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Belgrade Media Report 05 March 2020

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United Nations Office in Belgrade

Daily Media Highlights

Thursday 5 March 2020

• Vucic: Us recognizing Kosovo but getting nothing – there will be none of that (RTV/Tanjug)
• Joksimovic: Importance of maintaining open communication with France (Tanjug)
• Patriarch Irinej at the State Department (RTS/Politika)
• SzS announces election boycott at all levels (Beta/Tanjug)
• Popov: Migrant numbers dropping (N1)
• First election list submitted to RIK: SNS collected 50.000 signatures in a few hours (Tanjug/B92)


Bosnia & Herzegovina
• Mostar: Delegations of SDA, HDZ B&H meet; No progress reached at meeting (BHT1)
• Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs says proposed amendments on formation of B&H CC are fully in line with DPA and legal priorities harmonized between B&H citizens (RTRS)
• UK Ambassador Field: UK seriously takes all attacks at legal and constitutional framework of B&H (Dnevni list)
• B&H officials comment on migrant crisis (BHT1)
• EU Defense Ministers hold informal meeting in Zagreb (Jutarnji list)
• Borrell: I told Turkish leadership that unilateral actions will bring no solutions; Western Balkans is priority for EU and me personally (Jutarnji list)
• NATO’s Stoltenberg, Ministers of Defense of EU member states meet in Zagreb to discuss new migrant situation (HRT1)
• Zagreb: Plenkovic, Stoltenberg discuss security challenges (HRT1)
• Darmanovic: Hostile propaganda against Montenegro was launched in Belgrade (MINA)


• Vucic: Most Serbs Prefer a ‘Frozen Conflict’ with Kosovo (Foreign Policy)

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Vucic: Us recognizing Kosovo but getting nothing – there will be none of that (RTV/Tanjug)


Us recognizing Kosovo and getting nothing will not happen, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said today. Responding to a journalist’s question in Novi Sad how Serbia will respond to Pristina’s ultimatum, Vucic asked: “What ultimatum? That we must recognize them and get nothing? There will be none of that,” said Vucic. Let them do their job, we’ll do ours, then let’s see who is more successful, said the President, adding that it is crucial to preserve peace and stability. Vucic confirmed that Washington is serious in its intent for Pristina’s taxes on Serbian goods to be abolished, adding that he believes the US will continue with that pressure. Asked if after his visit to the United States he believes Washington is seriously warning Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti to abolish the taxes, Vucic said: “Absolutely yes. Washington is absolutely serious about wanting Pristina’s taxes to be revoked and I am grateful to the people in the White House, first of all, and in the State Department,” said Vucic, adding he was confident that the US would continue with that pressure.


Joksimovic: Importance of maintaining open communication with France (Tanjug)


Serbian Minister for European Integration Jadranka Joksimovic said in Paris, following a meeting with French President’s Special Adviser for European Affairs Clément Beaune, that the continuity of high-level meetings with French officials shows that the country maintains open communication with Serbia. Joksimovic said that this visit to Paris, during which she also met with French Minister of State for European Affairs Amélie de Montchalin, as well as with representatives of the France-Serbia Friendship Group in the French Parliament, was very important and happened at the right time. She said that she discussed with the French President’s special adviser the future of the EU and France’s role in it. According to her, the French position is much more pragmatic in relation to some issues concerning the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, that is, the continuation of the dialogue. Beaune stressed that France expects Pristina to completely abolish taxes on goods, Joksimovic said, adding that they also discussed the new enlargement methodology proposed by the European Commission. She reiterated that Serbia expects to elaborate more precisely the possibility of applying this methodology to those countries that are already negotiating, but that, in any case, our country does not see a bad intention in the proposal and will make a decision after a thorough analysis.


