Serbia will never lose Kosovo, but in Pristina I’m not President – Serbia’s leader to RT

Serbia has seen a wave of new protests after the parliament approved a pact to ‘normalize relations’ with Kosovo. Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić explains to RT why this deal does not mean Belgrade recognizes Pristina’s independence.

In April, the Serbian Parliament voted in favor of recognizing the autonomy of Pristina over Kosovo in exchange for the city’s recognition of a wide autonomy of Serbs inside the breakaway region. As the vote was taking place, Democratic Party members and supporters were chanting outside the building that Kosovo was being betrayed. Yet, Belgrade does not see the move as a step towards giving the region away.

RT:Mr. President, it’s been a year since you took office. Looking back, what have you managed to achieve during those first 12 months? And how do you assess your work in general?

Tomislav Nikolić: It was a productive year for me and the Serbian government. For example, we have successfully reduced crime. We have also been trying to find a solution to the issue of Serbs in Kosovo, a solution that would rest on two principles - first, Serbs should be able to live there in peace and, second, Serbia will never recognize the independence of Kosovo.

Tomislav Nikolić
- Born February 15, 1952, Kragujevac, Serbia
- President since June 11, 2012
- Began political career as vice-president of People’s Radical Party
- Party later joined with Vojislav Seselj’s Serbian National Renewal, becoming Serbian Radical Party. Nikolic became its vice-president
- Founded Serbian Progressive Party on September 24, 2008 and headed it until his election as President of Serbia

Furthermore, we want Albanians to stop expropriating land and for Serbs to stay where they are. I think we have made great progress. Unfortunately, our economy is extremely weak, and it will be a long time before we’ll see any real improvement. Our budget relies on consumption, not production. And this is one area where the government hasn’t been able to make any significant headway. I hope that the date to start membership negotiations with the European Union will be announced soon. That would be a sign of our stability and send a positive signal to foreign investors. That would help us repair Serbia’s economy.

RT:The visits of delegations from Serbia to Russia have become more frequent lately, but the talks have been held behind closed doors. What is Russia’s response to Serbia’s closer ties the EU and those complicated compromises that Serbia has to make? 

TN: Serbia will never have as close and as strong relations with the West as Russia does. Co-operation with Russia doesn’t mean we have turned away from the EU. Co-operation with the EU doesn’t mean we have turned away from Russia. Moscow has never told Serbia, directly or indirectly, that it should not cooperate with the EU.

A group of Serbian protesters hold anti EU banners and reading "NATO Killers" and "Kosovo" during a protest on April 21, 2013, in Belgrade. (AFP Photo / Alexa Stankovic)

Russia wants the Serbian government to do whatever it takes to improve the living standards of our people. We are leaning towards Europe simply because of our geographic location: we are in the heart of Europe, surrounded by EU countries. That’s why European standards are the benchmark for us. But becoming an EU member is not important in itself. Our primary goal is to catch up with the developed European countries, and if we succeed, the lives of our people will definitely improve.

Earlier, our relations with the West boiled down to Serbia doing what the West says, but I refused to go along with such an approach. I then drafted a platform which served as the basis for a major resolution on the status of Kosovo Serbs. Serbia had to face new conditions regularly being placed on it. Now we have set our own conditions. You must have seen how the talks in Brussels went - it is no longer easy to twist Serbia around their fingers. We are ready for discussion, provided that everything is in compliance with international law.

RT:With the EU now in a deep crisis, what does Serbia expect from joining? Doesn’t the situation in Spain, Greece and Portugal scare you?

TN: Well, there is an obvious difference. Serbia is not in the same situation as the EU. I would say that some EU countries haven’t been honest enough. They would overspend and send fake budget reports to their partners. Many Europeans were spoilt by their governments. The EU exploited the whole world to provide a better life and huge welfare benefits for its citizens. But now the reckoning is overdue. There is a time to cast stones and a time to gather them. You may enjoy a free ride for a while, but one day you’ll have to pay. And now unemployed EU citizens are at a loss. How come they no longer have an extra 700-800 euro at hand? How come there are no more social benefits, free-of-charge accommodation, electricity or natural gas? The situation in Serbia is different. It would take a long time before the EU degenerated into the poverty that we are in at the moment.

