Montenegro in NATO example of elites acting against nation's wishes – ex-Serbian FM

Having won an unprecedented amount of power and with parliament under his control, the new president of Serbia declares his desire to bring the nation into the European Union. That, of course, comes at a price - including giving up claims on Kosovo. So what future will President Vucic see for Serbia - and the rest of the Balkan nations? How will that shift the balance between East and West - at the very powder keg of Europe? We ask Vuk Jeremic, former foreign minister of Serbia.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:  Vuk Jeremic, former Foreign Minister of Serbia, welcome to the show once again, it’s really great to have you back, sir. The new Serbian president Aleksander Vucic is saying that joining the EU is at the top of Serbia’s agenda. To do that, relations with Kosovo have to be normalised - and Vucic is saying he’s open to talks. Will the new Serbian leadership accept Kosovo’s independence for the sake of joining the EU? And will the Serbs support that?

Vuk Jeremic: I certainly hope that they are not going to do that because this wouldn’t be a democratic decision, there’s a very strong, overwhelming majority, I would say, in Serbia, against such a move. But talking about the European Accession under the current circumstances in Europe, it’s a little bit of an abstract concept. I think that with all the complications in the EU, Brexit included, the policy of enlargement is in a way put on hold, so, I think we’re talking about a long period that is ahead of us, even if there’s a political will on both sides to go jointly that way.

SS: If you had to take a guess, what would you say - people’s support for joining the EU, is it stronger than the ‘Kosovo is Serbia’ sentiment?

VJ: Europe is a very important partner for Serbia, because if you look at our economic patterns, if you look at our trade patterns, and so on, there’s no doubt that working closely and trading and having a relationship with Europe is very important for Serbia. But I personally think that there can be no doubt when it comes to the issue of Kosovo that this could be somehow traded in exchange for European accession. I don’t think that Serbian people would support this, not now, not in the near future, and not in the far future, if you ask me.

SS: Several EU member states  - Greece, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania and Spain - haven’t recognised Kosovo. Can the EU really demand Serbia to resolve its issues with Pristina, when there appears to be a lack of unity in the EU on this issue?

VJ: I think, there’s very little appetite for European enlargement right now on behalf of I would say a large majority of European states. Perhaps, certain states are looking for an excuse to put a halt or slow down the process of enlargement and the EU is structured in a way that every single member can put a temporary hold on an issue such as enlargement, so, I don’t think that anybody at this moment is seriously considering a possibility of enlarging the Union, so the fact that there’s disunity on this issue like on many others is certainly not terribly positive for the prospect of having Serbia.

SS: Vucic’s party controls the Parliament, and he’s appointing his own prime minister - is this too much power concentrated in the hands of one man? The EU has a lot of democratic requirements for those aspiring to join - how will this affect Serbia’s EU aspirations?

VJ: When it comes to democratic governance in Serbia, I am afraid that we have seen better days. We do have our Constitution that envisages a limited role for the President, especially in comparison with that of the Prime Minister and the majority in the Parliament, but… let’s see how this works out in practice, with the new President. I have expectations that the power is not going to remain within the office of the Prime Minister, like our democratic Constitution envisages, but let’s see how the whole situation unfolds in the months to come.

SS: Right now the things are the way they are, Vucic has almost absolute power -  Does Vucic’s power make it easier for him to move the country closer to Europe without fearing criticism from pro-Russian voices?

VJ: This is certainly a possibility. You know, when it comes to public opinion, at least in the Balkans it doesn’t necessarily have to be related to the way that the country’s leadership is moving, and Montenegro comes to mind when I speak about the issues like this. There wasn’t a majority for Montenegro’s joining NATO, for example, nevertheless they did join - this was a decision by the ruling elites, and therefore, in Serbia one has to remain vigilant and watchful when it comes to its future moves, but judging by what the leader of this country is saying, for him and his government, joining EU is going to be the top priority as you just said earlier.

SS: Here’s a million dollar question:   will Serbia’s membership in NATO ever be a possibility, or will history and the memories of the Yugoslavia bombings stand in the way?

VJ: I certainly cannot speak on behalf of the government, I have no way of knowing whether there may be temptations to go down Montenegro’s path, where, as I said, there was no support for joining NATO. When it comes to Serbia, the situation is much clearer, when it comes to public opinion. Serbia’s public opinion is sharply opposed to changing the policy of military neutrality. The vast majority of political parties are having the same opinion, there are numerous voices, myself included, which believe that Serbia would be safer and better off if remains militarily neutral, but the reality is that in Serbia, under the current circumstances, everything is down to the will of just one man, and he did change opinions in the past. If you look at the trajectory of his political development, you could see sudden, abrupt changes. I hope he doesn’t change his rhetoric and what he says on this particular issue, because it is of strategic significance for Serbia.