Patriarch Irinej at the State Department (RTS/Politika)


Senator Samuel Brownback, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, with his associates, received His Holiness Irinej, Serbian Patriarch, at the State Department on 3 March 2020. Since Mr. Brownback was received last year by His Holiness Patriarch at the Serbian Patriarchate in Belgrade, the meeting began with the memory of the talks that took place at the time. His Holiness, the Patriarch, outlined the views of the Serbian Orthodox Church on various topics related to the Serbian people and the Serbian Orthodox Church. He asked for a little more attention to be given to the Serbian matter. The interlocutors agreed that communication is the most important, but also that it depends on leaders from the top. At the State Department in Washington, His Holiness Patriarch Irinej had discussions with Mr. Philip Reeker, Acting Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, as well as with his Deputy Matthew Palmer. The meeting was held with the attendance and the participation of His Grace Bishop Jovan of Sumadija, member of the Holy Synod of Bishops; His Grace Bishop Irinej of  East America; Vasilije Vranic;  dean of the Cathedral Church of Saint Luke in Washington; as well as proto-deacon Damjan Bozic. Serbian Patriarch Irinej also talked with representatives of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom on 3 March 2020. The Serbian Patriarch was welcomed by Mrs.  Gayle Manchin, Chair of the Commission on International Religious Freedom, with her associates, Mrs. Elizabeth Cassidy, Mrs. Keely Bakken and Mrs. Kirsten Lavery. Mrs. Nadine Maenza, Vice Chair, also participated in the telephone conversation. Patriarch Irinej was greeted with welcoming words by Mrs. Manchin, who expressed her joy over the visit of the high delegation of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Irinej  outlined the position of the Serbian Orthodox Church on various topics related to the Serbian people and the Serbian Orthodox Church.


SzS announces election boycott at all levels (Beta/Tanjug)


The Alliance for Serbia (SzS) has announced the boycott of the forthcoming elections, in response to the 4 March scheduling of general elections in Serbia for 26 April. Speaking at a news conference of the SzS in Belgrade, the leader of the SzS and of the Democratic Party (DS) Zoran Lutovac assessed that, regardless of the voter turnout, the forthcoming elections would not be legitimate without representatives of the opposition, whose demands, as he said, the authorities are ignoring. He stressed that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic was creating his own opposition, instead of accepting the demands of the real opposition for improving the election conditions. He said the boycott was a “big no” to Vucic’s authorities, but a “big yes” to a normal and orderly Serbia. The leader of the Dveri Movement Bosko Obradovic stated that he wished Vucic “the best of health, a fair trial and a large library in prison,” in comment of the following statement, which Vucic made in the morning of 4 March: “He (Obradovic) would like for me to be killed, but that is unpopular for him to say.” “As a Christian, I do not wish anyone harm. Boycott is just the means for securing fair elections, and then a fair trial of Aleksandar Vucic,” Obradovic stated. Asked by reporters about his stand regarding the migrant crisis, which is widely contested, Obradovic said that he would speak about that at news conferences of his Dveri Movement, because, in his words, “we have not gathered here to speak about individual policies, and it is known that SzS members have various political stances.”


Popov: Migrant numbers dropping (N1)


The Serbian Refugee Commissariat has not registered any increase in the number of migrants coming to the country but has seen a more visible departure of them, Commissariat official Nikola Popov told N1 on Thursday. Popov said that no increase in the number of migrants has been reported after Turkey decided to open its borders towards the EU. There are 5,691 people housed in refugee centers in Serbia and some 650 have been registered who do not want to stay in them. “Some have been scared by stories that they will be deported back to Greece or Bulgaria and there must be others in hotel and hostels as well as some who think this is just too much procedure to continue on their way,” he said, adding that most of the migrants are men.

Popov warned of false news about crimes committed by migrants which appeared on social networks, recalling that in the eight months of 2015-16 when the Balkan route was open about a million people passed through Serbia without a single serious incident being reported. According to him, the number of serious crimes committed by migrants in Serbia account for just 0.06 percent of the total number of crimes.


First election list submitted to RIK: SNS collected 50.000 signatures in a few hours (Tanjug/B92)


The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) first submitted a list to the Republic Electoral Commission (RIK) for the upcoming parliamentary elections in Serbia. The list holder, with about 50.000 signatures collected in a few hours, is the SNS leader Aleksandar Vucic, and the first on the list is the Minister of Agriculture Branislav Nedimovic. On the list of “Aleksandar Vucic – For Our Children”, among the candidates for the 250 members of the Republican parliament, apart from the Progressives, are representatives of SDPS Rasim Ljajic, PUPS, Socialist Movement, and Bogoljub Karic‘s Strength of Serbia Movement (PSS). The list was submitted by the President of the Executive Board Darko Glisic, the Minister of Agriculture at the top of the list Nedimovic, SNS Vice President and the Mayor of Novi Sad, Milos Vucevic, SDPS President Rasim Ljajic, President of the Socialist Movement Aleksandar Vulin, PSS MP Dragomir Karic and others.

