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Vucic's government won't resign over protests – Serbia's foreign minister

As talks with breakaway Kosovo remain frozen, the Serbian government finds itself facing the tide of mass protests sweeping across the Balkans. Is Europe’s eastern backyard about to be shaken up? We asked Ivica Dacic, the Serbian foreign minister.

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Podcast https://soundcloud.com/rttv/sets/sophieco  

Sophie Shevardnadze: Ivica Dacic, it’s such a great pleasure to have you once again on our show, we missed you, it’s been probably a year or so, so once a year, it’s a must. And since lots of things have been happening, especially in Serbia, kind of turbulent times, protests are raging in your country since December. Your President, Vucic, is saying that he’s not going to bow down to any of the demands. Do you think it’s a good approach to actually be so hard on the protesters? Could it be that they will get even angrier? 

Ivica Dacic: Well, you know what, they demand Vucic’s resignation. He is not crazy to do that. Therefore, there’s no need to get excited about the protests, I am not sure if you understand, but here we do not have a situation where the parties in power and the opposition are equal in terms of the number of MPs or by the number of votes. Here we have a situation where Vucic's party, my party and coalition have more than 60% of the votes, while all protesters have around 10%. The difference is quite large. All these protests can last for who knows how long, but no one should think that one can just come to the demonstrations and say that Vucic has to resign. Power is gained or lost only in the elections. 

SS: So this protest thing is actually very popular all across Europe. If you look at France, with the Yellow Vests protest, they’ve been ravaging France for almost half a year now, and Emmanuel Macron is actually travelling the regions with Q&A sessions to actually understand what the people want, what their demands are. Do you think that could be, maybe, an option for Vucic and Serbia? 

ID: You know what, you are looking at the situation from abroad and you really think that there is some political instability in Serbia. This is just one big television show, which means that false picture is created and it seems as if there were some demonstrations that endanger the government. It is far from it, this is a Potemkin village. If Vucic were to announce snap elections, the opposition would not participate in them because they know they do not stand a chance. Regardless of Macron, Vucic has already organized a campaign as a president talking about the future of Serbia. Everyone can see how many people gather at the biggest opposition rally as opposed to the rallies that Vucic and I are organize together. The difference is great:  our events gather 10 to 15 times as many people. This is a huge difference and there really is not any political instability in Serbia at all. We only have various incidents, caused to draw attention and popularize the opposition rally. I will say this one more time - everyone has the right to protest, but the elections are the only way in which one can come to power. Thousands of people cannot just come in front of the presidential palace and say that the president must resign. 

SS: Ok, I understand your point of view, but whatever it is that is taking place in Serbia, in Serbian case, is there any reason to suspect foreign involvement? Because usually, when people come out in the streets, no matter where, either Russia or America is blamed for it, depending on who you like less. 

ID: Listen, there probably is a certain influence from the outside. When something like this happens in our region, the usual suspects are the western counties, because they have something to gain by provoking the instability, since they are not fans of  governments that make decisions on their own. Someone is helping these demonstrations; they are going live on the American television channel in Serbia with the participation of the people who cooperate with some cable channels. This why we suspect that there is a certain foreign influence. However, that is absolutely irrelevant. We are not voting in Washington or in Moscow, we are voting in Belgrade, in Nish, in Novi Sad. Serbia is not Venezuela, there’s no doing things this way here. 

SS: Ok, but if you look at the larger spectre, Serbia is not the only country in the Balkans with protests in the street. You have thing stirring up in Kosovo, in Albania, Montenegro, so when a person looks at it from the outside, they’re asking themselves, maybe it’s like the Arab Spring, but Balkan edition? 

ID: This is nothing new for us. I have been in politics for 29 years, I've been through all kinds of things, I've seen everything in the streets. You cannot compare these protests in Belgrade with protests that are happening elsewhere, because, you know, when there are elections and when there are problems, if the political difference between the government and the opposition is small, then it is politically uncertain. Here the difference is huge, and it is obvious that this does not pose any danger to power. That is why Vucic said he wants to talk about the future, about the program. The program of these opposition parties is unknown. The opposition consists of different parties, some of them are extreme right-wingers and others are extreme leftists. Some say that Kosovo should be recognized, others say that no agreement on Kosovo should be permitted. Some advocate cooperation with America to join NATO, while others are in favour of cooperation with Russia. Some accuse Serbs of waging genocide, although they are Serbs themselves, and others seek to expel Hungarians from Serbia. They all united because they hate Vucic. However, they do not have enough support for this to cause political instability. Therefore, as far as Serbia is concerned, we will not see the scenario where the government is toppled through mass protests play itself out here. It happened once, on October 5, 2000. 