We don’t really care about relations inside the EU. What we are looking for is new joint projects, partners that could help us enter new markets and those who are eager to invest in our economy.

There are 7 million people in Serbia and it’s pretty easy for us to overcome the crisis because we have always been a hard-working nation.

There’s been little growth over the last 14 years, but it’s not the EU that is to blame. It is us; we chose a government that couldn’t care less about Serbians and their future. All it did was please the strongest in the land. A small nation can be just as strong as a big one as long as it’s united.

People wave flags as they a protest against an EU-sponsored deal to normalise ties between Serbia and breakaway Kosovo on April 22, 2013 in Belgrade. (AFP Photo / Alexa Stankovic)

Serbians are great people, and I am sure that Serbia will benefit from its cooperation with the EU. For years, I was a Eurosceptic. There are even more reasons to be one now and say: why do we would need Europe now that it’s in crisis? But in fact, they are our neighbors, they have the best science and technology, and that’s where we obviously belong.

RT:The Serbian government always puts a strong focus on Serbia’s accession to the EU. What if it doesn’t happen; is there a plan B?

TN: Right now we are not part of the EU. Over the last year I’ve been able to restore a lot of friendships with those who view Serbia as a successor to Yugoslavia: I mean, the Arab world, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and others. They were very keen to revive our relations. We do have a plan B. We enjoy excellent cooperation with Russia, which heavily invests into Serbia. We are also partners with China, Latin America, the United Arab Emirates, other countries of the Arab world and Israel. Joining the EU isn’t a question of life and death; rather, it’s a question of a better life.

RT:Are you basically saying that Moscow is an alternative plan for Serbia because it provides investment and loans?

TN: I do not see this as an alternative. These two blessings are not mutually exclusive.

RT:Do you mean that Serbia has no need to choose between East and West?

TN: Serbia will never choose between East and West. It wants to be part of both. This idea is nothing new: it was first suggested by the Serbian socialists two centuries ago. Yes, we are a Slavic Orthodox country, but we are bordered by Western Europe. And while that might not feel like our natural environment, we have to deal with it. 

Of course we have long-standing friends, with whom we share a common past, a common language and religion. But it won’t do any good for Serbia to look in one direction only. Sadly enough, Serbia-Russian relations have never been truly sincere because there were always people who thought they might be harmful to Serbia. I think that those who want us to look in only one direction don’t have the interests of Serbia at heart.

RT:Let’s go back to the Kosovo talks in Brussels. Vladimir Putin is said to have talked to you during these talks. What did he tell you? Did he back the agreement?

TN: We spent a lot of time discussing the current situation, possible scenarios and steps that Serbia might take. President Putin has never interfered in our internal affairs. Both he and the Russian government are ready to help Serbia, but Serbia is alone in this battle. Unfortunately, when the talks started, Serbia decided to talk with Pristina within the EU framework and never asked for someone to stand up for its interests. That’s why quite often these days Serbia has to face several opponents alone. The representatives from the EU and Pristina often share the same stance. Sometimes they will bring documents to the table which they clearly drafted together. So we are left in the minority.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Serbian counterpart Tomislav Nikolic.(AFP Photo / Misha Japaridze)

But if anyone thought that, to join the EU, we would be willing to make concessions - or that it was just a question of time before we change our minds - are sorely mistaken. We will not do as the previous government did.

As for Russia, it will support any stance that Serbia takes. Russia has made it very clear that it will never recognize an independent Kosovo, and that means a lot to us. It’s one thing to be the only country that refuses to recognize Kosovo and Metohija. It’s a totally different thing when you are supported by other powerful countries that haven’t recognized it either. Those involved include, first and foremost, Russia. And of course, we also sought to resolve the issue of Kosovo at the UN Security Council.

When the last Russian troops were pulling out of Kosovo, I was in the opposition and I realized that we’d have only NATO troops to rely on in terms of security. I still regret that a lot because I believe that things would have been totally different if Russian forces had stayed. Unfortunately, this is only wishful thinking, so Serbia has to work with NATO - the only military power that can ensure the security of Serbs and other non-Albanian ethnicities in Kosovo.

A armored personnel carrier from Russia arrives to the town of Kamenica, south east of Pristina 29 June 1999. This advance team from Russia is looking for a place to set up their head-quarters before deploying up to 1 500 troops into the US-controlled sector.(AFP Photo / Hector Mata)

We introduced a provision into our agreement under which NATO is to prevent any military intervention from Pristina in the area populated by Serbs, at least over the next 10 years.

RT:Serbs in Kosovo are unhappy with the Brussels deal. But the Serbian delegation insists that was the most Belgrade could get at this time. Why is it so important to solve this matter now? Do you think Serbia could wait and get a better deal?

TN: Time is not on the side of Serbs in Kosovo, it’s on the side of the Albanians. They enjoy overwhelming support. The Serbian population in Kosovo is declining. They’ve been living in these terrible conditions for 13 years. We have to convince them that this is the only possible solution at the moment. My idea is to form a Serbian autonomy that would be totally independent from Pristina. They would have an independent budget, take care of their own security, they would have Serbian law enforcement, Serbian courts, education and health care.

If we recognize Kosovo’s unique status, and find a way to include it in our constitution, then we would ask Pristina to recognize a unique status of the Serbian community, to recognize its right to function independently. It’s a de-facto situation in Northern Kosovo right now, but it’s not legalized. Everyone attacks us, and we fear that at any moment Albanians supported by NATO and other forces may gain control over Northern Kosovo. The countries that have recognized Kosovo say that Pristina has the right to control the northern territories. The agreements signed in Brussels will help us to legalize Serbian autonomy, and then Kosovo will no longer be able to exercise its control over Northern Kosovo and over four Serbian communities in the south. I believe we can achieve this and that Serbs in Kosovo realize that.

RT:Does it mean that Serbia has lost the Kosovo that existed before the bombings in 1999 for good?

TN: This is a very complicated question. Serbia will never lose Kosovo, but on the other hand, I’m not the President in Pristina. This is painful, but unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do about it.

RT:Would Serbia be willing to recognize Kosovo’s independence if you get autonomy in the north?

TN: No, no, no, no, no. We can’t be that selfish. Actually, only a third of Serbs who live in Kosovo are in the north. The other two thirds live in the south, and nobody has ever cared about them. The international community, even Russia, is unaware of the Serbs who live in the south of Kosovo. I always think of all the Kosovo Serbs, and I try to ensure they get equal rights. The issue of Serbs in the north of the republic is just brazenly cut off from that of the Serbs living in the south - and the question remains open. We can either leave them to the mercy of the authorities in Pristina, or make them move to the north. This is a very complicated issue. You cannot simply swap the north for recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

In my view, Serbia should never recognize Kosovo. We should discuss this situation with our friends all over the world. I had to write letters to the presidents of all countries which had not recognized Kosovo’s independence. When the agreement was signed in Brussels I had to explain to them that this did not mean that we recognized Kosovo’s independence. At that time Albanians, along with their Western allies, began pressuring those states and saying, ‘Look, Serbia has recognized Kosovo, and so should you.’

We have numerous difficulties and a lot of work to do in regard to this matter. Several days ago, I visited Turkey and spoke openly to our Turkish friends. I said, “You recognized Kosovo’s independence, you even hurried to be the first to do that; but now you should stop insisting that other Muslim countries do the same. This isn’t a nice thing to do. This would impact our relations.” Serbia cooperates with both those who have and who haven’t recognized Kosovo’s independence. But we don’t want our friends who have taken this step to try and expand the list. We don’t want Kosovo to use it in their statehood bid with the UN General Assembly.

RT:When we spoke a year ago in Moscow, you told me you would respect the will of the people when deciding on Kosovo’s status. Are you considering holding a referendum on the issue?

TN: I am, but we first have to pick the right time for a referendum, and decide what exactly we should ask the people.

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