According to the Law on the Election of Deputies, the RIK will announce the electoral list no later than 24 hours upon its receipt.




Mostar: Delegations of SDA, HDZ B&H meet; No progress reached at meeting (BHT1)


Delegations of SDA and HDZ Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) held a meeting in Mostar on Wednesday to discuss a number of important issues, such as the issue of the B&H Election Law, the migrant crisis, completion of the process of formation of authorities at the Federation of B&H level, the issue of elections in Mostar and ‘Uborak’ landfill. Meeting between representatives of SDA and HDZ B&H failed to yield any major political agreements. However, following the meeting, leaders of HDZ B&H and SDA, Dragan Covic and Bakir Izetbegovic, stated that elections will definitely be held in Mostar. The only thing that was agreed is the manner of election of 35 councilors to the Mostar City Council, while other steps will be further discussed. Covic stressed that he believes steps forward will be made. As for the issues of the migrant crisis and ‘Uborak’ landfill, Covic and Izetbegovic said that talks will continue and that best solutions will be found. At the same time, there is still no agreement on formation of the authorities at the Federation of B&H level. Covic said that there will be no new Federation of B&H Government without amendments to the B&H Election Law and equality of all peoples. “Many stances were brought closer together, but ultimately we are far from being able to say that we agreed all strategic issues. For us, for HDZ B&H, priority is election legislation, and that would completely relax all relations in the time ahead. But, general commitment for local elections is to ensure maximum standard in holding those elections and that Mostar of course has to have elections in October this year,” Covic underlined. On the other hand, Izetbegovic said that Croats should not condition formation of the authorities at the Federation of B&H level in such a way, adding that SDA believes that formation of the Federation of B&H Government should not be in any way tied to the B&H Election Law and to what HDZ B&H is interested in. “We did not solve strategic things with HDZ B&H. I am not an optimist that we can solve that quickly because it is necessary to harmonize decisions of the Constitutional Court, the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, aspirations of HDZ B&H and the Croat People’s Assembly (HNS), our views, but also views of left, i.e. civic parties in B&H,” Izetbegovic stressed.


Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs says proposed amendments on formation of B&H CC are fully in line with DPA and legal priorities harmonized between B&H citizens (RTRS)


The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that the proposed amendments on the formation of the Constitutional Court (CC) of B&H are fully in line with the Dayton Peace Accords (DPA) and legal priorities harmonized between B&H citizens. The Ministry stressed that peoples in B&H should resolve current issues within the DPA framework alone, without foreign influence or pressures, expressing hope that all ruling structures in B&H will contribute to the adoption of the legal initiative aimed at strengthening the integrity and democratic capacity of B&H. Moscow also calls on the international representatives in B&H, including the EU Delegation (EUD) to B&H and the OSCE Mission to B&H, to follow their mandate and the strategy of local responsibility, which was defined by the Steering Board of the Peace Implementation Council. SDA reacted to this statement, saying that this statement gives direct support to SNSD’s legal proposal for departing of foreign judges, which shows that Russia is carrying out contradictory politics, which has single goal- to destabilize B&H. SDA stressed that presence of foreign judges in B&H CC is a Dayton category, nothing less than existence of entities and cantons is, and it cannot be abolished through ultimatums and blackmail.


UK Ambassador Field: UK seriously takes all attacks at legal and constitutional framework of B&H (Dnevni list)


