Prior to the Western Balkans summit in Berlin, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic voiced serious accusations against the Kosovo government - and dismisses rumors of links between his brother and criminals, German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said. This is a full translation of the interview by the paper’s correspondent Michael Martens
A few weeks ago, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić received a letter from Washington. Donald Trump congratulated him on (Serbian) Statehood Day - adding that, from America’s point of view, mutual state recognition has to must be the foundation of any normalization process between Kosovo and Serbia. That was a remarkable re-alignment of the American position, because last year Trump's national security advisor John Bolton said that if Serbia and its province, which became independent in 2008, could agree on a solution to the conflict, Washington would not reject it. Bolton made no mention of the recognition of Kosovo by Serbia – that was done later by Trump. But does the Serbian president see things in that same way?
"That's his point of view which we can’t accept that easily. However, we noted his interest in resolving this very difficult issue for all of us, and we respect that," Vucic said, commenting Trump's words. "We wanted a compromise," Vucic said, speaking about the Brussels Agreement reached in 2013 with European Union mediation, in which Serbia and Kosovo agreed in principle to normalize their relations. Serbia, he said, has met “100 percent” of its obligations imposed by the Brussels Agreement, Vucic claimed. "Pristina, on the other hand, did not fulfill its one obligation, the forming of the Community Of Serb Municipalities (CSM). I never cry and complain about the other side, but the facts are these: instead of meeting their obligations, they have imposed 100 per cent tariffs on imports from central Serbia into Kosovo in the 21st century. This is directed not just against Serbia, but also against the Serb population in Kosovo."
And as if that were not enough, Kosovo also formed an army, "which is not even in line with their own constitution". Also, the government in Pristina adopted a new negotiation platform, which destroys any prospect for successful talks from the outset. "We are at a dead end now and I do not know how to get out of it."
Serbia will have its red lines
But suppose that the Kosovo government agrees to for the CSM , as agreed in Brussels. And suppose also that it revokes the punitive tariffs imposed in response to Serbia's refusal to allow Kosovo to join Interpol. Would Vucic then agree that the process of normalization between Kosovo and Serbia must include mutual recognition? "That's a very difficult question. If I agreed, I could be arrested tomorrow on the grounds that I violated the Serbian Constitution, " was his answer.
In fact, the constitution sets narrow limits on the Serbian president in terms of negotiations on Kosovo. The preamble (of the constitution), added in 2006 at the initiative of then Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, expressly states that Kosovo is a part of Serbia, and the oath of office requires the president to preserve the territorial integrity of Serbia, including Kosovo. "I can not say what our position in the negotiation process would be. But I can say that if they withdraw these tariffs we can talk again. Without preconditions about all topics. But Serbia will of course have its own red lines, " Vucic said about the dead-end in the talks.
Serbia’s stand has the support of Russia, whose president Vucic meets regularly. Does he have the impression from his talks with Vladimir Putin that a solution to the Serbia-Kosovo conflict is in Russia's interest? Vucic was silent for a few seconds, like a man who weighs every word carefully before speaking. Then he answered: "Russia's official position is that they support the territorial integrity of Serbia. That's all I can say about it." We can draw conclusions about what Vucic did not say or indicate: The dispute with Kosovo is the biggest obstacle to Serbia's path to the European Union. An agreement would bring the country closer to membership, at least in theory, and loosing its staunchest ally in the Balkans to the EU can hardly be in Moscow's interest.
But is the much-invoked European perspective realistic considering the situation in the EU and the resistance to enlargement that comes, above all, from French President Emanuel Macron? Can policies be conducted on those grounds? "Unlike some other countries in the region, including Albania, North Macedonia or Bosnia, who complain about the EU's behaviour towards them, we have no major problems in that regard," Vucic said. Although the EU is not particularly popular in Serbia, accession remains its most important goal. "By the way, we would not be the poorest member of the EU. We have higher average wages and pensions than Bulgaria, and are atracting a significantly higher number of investors. Serbia’s economic prospects are excellent, as confirmed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, "the President of the Balkan State said.
Vučić's statement that the EU is not particularly popular in Serbia is confirmed by polls, such as the Balkan Barometer conducted by the Sarajevo-based Regional Cooperation Council (RCC). According to the poll, just 29 percent of Serbians have positive economic expectations of the EU, while more than 60 percent have negative expectations or are indifferent. These are record lows in the region, which would not change compared to other states even using a different methodology. But if less than a third of Serbians want to join the EU, why should the EU accept Serbia? And why should Serbia want that? "That's the only rational policy we can offer our people. I say that to Washington as well as to Moscow, " Vucic answered.
Firstly, Serbia wants to belong to the kind of societies the EU symbolizes, secondly, the country simply belongs there, and thirdly, it is important for the country's economy and development. Vucic cited numbers: more than 80 percent of Serbia’s foreign trade is with countries that are EU members or want to become members. "But that is true: Kosovo is the reason why the EU is not so popular in Serbia. The Serbs see the EU as an institution that is putting pressure on Serbia because of Kosovo". However, joining the EU remains its main foreign policy goal and that is stated repeatedly, Vucic added.
