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15 Apr, 2013 09:31

‘EU membership is merely means for pursuing our interests’ – Serbian PM

Serbia would ‘benefit much more from joining the EU than the Union accepting the country’, the Prime Minister of Serbia Ivica Dacic told RT, adding that Serbia would prefer the Eurasian project if it wasn’t for their geographical position.

He also explained to RT why certain western countries are against direct talks between Belgrade and Pristina. 

RT:Just a few days ago, you held a meeting with Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi, and you have also just met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. As far as I understand it, your talks with Thaçi did not produce the results that were hoped for. How did President Putin react to this setback?

Ivica Dacic: I am grateful to Russia for its support regarding the issue of Kosovo and Metohija. Russia has taken a consistent stance on the issue of Kosovo's self-proclaimed independence. First of all, a decision like that cannot be taken unilaterally. But Kosovo declared its independence, and Western countries recognized Kosovo as a sovereign state. We are trying to figure out a mutually acceptable solution. President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev have promised to support Serbia on this issue. They do not want to impose their own opinions on us – instead, they will respect our decision, and our plan is to continue negotiating, in order to arrive at a lasting solution for Kosovo and Metohija.

RT:You have previously said that over the past decade or so, the issue of Kosovo has become taboo - and that no one has been telling the Serbs the actual truth. You also say that the Serb public has been deliberately misled into believing that Kosovo is still effectively part of Serbia. Do you acknowledge that Serbia has lost Kosovo as a territory?

IT: As a matter of fact, the status of Kosovo and Metohija is somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, Serbia lost control of most of Kosovo following the NATO bombing campaign in 1999. On the other hand, Pristina has no sovereignty over the part of the province’s territory that is predominantly populated by Serbs. Such are the realities, which we should use as a starting point in negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina. And on the whole we need to focus on, and provide for the interests of the communities that live in that territory. We are ready to discuss Kosovo’s international status with Pristina, but they are reluctant to do so. They regard their independent status as an established fact, and believe there is nothing left to discuss. In addition, we are under pressure from the European Union due to our pending accession to the EU. While Serbia has agreed to consider Kosovo as an entity with special status, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1244, we do not regard it as an independent state. But we are willing to continue our negotiations with Pristina, in order to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution.

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton attends a meeting with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and First Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic in the Palace of Serbia in Belgrade on March 14, 2013. (AFP Photo / Andrej Isakovic)

RT:So do you consider the provision of decent living conditions for Kosovo Serbs to be a top priority?

IT: Yes, this is a very important issue. Even though Serbia has no direct influence over the situation in Kosovo, we must nonetheless make sure that Kosovo’s Serbs are guaranteed peace, respect for their human rights and civil liberties, and other essential factors for a decent life. That is the core of the plan that President Nicolic has presented to the Serbian parliament for approval. This plan provides for establishing a Union of Serb Communities, comprising Serb-populated areas of Kosovo. According to the plan, they would be granted decision-making and staffing competencies in regard to the local police force and the judiciary, and be acknowledged as off-limits to the Kosovo Army, in order to guarantee their security, territorial integrity, and the inviolability of their rights. Kosovo Serbs should be entitled to run their own police force and elect their own judges, and Pristina’s armed forces should pledge to stay away from their communities. Self-governance rights should also be provided in areas such as education, healthcare, and culture. This is what we are trying to negotiate for them in our talks with Pristina.

RT:How far are you prepared to go to ensure that Kosovo’s Serbs are granted those rights?

IT: We expect Pristina to agree to our proposal for establishing a Union of Serb Communities, and we would like the European Union to act as a safeguard. This would provide us with a viable provisional solution, until we arrive at some sort of final decision on the status of Kosovo.

RT:You recently complained that your earlier arrangements with Thaçi were held back due to the uncompromising stance taken by Germany and the United States. How exactly did they upset your efforts? And what agreements do you think you could have reached with Thaçi if it wasn’t for the Germans and the Americans?