UK Ambassador to B&H Matthew Field talked about the things that Ambassadors of Quint countries told Serb member of the B&H Presidency Milorad Dodik at the recent meeting held with him. “The statement of Quint Ambassadors from 14 February clearly defines our joint stance. We have especially underlined that one-sided withdrawal from institutions or blocking of the decision-making process in these institutions is unacceptable and counter-productive no matter from which side it comes and it can only weaken those improvements and progress that citizens want to see” Field said and reminded that the entities have no right to secession from B&H and those legally exist only on the basis of the Constitution of B&H. Field noted that this single approach was presented at all meetings with B&H political representatives “who must start working on improvement of lives of those who elected them”. Asked whether Dodik will follow the path of dissolution or secession, Field said that his country takes all attacks on legal and constitutional framework of B&H seriously, just like UK’s partners in Washington, Berlin, Brussels, Rome and Paris. Asked about Brexit and to what extent he as the Ambassador can feel certain change when acting with other international factors in B&H is in question, Field said the UK citizens decided to leave the EU, while B&H citizens clearly and consistently choose the path to the EU. He also said that since adoption of the abovementioned decision, programs, arrangements and presence of the UK all over B&H and Western Balkans has increased. “One of our closest partners in supporting the success of B&H, bilaterally and though Quint and the PIC, is the EU. I believe that Ambassador Johann Sattler does a great job and he explained the possibilities ahead of B&H this year, including the Summit in Zagreb, as well as the work on stances from the EC Opinion and (Reinhard) Priebe’s report. However, functional governments turned towards reforms are necessary in order to use these possibilities”, Field concluded.


B&H officials comment on migrant crisis (BHT1)


Republika Srpska (RS) President Zeljka Cvijanovic stressed that the RS does not have capacity nor any need to make centers or accommodate migrants because, according to her, that brings with it security, economic, humanitarian and health risks. Cvijanovic underlined that precisely because of this, the RS Government will adopt on Friday an operational plan which will only confirm the earlier conclusions of the RS authorities. Cvijanovic emphasized that it would be good if the region had coordination in protection of borders in spite of political disagreements.

RS Prime Minister Radovan Viskovic announced that the RS government will analyze the operational plan for the migrant crisis, adding that the goal is to protect the RS’ property and its citizens from possible higher influx of migrants. Chairman of the RS parliament Commission for Security Darko Babalj said that the RS must not allow formation of migrant reception centers in its territory. Instead, according to Babalj, the RS should continue acting the way it has acted so far, in line with conclusions already adopted. SDA leader Bakir Izetbegovic said that it is necessary to provide assistance and support to the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Ministry of Security, so that they can protect the border and prevent chaos.


EU Defense Ministers hold informal meeting in Zagreb (Jutarnji list)


EU Defense Ministers arrived in Zagreb on Wednesday, for a two-day informal meeting. During these two days of the meeting, the topics will be priorities in the field of defense and security of the European Union, defense cooperation of EU Member States, and NATO-EU cooperation. The summit will be hosted by Croatian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Damir Krsticevic, and chaired by High EU Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell. During the summit the Memorandum of Understanding on Cyber Rapid Response Teams and Mutual Assistance in Cyber Security is expected to be signed by the defense ministers from Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, and Romania. No further details of this meeting were presented to the public on Wednesday.


Borrell: I told Turkish leadership that unilateral actions will bring no solutions; Western Balkans is priority for EU and me personally (Jutarnji list)


High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, who is visiting Zagreb in order to attend the informal meeting of EU Ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs, talked about positioning of the EU on geopolitical scene, the EU budget, as well as Iranian Nuclear Agreement. Borrell talked about the crisis in Syria and his visit to Ankara in which regard he also commented the new wave of migrant crisis and stressed that the agreement between the EU and Turkey has to be respected. EUHR stated that the EU is engaged at all its levels in providing of assistance to Greece and Bulgaria and he scheduled the special session of Foreign Affairs Council in Zagreb in order to have the Foreign Ministers discuss the newest developments and a possible proposal of the solution for the cause of the current situation- further destabilization of Syria and intolerable humanitarian situation in Idlib and the region. Borrell stressed that EU interior Minsters held a meeting on Wednesdays to discuss the response to increasing migrant pressure adding that during his stay in Ankara he met with Turkish leadership and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and he clearly told them that it is a joint interest to end the conflict in Syria and end the suffering of civilians. In this regard, Borrell told Turkish leadership that unilateral actions of Ankara will not bring any solutions.

Asked if he is concerned because of the US involvement in relations between Kosovo and Serbia and if the EU is losing their influence in the region, Borrell said that he was clear during his visit to Kosovo and Serbia that the region of the Western Balkans is a priority for the EU and him personally. “In the role of a mediator, I am dedicated to supporting the progress in dialogue under EU auspices. In order to strengthen my engagement and efforts I have decided to appoint a special envoy for the dialogue and Western Balkans. Any kind of engagement in support to the dialogue under the EU auspices is welcome, as for member state and for our international partners. We are working with all our partners and the situation still demands efforts of everyone who want to reach the same goal: prosperity of people in these countries and their European perspective,” ends Borrell.


NATO’s Stoltenberg, Ministers of Defense of EU member states meet in Zagreb to discuss new migrant situation (HRT1)


A series of meetings on problems regarding the new wave of migrants on the border between Greece and Turkey were held in Brussels, Athens, Ankara and Zagreb on Wednesday. The Ministers of Defense of the EU member states met in Zagreb to discuss the migrant situation and the meeting was also attended by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Addressing the joint press conference after the meeting, Stoltenberg said Greece carries a heavy burden and challenges of migration are shared challenges which require shared solutions. He stressed that the international community must address causes of the new crisis. Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic expressed hope that the crisis in Greece will be resolved, adding that Croatian authorities analyze all scenarios of the migrant crisis and it is important to be ready for possible escalation of the crisis. He stated that what he saw during his visit to the Greek border with Turkey on Tuesday and according to assurances from Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the policy of the current Greek government will be much different. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell also attended the meeting. The officials discussed the future cooperation of the NATO and the EU, as well as other security and defense priorities. According to the reporter, this will be a chance for Croatia to present its priorities in the sector of defense in terms of the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the EU. In this regard, HRT1 reported that this implies realization of the EU’s defense initiatives, higher engagement of the EU in the area of the South-East Europe in the fields of defense and security, as well as development of research and industrial dimension of defense, which according to the reporter, represents a chance for the Croatian defense industry. The officials also discussed issues related to the migrant situation. Borrell said that the European Commission is intensively working on reaching of an agreement with Turkey.


Zagreb: Plenkovic, Stoltenberg discuss security challenges (HRT1)


Croatian Prime Minister (PM) Andrej Plenkovic met NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Zagreb on Wednesday. The two officials discussed security challenges, the migrant crisis, the situation in Syria, withdrawal of the NATO from Afghanistan after the US and the Taliban signed a peace agreement. Stoltenberg characterized the situation in Syria as challenging and unstable. HRT1 reminded that a member state of the NATO, i.e. Turkey is blackmailing other member states by letting go of migrants in order to get the support for attack on the Syrian army. According to the reporter, Stoltenberg did not answer the question on potential conflict within the NATO and whether other member states will help Turkey in the war in Syria. Addressing the press conference, Stoltenberg stated: “NATO is not on the ground in Syria, but some of its member states are. Violence in Syria causes consequences to all member states and to the EU member states. We condemn Russian use of force and the regime of the (Syrian President Bashar) al-Assad and we demand from them to respect the international law and to get involved in constructive talks for finding a peaceful solution”. According to Plenkovic, the migrant crisis from 2015 cannot repeat, while Turkey should not instrumentalize migrants. He did not exclude the option to give more power to army for activities on borders. Plenkovic said: “As a responsible government, we are considering all scenarios. Among other things, it is important that we are ready for eventual intensifying. If Greek and Bulgarian borders remain non-porous, then, there are no big threats”. As for the situation in Afghanistan, Stoltenberg said that they are ready to reduce the number of their forces if the Taliban respect terms of the agreement, while Plenkovic announced that Croatia will soon send the last contingent of its forces to Afghanistan.

At his meetings with Croatian President Zoran Milanovic and Prime Minister Plenkovic, Stoltenberg thanked Croatia for its contributions to NATO missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo.  The Secretary General underlined that NATO remains fully committed to stability and security in Western Balkans and that Croatia plays a key role, in particular by supporting NATO partnerships in the region and being a champion of NATO’s Open-Door policy. Stoltenberg also congratulated Croatia for its first presidency of the Council of the European Union.