However, some diplomats and other experts in Berlin, Brussels or other capitals, who monitor Serbia in their work, are having growing doubts as to whether Serbia's current policy is really aimed at bringing the country closer to the EU. Serbia really is pursuing a reform policy in the economic-political sense and is attractive to an increasing number of investors, including those from Germany, despite not being an EU member, not just because of its free trade agreement with Russia, The state of democracy in Serbia is being viewed with increasing skepticism, not only in Berlin. Vucic has been fiercely denying for years that the most important media in the country, such as the high-circulation tabloid Informer or the TV Pink which often causes upsets, are under his or the control of his associates. He cannot deny that these media support him 100 percent. Vucic is invariably praised by them while his opponents are attacked daily in some cases in an inflammatory way.
Derogatory terms for Albanians
The tone used towards the Kosovo Albanians is also striking: the mentioned media (as well as some cabinet members like Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin) repeatedly use the term “Shiptari” for the Albanians. When not used by Albanians, the term is derogatory, much like "nigger" for black Americans. The Informer tabloid, run by businessman Dragan Vucicevic who is known for his particularly primitive denunciation, is constantly reporting that “Shiptari" are allegedly planning to attack and destroy Serbia, but fortunately Putin prevents that. Is not it strange that the very media that fully support you tell their audiences day after day that the world is something diametrically opposed to your foreign policy goals, Mr President?
"Dragan Vucicevic has been a personal friend of mine for 25 years. But he is openly pro-Russian. That's his view. He supports me, but not my party, which he often criticizes," says Vucic. Is this helpful in terms of reconciliation with Kosovo, which in turn is a condition to join the EU if the newspaper, whose boss is a personal friend of the president, publishes derogatory articles on "Shiptari" and the EU every few days? "I am not the editor-in-chief of a newspaper and I have no intention of becoming one. But every day, I am committed to tempering the expectations of the Serbian people about a solution to the Kosovo conflict. That's why I'm called a traitor almost every day in Serbia," Vucic says. If we look at the statements of the most powerful man in Serbia, the situation in Belgrade seems to be this: neither a personal friend of the president, nor the owner of the pro-government Pink TV or the bosses of other media who cooperate well with the Serbian government and are always full of praise for the head of state, take not even the slightest heed of his key foreign policy concerns. On the contrary, they publish and broadcast the opposite on a daily basis. "They have their own opinions, and I respect that," Vucic said about the bosses of the media loyal to him.
But does it not annoy the president when his old friend's newspaper says that the the fire that destroyed the Notre Dame Cathedral was "God's punishment" for France's recognition of Kosovo? "If that was my biggest mistake and my biggest problem - all right, then I'll talk to you about it," said Vucic, visibly annoyed because of his relationship with the country's media bosses, turning immediately to another topic. The real problem in the Kosovo issue is that "the other side" is not doing anything to reach a solution: "They only say that they want to be recognized by Serbia and are telling their people that they will not make any concessions. I would like to see the Serbian politician who could reach an agreement without any concessions. That politician does not exist."
Bizarre moment with a "linguist"
As soon as the questions become specific, Vucic is no longer willing to talk about concessions. Asked if he would advise more than 400 Kosovo Serbs serving in the Kosovar police to quit their jobs, he did not want to express his view even after repeated requests. "This is a very difficult question for us" and "we will talk about it" are the only sentences that can be coaxed from the President. Instead, Vucic confirmed an earlier statement that the Albanians were waiting for the right moment to attack the Serbs in northern Kosovo: "Yes, I really think so. That danger always exists." Is the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo worse than it was in 1999, when Vucic was Information Minister under the powerful Slobodan Milosevic? "You can not compare that. We are not at war now. "
This is followed by an almost bizarre moment in which Serbia's president excels as a linguist. It is about his September 9, 2018 speech in the Kosovo town of Mitrovica, when Vucic described Milosevic as a "great Serbian leader". But the question can’t be finished, because Vucic interrupts: "No, I did not say that." It is followed by a conversation half in English, half in Serbian about the correct translation of the Serbian word "veliki" (big). Vucic said his predecessor Milosevic was a "veliki srpski lider" (great Serbian leader). During this interview, he said that , the correct translation of "veliki" is not the English "great" (or even German "gro"), but "big". So did Vucic want to call Milosevic a "strong" or a "fat" leader? More discussion leads nowhere and does not change the fact that Vucic’s words were interpreted by a vast majority of the audience in the region to mean that Serbian President Milosevic was called a "big" and not a "fat" or leader with some other outstanding trait. Vucic said that his words that Milosevic had the "best intentions" were not spoken in that sense. "I said that “maybe” he had the best intentions. My speech in Mitrovica was actually the strongest attack on Milosevic's policies, "Vučić said, explaining his view.