IT: As far as our deliberations with Pristina are concerned, a definitive settlement would not be in the interests of certain external parties - particularly those who have acted as mediators for our negotiations in recent years. If Belgrade and Pristina were to settle all of their differences, those parties’ roles as intermediaries would no longer be relevant. There are issues on which the Serbs and the Albanians may actually have common interests, but some of the international mediators do not like that. That is why I have always considered direct negotiations to be the best option, to enable us to reach an agreement with Pristina. But this notion does not appeal to certain foreign powers, who are wary of not knowing what we might agree on bilaterally.

RT:Let’s move on to Serbia’s prospects for EU membership. Initially, Brussels said the Kosovo issue would not prove an obstacle to your country’s accession, as long as you handed over the three Serb leaders accused of war crimes to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. And the previous Serbian government, in which you were Interior Minister, did just that. But now Serbia’s EU accession seems to be conditional on the Kosovo issue, even though this hasn’t been stated officially. Do you get the impression that the goalposts are being shifted in the middle of the game? 

IT: You are right. We are witnessing a double-standard policy, where the rules are changed along the way. And certainly, this can’t be called fair play. They made no mention of Kosovo as long as the extradition issue was pending, but now that it’s off the table, the status of Kosovo emerges as a new precondition. We see this as reneging on our agreements, but this is just the way of the world. Being a small nation, we need to promote our interests internationally, and it is in our interests to become an EU member state. In addition, we find ourselves in a very complicated situation location-wise, being surrounded by NATO and EU members, or countries whose accession to the European Union is already underway. Due to all of the handicaps that we have been facing over many years, we have significantly fallen behind other European nations in terms of economic growth. Just to give you an idea of where we are, President Putin said today that Russia’s present GDP is up 70 percent from what it was in 1999. By contrast, Serbia’s present GDP is only 65 percent of what it was back in 1989. It will take generations for our economy to get back into shape.

A man searches through magazines displayed for sale among other used things at a market in Belgrade. (AFP Photo / Koca Sulejmanovic)

RT:In view of the severe economic problems facing the European Union at the moment, how would it benefit Serbia to join the bloc? Serbia has an unemployment rate of 25 percent, a corruption problem, and all the other difficulties that you have mentioned. If your own government struggles to cope with these challenges, how can Europe help?

IT: Unfortunately, we don't really have many options to choose from. EU membership is not an end in itself for us, but merely a means for pursuing our own interests.

RT:So it is not a priority for you?

IT: Let’s just say that Serbia stands to benefit much more from joining the EU than the Union does by accepting us. On the other hand, we do not border on Russia or other nations that we are friendly with, so there is no opportunity for us to join alternative integration vehicles, such as the Eurasian project. It’s not as if we are determined to join the European Union at any cost. We intend to secure and promote our national interests, first and foremost. But as far as the current crisis in Europe is concerned, Serbia has been struggling with a crisis of its own for many years now, and Europe’s present problems are definitely not as severe as what we have been through.

RT:You have always called Slobodan Milošević your mentor, and your present party is part of his legacy. But as we know, Milošević died in the Hague, and three Serb leaders were actually handed over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia when you were Interior Minister. Do you personally regard them as criminals? Do you believe they will be given a fair trial in the Hague?

IT: You cannot call someone a criminal until their guilt has been established in court. So the Hague Tribunal is certainly not fair. It was established with the express purpose of officially declaring the Serbs to be guilty. Serbia should clearly abide by its commitments. But we must also assist the Serbs currently facing trial in the Hague in proving their innocence.

RT:One last question: How likely is an early election in Serbia? And do you think you would keep your place in the Cabinet if such an election were to take place?

IT: There is no reason to hold an early election. Serbia has much more pressing issues to deal with than partisan rivalries. The ruling coalition is solid. Besides, there is no single political party in Serbia at the moment that would be capable of winning an election single-handed. Our government is stable, and it is prepared to address the serious challenges we are facing.

RT:Mr. Dacic, thank you very much for your time.

IT: Thank you.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.