Darmanovic: Hostile propaganda against Montenegro was launched in Belgrade (MINA)


Commenting on the attitude of the international community concerning current events in Montenegro after the adoption of the Law on Freedom of Religion, Srdjan Darmanovic, Minister of Foreign Affairs, said that Podgorica was holding consultations with NATO allies and EU partners regarding the matter. “They think this is Montenegro’s internal issue and that there was no need for their involvement that would be sort of arbitration. Of course, every piece of advice we got was useful and benevolent and we chose to address the issue through dialogue,” Darmanovic said to MINA agency. He said that “our NATO allies” had also recognized meddling into Montenegro’s internal affairs. Darmanovic touched on the statements made recently by State Department that the propaganda war had been coordinated from Moscow. “The unprecedented propaganda against us was launched from Belgrade,” Darmanovic said. According to him, Russia doesn’t need to be more visible this time, although it has certain interests in the region. “Some neighbors of ours do that with more energy than usual, and Russia can watch calmly its main partners doing that job. I believe we are strong enough to overcome that,” Darmanovic said. Commenting on the statements made by church chiefs that “Russia created Montenegro,” Darmanovic said it was quite ridiculous. Montenegro, he added, was created by its citizens. Montenegro is based on western and European values and value system of the Atlantic community. Darmanovic thinks that the problem of the Serbian Orthodox Church is not the Law, but Montenegro’s orientation, its course and its politics. “The problem is what we want to be. If the vision advocated by the Serbian Orthodox Church won, Montenegro would maybe remain independent, but it would become a Serbian country,” Darmanovic said.

Asked if it was real that the EU could be a mediator in relation to the Law, Darmanovic said there was no need for that. “Our institutions can resolve any problem, related to any law. If anybody has problem with any law, the Constitutional Court is the right address,” Darmanovic said. Commenting on some media’s reports stating that Serbia was considering the possibility to quit representing Montenegro in the countries where Podgorica hasn’t got its embassies, Darmanovic says “it doesn’t seem real”. “First and foremost, there are no Montenegrin diplomats in Serbian embassies, because we don’t share our diplomatic representations with anyone,” Darmanovic explained. The European Commission takes care of the competitiveness of other forces in the region and sees enlargement policy as technical and political process to a great extent, Minister Darmanovic says. He said that comparative analysis would show what the pros and cons of the new methodology were. Darmanovic pointed out that the main difference reflected in the opening chapters in clusters. Asked if it is possible for North Macedonia and Albania to be given green light for the start of negotiation talks in Brussels this month, Darmanovic answered that Montenegro firmly believed so. He pointed out that Montenegro strongly supported its neighbors and partners from the region in their EU aspirations. Darmanovic said that messages of almost all key people from the EC were very encouraging. “Now the messages should become actions and we’ll see what their implementation will be like,” Darmanovic said. Oliver Varhelyi, European Commissionaire for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy, insisted that at least one WB country should accede the Union during his term of office, Darmanovic reminds. “We think we can guess which country it could be. The one that has made the greatest progress in the negotiation process,” Darmanovic said.




Vucic: Most Serbs Prefer a ‘Frozen Conflict’ with Kosovo (Foreign Policy, by Amy MacKinnon, Robbie Gramer, 4 March 2020)


But the Serbian president says “we need more talks” with the former province, which insists that Belgrade recognize its independence.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic traveled to Washington this week for meetings with top U.S. officials. The Balkans is seen as blind spot in U.S. foreign policy, but in recent years it has been the scene of increased interest by U.S. rivals Russia and China. Countries in Western Balkans are pushing to join the European Union and NATO, a major political and economic draw for many of the region’s leaders. But Belgrade faces a major diplomatic hurdle before the EU would begin accession discussions: its ongoing dispute with Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008. The United States and about 100 other countries recognize Kosovo’s independence, while Russia, China, and five EU countries are among those that do not. The ongoing Serbia-Kosovo dispute has continued to fuel tensions in the region after it emerged from a bloody series of wars in the 1990s. U.S. President Donald Trump’s envoy dispatched to help resolve the deadlocked dispute, Richard Grenell, was recently named acting head of U.S. intelligence. On Monday, Vucic met with the Kosovo President Hashim Thaci at the White House with Grenell and U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien. During his visit to Washington, Vucic sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Foreign Policy, to discuss Serbia-Kosovo relations, Serbia’s relationships with China and Russia, and his country’s appetite to buy U.S. weapons systems. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: What are the next steps you see in talks with Kosovo?

