimes in The Hague.
In 1998, the Radicals deeply offended Macedonia by removing the plaque from the monastery of Prohor Pcinjski that commemorated an historic Macedonian assembly held there in 1944, which paved for the way for the establishment of a Macedonian republic within federal Yugoslavia. They were able to do this because the monastery lies just inside the Serbian border.
Maleski adds that Nikolic has never made a clear statement concerning neighbourly relations with Macedonia and he seems to support Greece's side in the so-called "name" dispute, which for years has hampered Macedonia’s EU and NATO accession.
Serbian nationalists have traditionaly seen Macedonia as part of Serbia. Back in the 1990s Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic was widely believed to have hatched a deal with Greece to divide Macedonia between them.
Nikolic’s predecessor, Boris Tadic, attended the 2009 inauguration of Macedonian President Ivanov and during his term the two countries signed a number of bilateral cooperation agreements including a deal that allowed citizens to cross border without passports.
The two countries have good political and economic relations, though Macedonian recognition of Kosovo's independence briefly cooled relations.