Serbia's new president tried Thursday to assure worried European leaders that he has shifted from his earlier extreme anti-Western stance, saying his country hopes to receive EU approval later this year to open accession talks with the 27-nation bloc.
EU officials said they would warn Tomislav Nikolic to tone down his nationalist statements if he wishes to see his nation progress toward membership.
Nikolic, a former ultranationalist, has courted controversy since his election last month, questioning whether the Bosnian Serb killings of 8,000 Muslims in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre constitutes genocide _ the U.N. says it does _ and claiming that Vukovar, a Croatian town destroyed by Serb forces in 1991, is a Serbian city.
After a meeting with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton during his first visit to Brussels, Nikolic vowed "there is no better future for Serbia than membership in the union."
"We will do everything possible to receive EU approval before the end of the year to open accession negotiations," Nikolic said.
During the 1990s Balkan wars, Nikolic was the deputy leader of the extremist Serbian Radical Party, which was even more hardline than Serbian autocrat Slobodan Milosevic. Nikolic's gradual transformation away from such extremism started after Milosevic was ousted in 2000. He has also shown recent signs of conciliation, expressing support for the previous government's quest for EU membership.
Still, his inauguration Monday was avoided by the leaders of several other Balkan nations.
Serbia spent much of the 1990s ostracized and isolated from the EU after Milosevic started wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. In 1999, NATO bombed Serbia to stop the war in Kosovo, forcing Serbia to relinquish control there. Kosovo declared independence in 2008.
In March, the EU made Serbia an official candidate _ a key step on the road to full membership. A candidate nation must then be invited to open formal accession talks, which normally drag on for years.
During his one-day visit Thursday, Nikolic also met with Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
Van Rompuy said both sides agreed that relations with the EU are key for Serbia's future. He said the country needed to continue to reform its judiciary, fight against corruption and organized crime, promote freedom of the media and protect the country's minorities.
Two officials said EU leaders also urged Nikolic to quickly form a government that would resume talks on normalizing ties with its former province of Kosovo. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of standing rules.
Neither Nikolic's Serbian Progressive Party nor the second place Democrats won enough votes in Serbia's parliamentary election to form a government alone. Both are trying to get the Socialists to form a coalition government.
Ivica Dacic, the leader of the Socialists, said Thursday that Russia is urging him to hammer out a coalition with the nationalists and ditch his alliance with the Democrats. Dacic said he was under similar pressure four years ago when Washington urged him to join a coalition with the Democrats.
Serbia's leaders insist that they will never recognize Kosovo's secession, even though the country will continue talks with its former province for the sake of further EU integration.
Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade contributed to this report.