President Aleksandar Vucic: Hopefully they’re going to revoke tariffs, and that will happen because of U.S. pressure on them. Otherwise, they would never drop it. I think the most important issue is to establish, as we discussed with the American side, is better flights between Belgrade and Pristina and to focus ourselves on everything that we have already reached through our negotiating process under the auspices of the EU as well. I don’t see how the entire process should end, what the substance would be of a possible final settlement that someone might propose to us. I’m looking forward to establishing better economic ties, to when we’ll start understanding each other better. And we need a dialogue to achieve that. We need more talks.

FP: If Kosovo were to lift the tariffs, would you consider ending the campaign of nonrecognition as they’ve asked?

AV: You cannot be rewarded because you impose tariffs against Serbia. You cannot be rewarded for saying “and now we need some concessions from your side.” We just need to come back to the same positions that we had before they imposed those tariffs. And I think it’s very logical, to tell you the truth. I do understand [the] necessity for a real dialogue, and I do understand the necessity of resolving the problem, which is not easy for me to say because if you ask the vast majority of people in Serbia, they would prefer a frozen conflict to any single solution. I don’t belong to that vast majority.

FP: What would be a resolution to the situation with Kosovo that you think would be both acceptable to you and that you think you could sell to the Serbian public?

AV: We need to carry on with the dialogue and with all necessary attempts to find a possible compromise. And once again, I don’t know what that might look like, but it has to be done in a way that would be a defeat for both sides, in order for it to be a small win for both sides. We both should get guarantees for a much better, much better future.

FP: Will you be meeting with Ambassador Grenell while you’re here in Washington?

AV: Yes, yes, of course.

FP: He has now not two day jobs, but three day jobs. He’s the acting director of national intelligence, the ambassador to Berlin, and the special envoy for Serbia-Kosovo negotiations. That’s a lot of work for one person. Are you worried that U.S. involvement in Serbia-Kosovo talks will slip?

AV: He’s a man of great energy, very enthusiastic about his work, about his portfolio. I haven’t met so many people so far in my entire life at that level with that type of energy.

FP: The EU has faced criticism from experts and former European officials for not focusing enough on the Western Balkans. What do you make of those criticisms? Do you think they’re valid?

AV: We are fully committed to keep on working together with them on finding a possible solution, which is not going to be easily reachable. But I would say our Western partners should act jointly in all this. We cannot have two negotiating processes, one with Thaci in Washington and another one with Kurti in Brussels, right? You don’t know who to speak to.

FP: Did you meet with President Thaci and Prime Minister Kurti of Kosovo at the Munich Security Conference last month?

AV: I saw them both.

FP: And how did that go?

AV: Well, it was not a real discussion. It was a public meeting, and then Kurti wanted to say something not only against me but also against Thaci. And I said, “Okay, you’re like Hegel, the best philosopher of the world. You know everything.” And that’s the end of the story. Nothing good, rational, and nothing really helpful to the process. There is another issue which I wanted to emphasize in our interview if possible. And that’s what I said to [U.S. Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo [that] morning as well. You criticize us from time to time about buying Russian weapons, armaments, and everything else. Okay, I want to buy your weapons, I want to buy your armaments. But I don’t need to listen to those stories, “Why would you take this and why don’t you take that?” Do you want to sell it or not? Do you want our money? And then I heard for the first time, “Okay, we’re open for that.” And now we’re going to buy more weapons from Israel, from the U.S. in the future, from Great Britain as well. That’s what I discussed with [British Prime Minister] Boris Johnson as well two days ago. I said to him, “Do you want to sell that?” Just to stop complaining always, all of you. Just let me buy it. If it’s okay, we’ll do it. That’s it.

FP: So Pompeo indicated to you that the United States would be open to selling weapons systems to Serbia?

AV: He said to me that they think that it’s all about the economy in our region, that they would boost their investments in our region, and I’m profoundly grateful to them. But when we came to that, I said to him, “But you always have something against us because of Russian weaponry and Russian armaments. Okay, we want to buy yours.” He said, “Okay, we’ll discuss it.”

FP: How did you plan on balancing that relationship with Russia and with the European Union and the United States?