SS: That and also Serbia doesn’t seem to enjoy military neutrality right now, it enjoys extensive cooperation with NATO.  It’s signed several agreements, like the Status of Forces - and one with NATO’s support and procurement organisation. Do you feel like Serbia is becoming a de facto NATO member with obligations, but without rights?

VJ: I wouldn’t go this far in making an assessment, but there has been a number of developments recently, which made Serbia under the current government cooperate much closer with NATO than in the past, but right now, to be very honest, I wouldn’t call it a closing in in either direction.

SS: Let me ask you this: why does NATO need such extensive rights in your country? It does enjoy extensive powers, like the NATO personnel can freely pass across the country, and they have immunity from prosecution.

VJ: That’s probably better if you would ask NATO officials about that. I certainly believe that Serbia should remain militarily neutral, and act in reality, not just in rhetoric, not just on paper, it should act as a neutral country - therefore, treating all external powers, military or otherwise, in a same and equal way.

SS: Sorry, but, one of the arguments in favour of a pact with NATO is ‘protecting the Serbs in Kosovo’  - but international NATO forces are already in Kosovo and they failed to protect them before, has anything changed today?

VJ: Sadly, the situation remains precarious when it comes to the Serbian population in Kosovo, they are a very vulnerable community, there are some international forces, NATO forces there, there are no other forces that can potentially control the outburst of violence, especially hostility against Kosovo Serbs - so, there’s very little that we can do under the circumstances, except diplomatically and otherwise cooperate with an international community to make sure that our kin in Kosovo are protected as well as possible, but the situation is not really pleasing in any way.

SS: You mentioned Montenegro. It has recently joined NATO – and it seems like the alliance is bent on further expansion in the Balkans. However, it’s not like Montenegro or other states like Macedonia are really going to wow allies with their military might - what does NATO need them for?

VJ: For them it’s a strategic issue of closing a certain territory, making sure that there are no empty holes in geographical space in the architecture in the certain part of the Mediterranean, but perhaps Montenegro has some significance, because it has sea access. But when it comes to Serbia, I don’t envisage an easy transition from a position of military neutrality to a position of acceding to the Pact, there are going to be very strong voices opposed to this, and even though we do have… a not terribly, I would say, democratic government at this moment, I just hope that they’re not going to dare to go down that path, because the opposition of Serbian people will probably very fierce to that.

SS: You say Serbia needs cooperation with the EU and NATO – and on the other hand also with Russia. Does the current leadership have what it takes to do both?

VJ: I’m going to give you a very subjective answer. I don’t think they are doing as well as they could, especially when it comes to relationship with Russia, which is, in my opinion, an actually strategic, significant partnership. Russia is the only sure vote in the UNSC, with a veto power, that Serbia can count on at any moment. This has been our experience so far, this was my experience when I ran Serbian diplomacy, and this is a relationship that needs to be nurtured and expanded, and I don’t think that the full potential is being used of the relationship, especially in the economic sphere, that we could have between Serbia and Russia.

SS: Chair of the European Parliament’s committee on foreign affairs David McAllister has said that Serbia’s relations with Russia are cause for concern for the EU - why is the EU worried, and should it be?

VJ: I don’t think that they should be terribly worried about that, this is a historic relationship, this has been the case, the close relationship between Serbia and Russia, for many hundreds of years, and I don’t think that this going to change, I certainly hope that this is not going to change in the future. Serbia is in a very particular situation, Serbia has an open and unresolved issue of Kosovo, which is being treated by the UNSC, Serbia can count on the support of Russia in the UNSC, and in that sense, it would be unreasonable to expect from Serbia to change for worse its relationship with Russia.

SS: No, I just wonder why are the European states so worried? Why do you think they are so worried?

VJ: I don’t think that they have a strong case in this regard, but you’ve got to talk to them. I personally don’t see anything worrying in this Serbia-Russia relationship, I don’t see this as a threat to anybody, regionally, or elsewhere. I think Russia does contribute to stability in the Balkans through its actions in the UNSC, when it comes to all matters Balkans, and other international actors are far more present and vigilant than Russia is at the moment, so I personally do not see a pressing reason to worry over that.

SS: The EU has called on Serbia to align its policy on Russia with the bloc - that means impose sanctions. Is that politically possible - especially for patriotic politicians like Vucic?

VJ: I have to disagree with you, when it comes to whether Vucic is patriotic politician or not, but that’s just myself. I think everything is possible when it comes to mr. Vucic. He did serious flip-flops in the policy before over most significant issues. In the past, he was very much anti-Europe, today he’s very much pro-Europe. Today, his position is that Serbia should not be joining sanctions against Russia, and I very much hope that this policy is going to remain for Serbia to join towards Russia. In my opinion it would politically for sure, but also economically suicidal. I just hope that Serbian government is not going to change its policy in spite of all potential pressures.

