Serbian President pursues EU membership, better relations with the US and greater role in the Balkans

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic receives Chinese Sinopharm vaccine against COVID-19 at a health post in Rudna Glava, Serbia on April 6, 2021 via REUTERS / Zorana Jevtic.

“We are ready to listen to any criticism,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said regarding criticism of the state of democracy in his country in connection with its attempt to join the European Union (EU), ” and to implement everything we have already agreed. the European Union on this. “

Vučić made her comments at an Atlantic Council front page event hosted by the organization’s Europe Center and co-moderated by Maja Piscevic, a senior non-resident researcher at the center, and Damon Wilson, Executive Vice-President of the Council.

Regarding the recent delivery by Serbia of over 120,000 doses of vaccine to neighboring Montenegro, North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vučić said he was “very proud [of] be part of a team that has done something. I don’t think we’ve done anything huge or done anything historic, but we just did our job. We invested hard and we got more vaccines than the others. “

Vučić said Serbia has negotiated shipments from Pfizer and AstraZeneca as well as vaccines from China and Russia, and that by the end of October, it will start receiving doses of Moderna. Still, he denied claims that Serbia served as a testing ground for the third stage testing of Sinovac in China or Sputnik in Russia. “We were not part of this process,” he said. “We just bought and got more vaccines that have completed all of their trials in their own countries.”

Serbia’s vaccine diplomacy comes as the country begins its post-COVID recovery. (The country has fully immunized more than 17 percent population against COVID-19.) The International Monetary Fund predicts that Serbia’s economy will grow by 5 percent this year, although Vučić expects the growth of gross domestic product (GDP) to reach 6.5% in 2021. In addition, Serbia received almost 70% of all foreign direct investment (FDI) destined in the Western Balkans last year. Vučić attributed Serbia’s good performance to the adoption of labor and bankruptcy reforms in 2014 and 2015, as well as subsidies and tax incentives to encourage foreign investment.

Watch the entire event

A friendship is not without differences, even for Serbia and the United States

Vučić has given high priority to Serbia’s relations with the United States – a relationship likely to tighten further under US President Joe Biden. “We will do our best to strengthen the friendship between the two countries,” Vučić said, later adding that “there are, of course, differences, especially on [the] Question of Kosovo. But we are ready to discuss it, ”he said, noting that Biden was ready to listen to Serbia’s position on a range of issues.

“I hope we can take a serious and responsible approach in developing our relationship. And I think that [the] The interest of the United States in the Western Balkans is to have Serbia as an ally… ”, Vučić said. “But of course, ten times more than America’s interest [in] having Serbia as a friend is our interest [in] have America – if I can’t say the best friend in the world, I can say the friend with whom we share a common interest and a common future.

What’s next for Serbia’s EU membership campaign?

Meanwhile, Serbia’s efforts to join the EU have stalled amid concerns raised by the union – also echoed by the US State Department and watch groups like Freedom House – over corruption, attacks on journalists and the general state of democracy in the country.

“I am fully aware that we are not perfect and I do not hide this,” said Vučić, highlighting Serbia’s efforts to fight corruption, organized crime and the general abuse of democracy.

On a list of items that Serbia must complete before joining the EU, Vučić said, “we have started to tick the [boxes]… We do it because it is useful for us and it is good for the democracy of Serbia, and it is good for the image of Serbia, ”he said. “And if we are capable enough to deliver the best results [on the] in this region, the best results in [the] process of inoculation in this region, I have no doubt that we are ready to improve the situation of human rights and democracy in this country as well. “

However, as Serbia’s economy improves, Vučić said the country will also need to tackle its impact on the environment to win the favor of the European Commission. He explained that Serbia was working on a green agenda. But “I have some fears,” Vučić said, “and I’m not absolutely gloating about everything we have to do … I always speak very sincerely about our economy, which is of the utmost importance to us, and it’s not easy to sacrifice something that works for you because of [a] green agenda. We will have to do it, but we will have to balance things intelligently.

According to Vučić, Serbia and others in the region are pushing for a common market, sometimes called “mini-Schengen”, which would unite the small countries of the Western Balkans. Yet Vučić admitted that some people in neighboring countries are suspicious of Belgrade’s motives.

“We have to understand their fears about Serbian domination in the region much better than we do and much better than before – which means we have to give more guarantees,” [and] not only more guarantees, ”he said. “We have to be very persuasive and we have to convince them that this is not only good for Serbia; it’s even better for them.

Serbian-Kosovo relations remain a major sticking point

Meanwhile, little progress has been made in resolving the stalemate between Serbia and Kosovo since April 2013, when the two sides signed a fifteen-point agreement that paves the way for the two countries to join the the EU. Ninety-eight countries, including the United States, have so far recognized Kosovo’s sovereignty, the most recent being Israel in September 2020.

“What we signed in Brussels exactly eight years ago must be respected by both parties,” Vučić said, arguing that “the other side wanted to sign it just because they were absolutely certain they didn’t have to. fill in everything she signed, but we’ll have to deliver more than they signed. “

The problem, he said, is that the United States, Germany and other powerful countries continue to pressure Serbia to recognize Kosovo’s independence without offering Belgrade anything. or concrete in return – not even full EU membership status.

“We have to change the general atmosphere. We have to discuss everything in a totally different way, ”Vučić said. “We need to build trust between us and not see ourselves as the real enemies. We are not enemies. “

Still, he admitted that there was deep mistrust on both sides. “We need the two peoples – Serbs and Albanians – to accept compromises and solutions… I am afraid that the atmosphere in Pristina will be, dare to say it, much worse than in Belgrade”, he declared. . “And in Belgrade, it’s not the best atmosphere [either]. “

Vučić also dismissed warnings from neighboring Kosovo and Albania of Belgrade’s expansionist aspirations.

“We are not interested in creating any type of Greater Serbia. For us, a Greater Serbia means a better economy, more FDI, more factories – a green program but not jeopardizing our economy, ”he said, adding that his government was seeking to reduce unemployment. and raising the standard of living. “That’s what interests us.”

Larry Luxner is a Tel Aviv-based freelance journalist and photographer who covers the Middle East, Eurasia, Africa and Latin America.. Follow him on Twitter @LLuxner.

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