Serbia is now a part of the solution, not the problem

Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic speaks with New Europe about the difficult political and economic tasks facing his country as Belgrade continues down the path of EU membership, building stronger relations with the US and Eurasia, and finalising a constructive solution to the issue of Kosovo. 

Ivica Dacic, Serbia’s Foreign Minister, is clear about one particular subject – Serbia is fully committed to EU membership and closing a deal with Kosovo’s Albanian population, both of which will take into account the interests of Serbia, the Big Powers (the US, Russia, and China), and the EU by giving it the sort of international legitimacy that will yield a stable and lasting solution.

“EU membership is Serbia’s strategic goal. This is our government’s fundamental policy and its supported by the majority of our citizens,” said the 53-year-old veteran politician, who also served as Serbia’s Prime Minister and headed the Ministry of Information.

The EU membership target sees Serbia successfully carry out necessary, but difficult reforms. Dacic noted that “Perhaps, what is even more important is how we reform our society and how successfully we secure Serbia’s equitable position within the European structure.

This is especially true for Serbia’s economy, since the EU is, without question, Serbia’s biggest trade and investment partner, accounting for as much as 70% of our overall trade of imports and exports. The EU is a logical cultural and civilisational environment for Serbia, in view of the fact that millions of our citizens rely on the countries of the European Union for business, tourism, education, and such; or they have families living and working there. Our EU membership will only strengthen and formalise these and other strong ties which Serbia maintains with the members of the EU.”

Fatigue in Brussels over the EU’s enlargement programme and a growing sense introversion among the candidate countries in the region is beginning to erode support for EU membership, Dacic says, and both sides are to blame.

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic attends a press conference with his Spanish counterpart, Josep Borrell, in Belgrade.

“It’s been full 16 years since a country from the region has been admitted, and this sends a bad, dispiriting message. The EU seriously risks losing credibility. We in the Balkans are at fault, but by all means Brussels should shoulder the blame as well. Even (outgoing EU foreign affairs chief) Frederica Mogherini admitted saying that the EU has neglected the Balkans and must engage much more and quickly to maintain the region on the European path or else the price to pay will be very high,” Dacic emphatically reiterated.

Within this context Dacic reiterated Serbia’s call for the EU to open talks with North Macedonia and Albania, a point that he says needs to drive home the point that the “West Balkan countries must not remain the black hole of Europe”.

With no ultimate goal still in sight, some Western circles still insist that Serbia adjust its foreign policy with the EU and impose sanctions against Russia, despite, much to Moscow’s displeasure, having supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the ongoing conflict. Dacic dismissed the notion that Serbia is “sitting on two chairs” saying, “I have clearly said that EU membership is Serbia’s strategic goal. No ifs, nor buts about it.”

“That said, we also believe that this interim period must not be detrimental to our other interests. Promoting relations with Russia is a constant and important interest of Serbia. Serbia and Russia have maintained close cultural relations for centuries. Our economic cooperation is quite big, particularly in the fields of energy and direct investments.

Many of our partners in the EU understand our position and as far as I can see some European capitals are more and more speaking loudly about the need for relaxation of relations with Russia, primarily at the economic and trade level. Europe and Russia are interdependent regarding trade and energy and any disruption is very damaging to both sides. We hope for, and urge a relaxation of, the tensions between the West and Russia because that would be very important for my country.”

Ivica Dacic and Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, walk together to the Informal Meeting of EU Foreign Affairs Ministers at the Grandmaster’s Palace in Valletta, Malta.EPA-EFE//DOMENIC AQUILINA

Serbia has so far resisted any pressure to abandon its neutral policy, insisting on good relations with all sides and reiterating its commitment to the EU membership. Nonetheless, any interaction with Moscow has raised eyebrows and the latest news that Serbia will sign a trade deal with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union has some quarters concerned.

“This agreement opens many doors for our economy and that is our sole motive,” said Dacic.

Serbia already has similar agreements and with big economies like Russia and Turkey making it a top destination for development finance institutions in Southeast Europe.

Further allaying fears, Dacic added, “We are fully aware that once a member of the EU, Serbia will have to adjust its foreign trade arrangements to conform to membership rules. But until then, we believe that free trade with those in the Eurasian Economic Union in no way impedes our strategic ambitions to become a member of the EU.”

Speaking about pressures to stop Serbia’s diplomatic drive to block Kosovo from joining international institutions like UNESCO and Interpol, Dacic said that quite a few EU members accept Belgrade’s arguments against membership for Kosovo.

In stark contrast to its previous practice of rejecting any proposals on Kosovo, Belgrade’s position now is “fully constructive and fully committed to seeking a long-term solution through a dialogue and compromise. Some influential countries cannot accept this about-turn and still insist on applying pressure which is now not just irrelevant, but also detrimental to the entire process. An imposed solution is never a long-lasting solution,” Dacic said.   

EU’s double-standards for secessionists

When asked if he believes that the EU has a double-standard when it comes to their attitudes toward the situations in Kosovo and Spain’s northwestern region of Catalonia, which has been plagued by a nationalist/secessionist movement in recent years, Dacic added, “I could not agree that the EU has any standards at all. Spain is the best example of what I’m saying. We highly appreciate and are grateful to Spain as one of the five EU members not to recognise the independence of Kosovo or Metohija (a region in southwestern Kosovo) and has no intention of ever doing so. Spain has seen the results of an irresponsible attitude by the international community to the demands of some regions for independence, as in the case of Kosovo. Catalonia’s case has clearly shown that Europe rejects a unilateral decision on independence without the blessing of the home country. This is the principle we have been defending for decades.”

US shifting its position

Dacic welcomed a new effort by the Americans to play a more active role in solving the Kosovo problem. Recently, he expressed his wish that US President Donald J. Trump call a summit involving the principal decision-makers from both countries, once that would be similar to the Camp David summit called by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 that saw bitter enemies Israel and Egypt sign a peace deal.

“This is especially significant since it shows they now accept Serbia’s arguments in the quest for a long-term solution. This is a novel situation. The Americans now have quite clearly seen that Kosovo’s independence, which they supported and sponsored for years, is not a closed book after all. Right now, it is more a part of the problem in the region than a solution, unlike Serbia’s role. Closer cooperation with Serbia, and respect of Belgrade’s arguments, is the correct road to take and inevitably leads to success.”    

“We want the future solution for Kosovo to have as broad as possible international legitimacy to give it stable and lasting foundations,” Dacic said while stressing the need to include as many interested parties as possible into the process.

“In order to achieve a solution, we must take into account the positions and interests not only of US, and some other EU countries, but also Russia and China, all the permanent members of the UN Security Council, and, naturally, Serbia. But in order to have any movement and for Belgrade to return to the negotiating table, Pristina must lift its 100% taxes on goods from Serbia, which is in stark violation of the CEFTA (Central European Free Trade Agreement) free trade accord,” Dacic said in reference to a 100% tariff imposed by Kosovo’s government in November 2018 on all goods coming from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Pristina has since continued to ignore its Western backers and refused to revoke the tax.

Dacic also welcomed the appointment of Matthew Palmer, a veteran Balkans hand, as the US’ Special Envoy for the region and said he has a huge and difficult task ahead. “His appointment means that the Americans are serious about seizing this opportunity to achieve a solution, we should be too.” 

Solidarity needed as tensions appear to be on the rise

The EU needs to push for more solidarity in the region, according to Dacic, when he referred to the increased number of attacks on Serbs in Croatia, which he referred to as “systematic and open violence” that is being completely ignored by both Zagreb and the EU.

“In this sort of atmosphere, with election campaign season fast approaching, this can only increase (Croatian) nationalist and anti-Serb incidents. We are afraid for the security of Serbs in Croatia, more than ever since the end of the (1991-1992) war, and we use every opportunity to ask the European politicians to put a stop to that wave of hatred and violence towards our compatriots. Tolerance and respect for others is plunging to a new low and given the lack of will by the EU, we do not expect anything to change.”

His comments came after 15 Croats, wearing masks and toting clubs, reportedly beat a group of Serbs in the eastern Croatian town of Knin, once a Serb stronghold, because they were watching a football match involving Red Star Belgrade.

Voters’ concerns in Serbia

Over the last several elections in Serbia, and despite the rise of nationalist and populism in the neighbouring countries of the Balkans, the subject of Kosovo’s status was not even among the top five issues of Serb voters’ minds over the last several elections. The economy was what the majority of Serbs said was their biggest concern, which added further proof that nationalist rhetoric has a fleeting political effect, but lasting toxic impact on the relations among peoples of a historically volatile region. 

“This is exactly what I’m talking about. Election campaigns cannot be a pretext for national bestiality. Why don’t we have the same thing in Serbia during our elections? Not a single window on an Albanian or Croat house was broken, not a single hair was harmed. That is why we ask the others to behave with the same maturity and tolerance.”