SS: Ok. And then, there is the eternal question of Kosovo, and just recently, the Kosovan President has said that regardless of all the difficulties, Serbia and Kosovo can reach an agreement. Do you share his enthusiasm? 

ID: No, I do not. When the Albanians ask for an agreement, they think we should recognize Kosovo. They do not recognize any other arrangement. They declared the state unilaterally eleven years ago. They failed to round off their statehood, did not become members of the United Nations, did not become members of the OSCE or members of the Council of Europe. Five EU member states did not recognize Kosovo. You cannot achieve a permanent solution without compromising. If the Albanians are ready for a compromise, then I can share that enthusiasm. Unfortunately, since they are not ready for a compromise, they have now introduced 100% tariffs on Serbian and Bosnian-Herzegovinian goods. There is no further  dialogue until these tariffs are abolished. Therefore, I cannot share this enthusiasm. One thing is certain - Serbia will never recognize Kosovo in the way they did it unilaterally. We will certainly not accept this unilateral act. We are ready for an agreement, we are ready for compromises. Let everyone present their ideas of what a compromise could be, but if there is no such thing, I think we are far from reaching an agreement. 

SS: So you were talking about compromise, let’s talk about compromise within Kosovo. The country’s Parliament has approved what it’s called Platform for Dialogue with Serbia, and then, it was boycotted right away with the Kosovan opposition. Do you think that could actually… This is, like, a good platform that could work for a dialogue, but could it be scattered by hardliners from within Kosovo? 

ID: Not only the opposition, but also the Kosovo government has created a platform against this dialogue, because their platform does not allow any compromise. Their platform talks about Serbian crimes, how Serbia should pay war reparations. Being  an artificial state, Kosovo simply thinks that everything is already over. When they wake up from their delusions, they will have to face a terrible reality  - 13 countries have withdrawn their recognition of Kosovo, meaning that Kosovo no longer has the majority to become member of international organizations, and no agreement or decision can be reached without Serbia’s consent. They do not want any compromise, they want maximum. This is unacceptable for us. That is why it should be clear to everyone that Albanians are the biggest obstacle to reaching an agreement. Again, on the other hand, everyone should also be clear that no nation in Europe has two states. The Albanian people cannot have two states. This practically means that this utopia must end here - Kosovo is not a state. If someone thinks Kosovo should be a state, he supports Greater Albania, because it is only a matter of time until Kosovo unites with Albania. There is no dilemma here and it is the biggest threat to the stability in the region. 

SS: On top of that, there’s the tariff situation, the 100% tariffs that Kosovo has imposed on all Serbian goods, and even though Kosovars are actually suffering because of these tariffs, Kosovo is saying, we’re not going to lift them until Serbia recognises our independence. That’s not happening, right? So Serbia is saying, we’re not going to even start talks until the tariffs are lifted! So you’re in a deadlock here, aren’t you?   

ID: Well, Pristina is responsible for this. It is true that there can be no renewed talks until the tariffs are abolished. How can there be? Where in the world do you have 100% tariffs? This is a proof that Pristina does not want to cooperate with us economically. They say they will revoke the tariffs when Serbia recognizes Kosovo. That’s not happening. If they do not revoke the tariffs, then there will be no further dialogue, and we will introduce measures against them. President Vucic announced that if they do not revoke the tariffs within six months, half a year (we will wait until then), then we will introduce counter measures. Listen, they have one tactic, to constantly act unilaterally. When it comes to compromising, they do not say they will form the Community of Serb municipalities. Instead, now they say they will abolish the tariffs if we do something in return. Why should we do anything if they imposed insane tariffs? First, they have to revoke the tariffs and then we can discuss further. It appears that everyone has forgotten about the Community of Serb municipalities. 

SS: I understand the logic. But if we follow that logic, just in the nearest future, Berlin is going to host high-level talks with Serbia, Kosovo, Albania. Would Serbia sitting down at the same table with Albania and Kosovo mean actually that… Not mean, but would be seen as Serbia caving in, in terms of the tariffs? 

