Vucic: Most Serbs Prefer a ‘Frozen Conflict’ with Kosovo
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 national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer