Serbia’s course of EU integration is impeded once again by simmering tensions with Kosovo. How is Belgrade going to get around this – and is the region in any danger? We talked about this with Aleksandar Vucic
Sophie Shevardnadze: President Vucic, welcome to Moscow. It’s great to have you on our programme. It’s our first.
Aleksandar Vucic: I’m very pleased to be here, and I enjoy spending my time in Moscow.
SS: So you are here discussing a lot of things with Putin. You seek his support and advice on Kosovo, you just came out from the meeting with President Putin. What did he advise?
AV: We discussed all important issues on the political scene in the Western Balkans and the entire region of the south-east Europe. Also we discussed our bilateral issues, either political or economic. And we do have better economic relationship and our trade exchange, our trade turnover is growing. Last year it was 23% bigger than in 2017. This year it’s going to be once again 20% more. We’re doing our job in a very proper way. We’re guarding our economic co-operation and collaboration. Speaking about most important political issues, we’ve always had that kind of support and assistance, I dare to say, an endorsement in most important issues for Serbia. I felt very comfortable about Putin’s words of further support for Serbia’s territorial integrity which is not only an issue of Serbia, it has become an issue for many sovereign states which were put in jeopardy by unilateral actions of some other territories, people or nations.
SS: So if you allow me, let’s go point by point regarding that, especially Kosovo – it’s always relevant, and especially now…
AV: I’m at your disposal.
SS: …It’s been back in the news because you’re seeking to mend ties with Kosovo, but you’re saying it has to be a two-way street. You’re in favour of a so-called land deal that would see Kosovo divided on ethnic lines. Right now Pristina is saying “no partition” to any part of Kosovo…
AV: Firstly, I wasn’t saying that we should do – and I never mentioned that – a sort of partition based on ethnic lines. There’s only one sentence that I have always been saying: we need to find a compromising solution between Serbs and Albanians which means that it cannot be the case that Albanians get everything and Serbs get nothing. Albanians gained absolutely everything that they’ve ever dreamed of, and Serbs got absolutely nothing. That was my, our and Serbia’s first and only position that we never changed. Than we faced response from different sides. Russia said: “It’s ok if Serbia agrees on something because we consider Serbia a sovereign state, if Serbia agrees on something we’ll support it.” It was absolutely in accordance with international public law. That’s why we respected and appreciated that political attitude of President Putin and Russia very much. On the other hand, we got a very clear response from several EU countries. They were totally against it. They were saying, just to clear it up, that if that happens Serbia will open a new Pandora’s Box with the border changes…
SS: Do you disagree?
AV: I totally disagree! And I’ll tell you why. How can we open a Pandora’s Box?! Who opened this Pandora’s Box in 2008 having accepted, acknowledged and recognised the unilaterally proclaimed independence of Kosovo?! They were doing so, not us! When they say to me “we don’t want to change the borders”, I immediately reply to them saying “ok, that means that Kosovo is the part of Serbia, there are no border changes” – “No, no, we accept the border changes that we did 10 years ago, but you cannot do it even if you agree on that with your Albanian counterparts.” Then I say: “Hey, where are the principles? Are there any principles? You can do it, you can change our territory and we cannot do it?!” It wasn’t a Pandora’s Box that was opened 10 years ago, but it’s a Pandora’s Box opened today…
SS: Well, that’s the way they see it. By opening a Pandora’s box they mean that Serbs living in Bosnia and Herzegovina or the Albanian minority in Macedonia – what will you say to them to that?
AV: First of all, we support the territorial integrity of Bosnia, we never mentioned anything about it, but I speak about Kosovo: “You, people, first agreed and recognised the secession of Montenegro from former Yugoslavia (it happened in 2006, if you remember). In 2008 you recognised the independence of Kosovo from Serbia. How did you derive that right? And that wasn’t an opening of Pandora’s Box?! And now it would be an opening of a Pandora’s Box even if Serbs and Albanians decide to make such an arrangement! That’s a hypocrisy!”
SS: But, like you’ve mentioned in your answer in the beginning, they are still against it. I mean, yes, Russia supports you. America is saying “if Serbia and Albanians find a mutual agreement, we’ll support it”. But the European partners are saying “Pandora’s Box”. How healthy is it to try to mend ties with Kosovo? You’re trying to do that as much as you can while your most important partners – you want to be part of the EU – are saying “no-no, go on, keep on fighting”. How healthy is it? It’s a weird situation…
AV: Yeah, you define it this way, I’ll define it in a slightly different way. I would say it’s a very complicated situation. But at the same time we have different agendas on other issues like NATO membership. Serbia most probably very soon will be the only country in the region not aspiring to NATO membership and we don’t hide it. There are different reasons for that, political attitudes from the Serbian side, including everything that happened to our country and our people in 1999. That’s what makes difference between Serbia and all the others. We are a very special case. You see now the situation in Macedonia – people didn’t say “yes” at that referendum. But it doesn’t matter, who cares about the referendum results, they’ll go for it, you know…
SS: Yeah, they’re saying the results were great even though less than 50% showed up. They don’t mind.
AV: If I may say, we think that whatever Macedonia and Greece might agree on we will support it. That will be very important for them. But you cannot undermine people’s decisions, you cannot undermine people’s will. People in the Balkans expect respect as well as all the others. They just expect a normal appreciation and they want to be heard. That’s what I wanted to say speaking about Serbia and Russia – we are heard, that’s very important for us, and we feel that we are respected by our Russian colleagues and our Russian friends.
SS: Is my impression right when I say that you’re the first president in the long time who’s actually open to mending ties with Kosovo and you speak about it, but you don’t get much response from the Kosovo side?
AV: You’re right. We signed the Brussels Agreement and we fulfilled all our obligations under the Brussels Agreement. But the other side – they had only one obligation which was 40-45% of the whole Brussels Agreement. And that obligation was foundation and establishment of the Serb community or the Serb Association, it doesn’t matter how you call it. They didn’t do it, they didn’t do a single small step forward on this issue. And it was tolerated by the international community (when I say “international community” it’s an euphemism for the Western world). They said nothing to them. There were no remarks. But we delivered absolutely everything on different issues: regional police, justice and judicial issues, and many other issues. They did nothing. We said: “Are you going to fulfil it or not? Are you going to put pressure on your guys to fulfil what they signed up for?” We got a response: “Ok, we’ll speak about a general resolution of your problem”. I said ok. We’re open to speak about it. From the very beginning I hoped that some people in Pristina as well as many people in Brussels will do their best to reach a compromising solution. Now I can tell you that I will always be ready to carry on with the dialogue, I will always be ready to negotiate on whatever you want. But in the meantime we lost any trust and confidence in the Albanian side that they really want to reach any kind of a compromising solution because they were doing their best in a lot of provocations, and they were doing absolutely everything just to undermine all our efforts. Instead of lowering the expectations of their people they were expanding their expectations. And they see that there’s no fertile ground for a possible arrangement. But anyway, Serbia will always be ready to resume the process of dialogue, but I’m not expecting very much as a result of it.
SS: Mr. President, you’ve just mobilised Serbian army because Kosovo’s leader went to visit the area with a majority of Serbs there…
AV: No, it’s not because of that.
SS: Why was it?
AV: It’s the view from the outside. People say: those guys wanted to see a part of Kosovo and then you mobilised your army. No.
SS: They broke the agreement – I understand why you mobilised the army.
AV: Yes, they came there with machine guns, rifles and everything else and they don’t have the right to come there with that kind of weaponry. That was our verbal arrangement, there’s a statement done by NATO. Plus, Albanians and Serbs agreed after the Brussels Agreement we made – also in Brussels – that there were two preconditions if someone would like to bring machine guns to the north of Kosovo. One and the most important precondition was – and still is – the consent of the local Serb community. They didn’t ask a single Serb about saying “yes” to the visit of Hashim Thaci. But it’s not about his visit, it’s about the weaponry his people were using. That was another provocation, and they wanted to show that they were in charge of whatever they want to frighten the Serbs, and they did it. And the other precondition was the consent of NATO. We don’t know what NATO was doing, if there was a consent of NATO. It was an accumulative precondition: number one – the consent of the Serbian people and they didn’t have it at all. That’s why we needed to react, otherwise they can conquer the north of Kosovo, they would expel our people and most of the Western community would say: “Well, ok, that happens. Now we should live in peace and now we have borders in the way that we wanted.” And Serbia cannot agree to this. Our job was to send a strong message that we would protect our people from the guys that would use heavy weaponry against our guys in the north of Kosovo.
SS: I think, the message was received and well-heard. You’ve mentioned in the beginning that you’re the only country in the region that doesn’t aspire to be a part of NATO. But you and NATO still enjoy great relations 20 years after the bombings: you do mutual exercises, they conduct exercises on you territory and when it comes down to it you’ve just mentioned…
AV: We do the same exercises with Russia.
SS: Absolutely. But when it comes down to it NATO didn’t do anything with this incident, it’s a NATO controlled territory. What do you get in return when you co-operate with NATO this much? Do you feel like you get in return as much as you would like to?
AV: Put yourself into our shoes, please. We’re not Russia. We’re not a big country, although we’re the biggest in the Western Balkans. We are a small country and we have to protect our people and maintain peace, tranquility and stability within the region. We need to boost our economic development, we need to attract foreign investors. We cannot say everything that we think to everyone. It’s a different position. We’re not as big as Russia, we’re not as strong as Russia. We have to keep the momentum of asking and trying to keep the same or better level of co-operation with all the others. But at the same time don’t forget that it’s not only about NATO aspirations that we don’t have. Serbia is the only country that didn’t impose any sanctions against Russia. Do you really think that it’s an easy decision for Serbia? Do you really think, we didn’t face a lot of pressure from different sides on this issue. Yes, we did.