SS: Here’s the thing, in your opinion, when do you think Belgrade have to drop the balancing act and be forced to make a choice? It will happen sooner or later, like we say here in Russia: you can’t be just a little bit pregnant, right.

VJ: If on the other side you would have a clear and imminent prospect of joining the EU,  then perhaps, one could seriously look at the possibilities, and some people would probably be in favor of remaining in this kind of relationship with Russia and some will not, but I think that the vast majority of people in Serbia under any circumstances whatsoever would renounce any attempt at changing Russia’s policy. Policy of Serbia towards Russia has been pretty much a constant over a period of time: I’m not only talking in historical terms, but I’m talking even the past 20 years, where we had various governments in Serbia, coming in and coming out. I don’t think that it is terribly likely that Serbia will choose to change it.

SS: But like you’ve said, when it comes to Mr. Vucic, you never know what’s coming up next, right, so hypothetically speaking, if he changes his…

VJ: Quite naturally.

SS: If he changes his Serbia-Russia policy, could it cost him his presidential seat?

VJ: It really depends on whether or not democratic process in Serbia and democratic life in Serbia is going to be upheld under his leadership. There are no indication on whether he wants to do a change at this very moment, but, judging by his past behaviour, I wouldn’t be surprised if he chooses to do so. However, I don’t think it is possible to change public opinion in Serbia in such a significant way, and in Serbia Russia is viewed as a partner and a friend, and for a good reason. I’m sure this is going to stay this way regardless of what this man or that man in power chooses to do whilst pursuing his own political and personal interest.

SS: Kosovo is attempting to transform its security forces into an acting national army, but Serbia is saying it will not allow that to happen. If Kosovo moves forward with its plans, how will Belgrade retaliate?

VJ: I think it’s only within the realm of diplomacy where Serbia can continue to oppose such a move. I very much hope that our current government is going to use everything that is in its diplomatic arsenal to make sure that Kosovo Albanians are dissuaded from going down that path. I think it will be dangerous path, it will be a clear violation of Resolution 1244, it would be clearly a contribution to instability and not just in the province but in the wider region, and I very  much hope that international community is going to vehemently oppose such a move. Sadly, we know that there are centers of power in the international community that are not hugely opposed to such a development, but I hope that Serbia will work with international community - Russia and others - to make sure that the diplomatic path is found out of this potential dangerous deadlock.

SS: Tensions inside neighbouring Bosnia are simmering, with Bosnian Serbs mulling over a possible secession. Vucic, when he was Prime Minister, said that war was in the air. Do you think Serbia is ready for another war, I mean,  can really the Bosnian problem spark a conflict once again?

VJ: I certainly wouldn’t agree with anyone saying that Serbia is ready for a war, regardless of who says this. I think that the whole region is tired of military conflicts and I truly hope that there’s going to be enough responsible leadership on all sides for this to be avoided. But Bosnia is clearly in crisis, this isn’t news, it hasn’t been functioning terribly well for a while, but I very much hope that disagreements could be resolved in a different way and not by means of military conflict. I’m certainly very much hopeful that peace will remain in the Balkans regardless of what this or that politician says or does.

SS: What happens if the Bosnian Serbs secede?

VJ: I don’t think that they’re terribly likely to do so under the current circumstances or in the foreseeable future. There are political tensions in Bosnia, but I do not think that the Bosnian Serb leadership has any imminent plans to step out or to try and change unilaterally or violate in any shape or form the Dayton agreement. I think it is very-very important that all parties stick to the Dayton agreement. Dayton agreement may not be perfect, but that’s the only thing that we have on the table, and I hope that international community is going to play a constructive role in this regard and make sure that Dayton  is upheld in its entirety, including all the provisions that are guaranteeing the autonomy and the functioning institutions of Republica Serbska.

SS: The New York Times has written about the radicalisation of the Kosovo Muslim community, influenced by Salafists from Saudi Arabia - just recently two Kosovars have been caught planning an attack in Italy. And reportedly there are people going to fight for ISIL from Kosovo… does Serbia find itself in danger with rising extremism on its borders? And what can it do about it?

VJ: I am afraid that the issue of radical Islam is common to the entire European space, and given the ongoing difficulties and conflicts in the Middle East, and given the multiplying complications in the Middle East, I think that we might see more, rather than less, incidents throughout Europe, and Serbia is certainly not an exception to this. For this part of the world, we had thousands if not more soldiers or volunteers going to fight in the Middle East, they are returning back to the Balkans, like they are returning back to France or anywhere else in Europe, and this is an issue that is not currently being adequately addressed and I think the issue of regional security, especially in the Balkans is something that we will have to approach far more seriously than we are doing it at the moment.

SS: Mr. Jeremic, thank you very much for this interview, it’s been a pleasure talking to you as usual. We were talking to Vuk Jeremic, former Foreign Minister of Serbia, discussing the country’s role in the Balkans and its relations with the EU and NATO. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next  time.