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05/12/2016

Serbian PM dreams of Balkan trade bloc

Enlargement

Serbian PM dreams of Balkan trade bloc

Aleksandar Vučić in Belgrade. [European Commission]

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić said Wednesday (14 September) he feared for the stability of the Western Balkans, calling for a regional trade bloc as a way to overcome a painful past.

“I’m not afraid of our future economically speaking… but what we need actually is political stability in the region,” Vučić told AFP in an interview at his government headquarters in Belgrade.

“That’s why we’re going to invest a lot of efforts, a lot of time, to secure that kind of political stability.”

Vučić, who has pledged to lead Serbia into the European Union, said a particular problem was the relationship between Serbs and Muslims in the region.

Relations have remained tense, both within Bosnia and between capitals Belgrade and Sarajevo, since Bosnia’s inter-ethnic conflict in the 1990s as communist Yugoslavia fell apart.

Serbia’s frosty relationship with Croatia has also reached new lows in recent months, and Belgrade still refuses to recognise the sovereignty of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.

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Vučić said there was improved “trust and confidence” between Belgrade and Pristina, but he reiterated that Serbia would not let its former southern province get a seat in the United Nations.

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Vučić, who became premier in 2014, admitted neighbourly collaboration was not easy after “not only decades but centuries of hatred and wars”.

More than 130,000 people were killed and millions left homeless in the 1990s Balkan conflicts.

Vučić, a staunch ultranationalist at the time who became information minister under Slobodan Milosevic in 1998, has since remodelled himself as a pro-EU reformist.

“My dream is to have a customs union with all Balkan states, all the territories, with everybody. That’s my dream. To have a unique market,” said the premier.

He said this would not be another Yugoslavia but a market allowing for “richer people” and “better and bigger companies in this region.”

‘On EU path’

Speaking ahead of a two-day visit to France, Vučić stressed his government’s enthusiasm to become an EU member, despite scepticism of enlargement within the 28-member bloc as well as among Serbia’s seven million people.

“We have a majority of people that think that (the) EU is harming our national interest, that’s the fact, I cannot deny that,” Vučić said.

According to a survey published earlier this year, a referendum on EU membership would win the support of only 48% of Serbians.

But Vučić dismissed the idea of Serbia balancing itself between Europe and its close ally Russia.

Serbia refused to join with the EU in imposing sanctions against Russia over the conflict in Ukraine, and Moscow also backs Belgrade by denying Kosovo’s independence.

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“We are on our EU path. The only difference is, yes, we would like to stay in a very good relationship with Russians,” Vučić said.