By Andrea Shalal
COLOGNE, Germany (Reuters) - The overwhelming victory of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic in Serbia's presidential election on April 2 could help stabilize the country, a top U.S. and NATO military officer said.
Navy Admiral Michelle Howard, who heads NATO's Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, told Reuters she hoped "engineered provocations" between Kosovo and Serbia in recent months would calm down now that the election was over.
"Now that we're through the election, perhaps the national leaders will refocus on their own countries and govern. That's my hope," Howard, who also commands U.S. naval forces in Europe and Africa, said in an interview late on Saturday after an event hosted by the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.
Howard said the region remained an area of concern for the U.S. military and NATO, which still has 4,500 troops in Kosovo after intervening in 1999 to stop Serbia's killings of ethnic Albanian civilians in a counter-insurgency campaign.
She said Vucic, the outgoing prime minister, had run for president on a promise to keep the country moving on a path toward European Union accession, which also required a demonstration of economic stability.
"If he's serious, then I think that is helpful for the country," Howard said. "As you meet all that criteria, I can only imagine that it's helpful for ... establishing stability and security of (Serbia)."
If Vucic makes good his vow to continue moving toward EU membership, then Serbia would remain "balanced between Russian influence and the rest of southeast Europe", Howard said.
Thousands of students and other protesters, who see Vucic as an autocrat, rallied in Belgrade last week to protest at his victory and what they see as a fraudulent election.
Although his new post will be largely ceremonial, Vucic is expected to maintain his grip on power through his Serbian Progressive Party and to continue a balancing act between the West and Russia, a Orthodox Christian and Slavic ally.
Howard said she found it astonishing how tense relations still were between Serbia and the ethnic Albanian-majority government in Kosovo nearly two decades after the war.
Serbia continues to regard Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, as a renegade province.
"Every time I talk to someone who's from that region, they just remind me that grievances run deep in this part of the world, that the dead get buried but the grievance does not," Howard said. "It's a very complex environment."
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; editing by Mark Heinrich)