The conversation then turns to Oliver Ivanovic, the Kosovo Serb political leader who was murdered last year and who was critical of Vucic and was the target of a hat campaign by media such as Informer and TV Pink. In one of his last interviews before his death, Ivanovic said that the Serbs in northern Kosovo were no longer afraid of Albanians, but of criminal Serbs, who were driving around in SUVs without license plates, spreading fear throughout Mitrovica. When asked whether Serbia could do something about the lawlessness in the north, or if he did not think there was any lawlessness there, Vucic said: "I can not say that there is no lawlessness in the north, in the south or elsewhere in Kosovo. But I do not know how you reached the conclusion about who killed Oliver Ivanovic." When this interviewer said that he never said or even insinuated that Vucic had been involved in the murder, he answered shortly:" I was not and everyone knows that."
It is obvious, however, that those media who are fully behind Vučić waged an aggressive campaign against him in the months leading up to Ivanovic's murder, describing him as a "traitor." Vucic ignored that point by stating that in reality he is the one almost daily referred to in the media as a traitor, "by the N1 TV station or the Danas newspaper for example". Those media have a critical view of Vucic. You could also say that they are doing their core journalism job instead of just cheering for the authorities. Research could not confirm that journalists from those media had called Vucic a traitor or that they insulted him primitively as the pro-government media did to his opponents.
"As if only saints lived in the south"
Asked if he sees any connection between the daily attacks on opposition politicians in the media which support thim and certain violent incidents, Vucic said: "Not at all. If you have any evidence, please let us know. In reality, I am exposed to ten times stronger attacks by the opposition." The president also did not like a question about his possible influence in the north of Kosovo, which is now clearly being raised in Berlin, among other things. "Why do some people insist that Kosovo is always about the North? As if only saints lived in the south, although the cradle of the Mafia is there, drug trafficking organizations are active there. But it's always about the north. Why? Because the only obstacle for the Kosovo Albanians on the way to their full independence is the north of Kosovo." That is the only reason for "this campaign" and the west’s attempt at influence: "Many western countries are trying to buy every single person in the north. Some tell you to set up an NGO opposed to me, others finance a media work against me. Because the people there need money, they accept it. But they also have a conscience, and that's why I win elections. People choose to vote as they see fit. "
In Berlin, certain government agencies have meanwhile gained the impression, based on reports from the region and intelligence reports, that Vucic's brother Andrej is playing an active role in northern Kosovo. Not only for his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), but also by maintaining contacts with circles that are not reputed to be 150 percent in line with the rule of law. Or is that slander?
Although the name was not part of the question, Vucic mentioned entrepreneur Zvonko Veselinović, who was convicted of fraud, and who is believed by many Serbs to be the king of the underworld in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo. "Zvonko Veselinović, with whom my brother is being linked, set up a construction company in 2010 and 2011, when today's opposition leaders Boris Tadic and Dragan Djilas were in power. My brother may have met him two or three times. He has not seen him since 2015. And what is the problem now? I don’t know what to say. This is an insult. If you know what my brother did wrong or illegally, please tell me. Everything else are terrible lies that are being used because they can’t find anything against me and instead are trying to criminalize my family." He said that his brother is a member of the SNS steering committee, and nothing more than that.
The contacts between Andrej Vučić and the "entrepreneur" Veselinović is in itself strange, but not dishonourable. But the serious investigations into the Ivanovic murder, it would certainly be worthwhile to examine those contacts more closely - if only to prove that they are harmless, according to Berlin. The contacts between Veselinovic and Vucic were denied for a long time until Serbian investigative journalists leaked photos showing the "entrepreneur" and the brother together. Serbian Finance Minister Siniša Mali once called Andrej Vucic the "gray eminence" in Aleksandar Vucic’s power system, who exerts influence behind the scenes without a public presence. "He is very important to me. We talk to each other ten times a day. I love him. He is my brother ", Vucic said commenting his relationship with his brother, who called the president right after on his mobile phone.
Finally, it's about the big picture in the region. To emphasize the importance of Serbia, Vucic said that Serbs and Albanians are the largest peoples in the Western Balkans. That is true just as there are peoples in the Baltic States or in Scandinavia, who are not as small as others. It could also be said that Albanians and Serbs are the fourth and fifth largest populations in southeastern Europe after Romanians, Greeks and Hungarians, which relativizes things slightly. But Vucic thinks that it is important to find a modus vivendi with the Albanians: "That would be of the utmost importance for both peoples. But this can not be achieved with ultimatums or unilateral agreements. "
If a "north-south axis of peace" can be formed in the Balkans, "that will mean peace for our part of the world in the next 100 years". In the 20th century Serbia sufferede in a number of wars. "I hope we will not have one in the next 100 years," the Serbian president said. But it will not be long before the media run by his friends again declare war on the "Shiptari". If only in their newspapers.