ID: No, because this is not a continuation of the dialogue. It is a meeting that Angela Merkel and Macron have scheduled with the leaders of the so-called Western Balkans. The aim is to discuss all the problems in the Balkans, not to continue  the negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina. I mean, this is not the main topic. We certainly will not agree to  new talks between Belgrade and Pristina held in Brussels, not until the tariffs are revoked. Serbia is solid on this decision, and there is no dilemma here. If someone thinks Serbia is weak, they are  wrong. We cannot back down on what we have defined as our national and state interest. Second, if someone thinks Serbia should not participate in this, then they should do it without Serbia. Why are they inviting Serbia if everything is over? They think that it is over. It is not over. If it were over, they would not be forcing us to recognize Kosovo. 

SS: Ok. And then, there is the famous land swap theory that everyone’s discussing lately, and that would actually mean that Kosovo gives Serbia it’s northern region that is Serb-dominated, and Serbia would give Kosovo its south region that is Albanian-dominated, and everyone’s happy. But if that happens, then EU is saying that that’s not a good thing, because that could open Pandora’s box for the Balkan region. What do you think? 

ID: They should have thought about it when they recognized Kosovo. You know what they are saying? That there cannot be any border changes. What borders? Internationally recognized borders of Serbia are with Kosovo within Serbia. Who could cancel the internationally recognized borders of Serbia? The ones that have recognized Kosovo have opened the Pandora's Box and reverse it now. We suggested solutions to the problem between Belgrade and Pristina. These solutions were never discussed; it was just the idea that was being said. There was no specific discussion on the matter. There is no danger that it could be a challenge for others. After all, when they recognized Kosovo, they said that this is the case of sui generis, that is, the case for itself. Now they say it will be a precedent for some other countries. It is hypocritical. These are double standards. Those who recognized Kosovo do not have the right to give us lessons about the absence of a border change because they first violated this principle. And what borders does Kosovo have? What borders does Kosovo have? Kosovo was never a state. It was always within Serbia, within Yugoslavia. 

SS: Ok, I understand, but do I also comprehend correctly that this famous land swap theory that everyone is talking about, Serbia is not even considering it seriously? 

ID: Well, listen, this is not the land swap. We have never talked about it, but we are, in theory, ready to consider any possibility of a compromise solution. Serbia believes that Kosovo is a part of Serbia. Albanians believe that the whole of Kosovo should be an independent state. What is the compromise between these two positions? There is another thing, and that is the real life, on the spot. The real territory where the Serbs live in Kosovo. This is practically the territory where Pristina does not have any authority.  That is the point. If we are looking for compromises, we need to look for something that is real, which will not cause problems. However, the subject seems too far, we have not come to this matter yet. We are now discussing the issue of tariffs. We are far from solving the problem. When someone is making trouble, someone else is teaching us a lesson about the land swap.  I have never seen something like this. A year ago, Belgium and the Netherlands signed an agreement on the land swap. 

SS: And then, Albania is always somewhere around all of the Kosovo issues, and right now, we have the pro-Albanian protests taking place in Kosovo. And I remember Tirana floating this idea of Kosovo joining it as one of the regions, even if that is at the expense of Albanian EU membership. Do you think that could happen? 

ID: We have been saying this from the very beginning. That this is the main goal - Great Albania. I don’t know if you remember, but when the Macedonian Parliament Speaker Talat Xhaferi first appeared on television, there was an Albanian flag on his table, next to the Macedonian one. On the other hand, there are ten times as many Albanian flags in Kosovo as the Kosovan flags. Kosovars as a nation do not exist. Albanians and Serbs live in Kosovo. That is why this is a threat to the stability in the region. The EU does not see that the countries that recognized Kosovo have given the basis for Albania to discuss it at all. There are great objections now to Albania's behavior, but there are no direct condemnations or reactions. Brussels does not condemn the Albania, or any other country, the same way they condemn Serbia and what the Serbian people do. These are your double standards. Imagine if Serbia was to say that Republika Srpska should be a part of Serbia. 

SS: So when you say that Serbs, and that’s your quote, may be expelled from northern Kosovo today, like it happened in Croatia in 95, by cloud-minded people, who do you mean? 

ID: Well, I refer to the Albanians. Amongst the Kosovo leadership, there are those who could think of something like that. This creates a big problem. If KFOR does not react, then Serbia will have to react because it causes political and regional instability. That is why I say that there is a great danger and instability in Kosovo, and that is why it is important to resolve this issue, that there is some agreement between Belgrade and Pristina. That is why we are warning about this kind of danger. It is important to say in advance, that the international community will not see Belgrade standing quietly while Serbs are being killed in the north of Kosovo, as it unfortunately happened in Croatia. 

SS: And then, I want to talk a little bit about NATO, because 20 years after the NATO bombardment, I spoke to you President, and he actually said: “We have forgiven, but we’re not going to forget what has happened.” So right now, we see Serbia cooperating with NATO, having joint exercises. Do you think it’s easy for the Serbian people the digest that?     

ID: We are cooperating primarily to maintain normal relations, because Serbia is surrounded by NATO, and because NATO is running the security forces in Kosovo. Even under the Brussels agreement, there is an obligation for NATO and KFOR to guarantee that the Albanian armed forces won’t attack the Serbs in the north. However, this cooperation is limited only to military neutrality. We do not want to join, and we will not become a member of NATO. When it comes to NATO aggression, our people still think the worst of it. It is a war crime committed against Serbia and the Serbian people. 

SS: So… But you’re right, Serbia’s already encircled by NATO countries, and as further time passes, more Balkan countries will be joining NATO. That’s a fact, because that’s their aspirations. I mean, how hard is it going to be for Serbia to just stand in the corner and watch how everyone around it is joining their lines? 

ID: The same as before. We are already surrounded.  It was the same before, when the Warsaw pact existed; we were not members of the Warsaw pact. We have a policy of military neutrality, and it will remain so. If you look at what our people think, the vast majority of Serbia is against Serbia’s entry into NATO, and Vucic therefore says that we can forgive, in the sense that we will co-operate with the countries that bombed us, but that is something that cannot be forgotten, at least not by our generation. 

SS: Ok. Let’s talk a bit about economy. I heard your Construction Minister recently say that China is Serbia best friend. And right now what we see is that the European Continent is a little cautious about China, it’s trying to limit Chinese investment in the continent, and all that. So do you think this close friendship between China and Serbia, because you are already pressured by the EU over your relations, and about your relations with Russia. Do you think you could be further pressured with your relations with China?   

ID: We will, it's something normal and common. We are resistant to pressure. They have objections to everything. We abolish visas for China, the West objects. We abolish visas for India, Indonesia, the West objects. We abolish visas for Russia, they object. Now we are signing a free trade agreement with the EAEU, they object. There is a problem only when Serbia is friendly, they have no objections when Croatia is friends with China, when Hungary is friends with China, when Germany is friends with China - these are double standards.  It’s the same with Germans and the northern European countries that can use Russian gas from the North Stream, but the Serbs should not use the Russian gas, because they will be dazed by it. Germans and others won’t be. These are double standards, but we live with them constantly. 

SS: that’s actually my last question, because that’s another point of divergence between Serbia and the EU, the Turk Stream pipeline that’s going to pass to the EU though Turkey from Russia, and through the Balkans. The EU is very weary about it, and your Energy minister says, no, Serbia will not cave in to any pressure. But we’ve heard that before, with Bulgaria and South Stream, but look what happened! Are you sure that it’s not going to happen with the Turk Stream and Serbia, the same thing that happened with Bulgaria and South Stream? 

ID: The companies that will build the infrastructure and distribute the gas are now organized differently. However, I completely agree with you that there is a lot of pressure, everyone worked against the South Stream. On the other hand, what is the consequence of that… Now Turkey has joined the project, now it is called the Turkish Stream. Serbia has finished all the paperwork, the construction of 400 km of pipeline has already begun in our country. I hope that everything in Bulgaria will be all right, that there will be no obstacles this time. Of course, this is the main reason for the political pressure on Serbia, but nobody else is offering us the gas. Gas is a very concrete matter that Serbia needs in to provide heating to its citizens, it is necessary for the industry to function. They cannot offer us empty promises. All talks, but no gas. Even the United States offered liquid gas through the terminal on the island of Krk, Croatia. However, this does not exist, there are some plans to build this infrastructure, but it has not happened yet. Serbia now gets the gas only through Ukraine and when Russia closes that pipeline, where are we supposed to get the gas from? We are used to these pressures and to double standards. Serbia does not cave under pressure, but attention needs to be paid to other countries. 

SS: Right, Foreign Minister, thank you very much for the interview, and good luck with everything.

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