SS: Mr. President, I have to ask you. You said it so many times that you’ll never sacrifice Serbia’s relations with Russia for EU membership. You’ve shown a great example of how not to do that. But the day will come, and you know it will come, when they’ll say: “Aleksandar, why won’t you join the sanctions and the process of Serbia’s accession to the EU will be sped up”. This sentence may sound differently in different variations, but you get the point. What are you going to do then?
AV: I got the point. You’re very well-prepared for this interview, but to tell you the truth I’m hearing the same question for more than five years. First of all, we’ll see whether it will happen. Second, we’ll see in which form that may happen. Third, we’ll see what the European Union will look like in 5-6 or 7 years. That should be our last obligation before we join the EU. The most important precondition for our EU membership is to resolve the Kosovo issue. It’s a much bigger and a much more problematic issue for us than any other issues. As you can see, there are many buts and ifs. So we’ll see, and I hope we’ll be strong and respected enough that everyone will always appreciate and respect our relationship to the Russian people and Russia. We cannot change ourselves on this issue and hopefully people in Europe will understand that. I’m saying to you once again: who knows what happens within several years.
SS: Let me ask you about your aspirations to become part of the EU, I know you were very enthusiastic about it when you came to power, when you were Prime Minister. Once you’re President you always say: yes, Serbia wants to be part of the EU. Let’s say we live in an ideal world and you and Kosovo resolve this issue overnight, it happens, that’s not an obstacle anymore. EU right now, like you said…
AV: It’s not the case, but ok.
SS: Yes, but it’s always like we have the Kosovo issue and then we never talk about Serbia becoming part of the EU. Let’s forget about Kosovo. Let’s say you resolved it overnight. And you don’t have any obstacles to go into the EU. Are you still as enthusiastic seeing what’s going on: the south is getting poorer, the north is getting richer, and Western and Eastern Europe bickering about migration, and these elections that’s coming up are going to completely change the whole configuration and the paradigm in which EU exists. It’s kind of a fractured union right now. Why do you want to be part of it so much?
AV: It’s not about whether someone wants to do something desperately or not. It’s about rational decisions. Serbia is on the EU path because of several reasons. One of that is that we want to belong to that type society, and the other one is that we have the biggest percent of our trade exchange with EU countries – 60% of our overall trade turnover plus 20% with regional countries, everything else is Russia plus China and a small portion with Turkey. We are situated in that part of the world, but at the same time I don’t think that that will exclude not only our friendship but our very close ties with Russia. And I don’t hide it. You were insisting from the very first moments of our interview on everything that I was saying about the European Union which I don’t hide. But you don’t mention the fact that even in Washington or in Brussels or today in English language I’m saying that we’ll keep our very close with Russia always, and we don’t know what will happen in the future. But I think that our European partners will always understand our issue with Russia.
SS: I just want to ask you one last question or maybe two about President Trump because he’s a very unconventional American leader, his views of the world and the way America should be are unlike the ones of his predecessors’. He’s not very sympathetic towards the EU, he’s declaring tariff war with China, EU. He doesn’t really like NATO because he says that everyone should pay up, not only America. Does that change anything for Serbia or Serbia’s stance? You invited him to come to Serbia and you said Serbia wants to be friends with him…
AV: Yes, but he didn’t come to Serbia so far. We, Serbs, no doubt prefer Trump.
SS: Than Obama? Why?
AV: I don’t know. Serbs have always thought that it was the Democrats’ fault that they launched an aggression against Serbia. And Serbia always supported the Republican Party within the U.S. Trump, as you said, is pretty much unconventional. And you know only a few things about his policies or almost nothing about his policies in the Balkans. But at least John Bolton opened the doors to the possible arrangement between Belgrade and Pristina. That’s what we appreciate. This is slightly a change of their policies, but we have to see, we have to wait, I cannot assess it.
SS: I’m asking because Russians were also excited when Trump came in because we always thought that Republicans were better than Democrats for Russia. And Putin and Trump like each other on the personal level, but then there’s establishment that wouldn’t let him do anything…
AV: That’s why I have a very rational approach. I’m not excited, not emotional at all. I’m very rational about it. That’s why I’m saying to you that we have to wait and see what’s going to be the final result of their stance, positions and attitudes towards Serbia or Western Balkans.
SS: Alright, Mr. President. Thank you very much for this insightful interview.
AV: Thank you very much. I was, to tell you the truth, very much positively surprised of the knowledge that you have shown. There are very few politicians in Serbia that would understand all the questions and issues that you’ve just tackled.
SS: Thank you, I love your country and I wish you all the best of luck.
AV: I love your country, I wish all the best to your country and I hope that we’ll be able to preserve and to maintain the best possible relations between our two countries.