AV: It’s not about balancing. Just to analyze our situation, we have the problem of Kosovo. Who hasn’t recognized Kosovo so far? Do we need their support during our negotiating process with Pristina, with the United Nations Security Council? Yes, we do. I still think that it’s inevitable that we are on our EU path, and that’s what I say even to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin holding press conferences together with him. Every single time I go there I say, “Okay, we have a great relationship, but as always I need to emphasize that Serbia is on its EU path and will continue on its EU path.” And that’s it. We have 40 percent bigger trade exchange with Germany. Just with Germany, I’m not speaking about European Union, just with Germany than with Russia. It’s the same with China. [The EU] started recently asking us a lot about China, China’s investors, China’s investments. But we are, it’s peanuts compared to your level of cooperation with China. Your trade turnover with China is 1,000 times greater than ours. Or is it okay if you do that and it’s forbidden if we do it the same, only a thousand times less? And then there are no responses.

FP: But Serbia’s the fourth-largest recipient of Chinese FDI in Europe. That’s also a major concern with the Trump administration, particularly with Huawei’s investment in Europe’s telecommunications infrastructure. Have you received warnings about Chinese investment during your meetings here in Washington?

AV: Not in that way, to tell you the truth. I had good talks in Washington. But I heard more about this from the Europeans, particularly about China. Not anymore about Russia. The main focus is becoming more and more about China, that’s what I noticed. We’ll do a very open and transparent procedure regarding 5G network. But the entire Europe is cooperating with Huawei. Starting with Britain, continuing with Germany and all the others. But I spoke to Ericsson people, spoke to Nokia people, and we spoke to Huawei people who have a very open and transparent procedure, tender procedure. Just tell me what would you do if you were me? We had that steel mill in Smederevo. U.S. Steel left the plant for $1 and then 5,200 people were left without their jobs. And then no one wanted to help us with this. I was begging [Chinese President] Xi Jinping to be supportive, to be helpful. He helped us. Do you really want me to undermine what they did? No, I cannot. You would do the same. And that’s why I was saying to our American friends, we want to boost our cooperation. We would like to see more of your engagement and more of your investments in our region.

FP: France had previously blocked accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania to join the EU. Recently French President Emmanuel Macron has indicated that he would be open to unblocking that and having the EU start those accession talks. What would North Macedonia and Albania joining the EU mean for Serbia and its aspirations?

AV: We’ll be jubilant seeing them start the negotiating process. They are our friends, we wish them all the best. We would like to see real plans for Serbia and Montenegro next.

FP: You said you feel that Serbia’s accession to the European Union is now inevitable. But last year Freedom House downgraded its ranking of Serbia from free to partly free. Reporters Without Borders has raised a lot of concerns about attacks on the press, both physical but also verbal. How do you think this could affect your hopes to join the European Union?

AV: It harmed hugely the image of Serbia. We did a lot of things in the meantime. There was one big attack against a guy that was organized by the local mayor. We arrested the local mayor and there is a trial against him. We prosecuted him. There were no big physical attacks again.

FP: Have you taken any concrete steps to try and improve these ratings?

AV: Yes, we did everything [the EU] asked from us. That’s why I’m saying to you I think we will do it, that we’ll improve our ratings this year.

FP: What did they ask you to do?

AV: To do a media strategy, to do a lot of regulations, and [the] government did it.

FP: Some of these NGOs that track press freedom and democracy issues blame your government and its political allies for the increased pressure on journalists.

AV: Please, one example.

FP: There was a journalist from [Serbian media outlet] N1. Reporters Without Borders said in November this journalist was the “target of an unprecedented explosion of public anger stirred up by the president’s allies and pro-government media.”

AV: No, you can see that. He was attacking me, and I was very decent, not saying a single word to him, just showing that he was not saying the truth. Please, you can find that video. If that’s something we didn’t know—if that’s something that I did wrong, please send me a text message, “You did something very wrong against that guy.”

FP: But the concerns were not about that interaction with the journalist, but the response that happened afterward. Reporters Without Borders said this journalist suffered verbal assaults and threats from members of the government and from some of your allies. Do you stand by these actions?

AV: It’s stupid and it’s wrong. I think that I dealt with that in an easy way. It was good fun for me to tell you the truth, because I saw that people from his office were sending text messages to him on what to ask me and how to ask me. And I said to him, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to say who is giving you orders what to ask me. I’m not going to reveal it.” That’s it. That is all. If I was rude, that was it. But no, I was not cursing anyone, I was not threatening anyone, nothing.

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.


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