Serbia Deputy PM: We could solve ‘everyday problems’ with Pristina

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Serbia is hoping to be granted the status of EU candidate member at next December's summit of EU leaders, the country's deputy prime minister, Bozidar Djelic, told EURACTIV Germany. He also voiced Belgrade's readiness to seek a difficult compromise with Serbia's former province Kosovo on smaller 'everyday' issues.

Bozidar Djelic is a Serbian economist and politician. From 2001 to 2003 he served as his country's finance minister and since 2007, he has been deputy prime minister. He is a member of the Democratic Party.

He spoke to EURACTIV Germany's Daniel Tost and Michael Kaczmarek.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

You met German Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. What message did you bring with you to Berlin?

The core message is that Serbia is looking forward to European integration but it is not looking for any privileges. It is expecting to be treated according to well-known criteria.

Our strategic goal is to get candidate status at the December EU summit. Hopefully, the formal negotiations to enter the EU will be opened in the spring of next year. We will work very seriously on this in the months to come. This concretely means for Serbia: to undertake the necessary reforms and to demonstrate full collaboration with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

You define a very ambitious timetable. Which concrete reforms will Serbia implement this year?

We have had a very open and direct dialogue with the [European] Commission and [EU] member states and we have come to an agreement on the reform menu for 2011. These reforms are necessary and sufficient – if fulfilled – to get candidate status.

The main elements of this reform process are: judicial reforms, the continued fight against organised crime and corruption, the improvement of our political system, which includes some changes in our electoral laws and also a new law in political party financing, elements on property rights, which require in particular voting for a restitution law in Serbia, a further reform of our regulatory agencies and last but not least full cooperation with the Hague Tribunal.

How are the results supposed to be quantified at the end of the year? Will the arrest of Ratko Mladic be one of the benchmarks to show Serbia's full cooperation with the Hague Tribunal?

There is complete consensus within the EU but also within Serbia that we need to find and extradite the two remaining fugitives. This would the best way for Serbia to prove full cooperation with the Hague Tribunal. Nevertheless, this is not the only way to demonstrate this.

I would like to remind you that in December 2009 there was a consensus in the European Union that Serbia is fully collaborating, which allowed for the Interim Agreement from the SAA. In June 2010 there was further consensus on collaboration, which allowed for the ratification of the SAA to start and I am glad that this has been approved some weeks ago in the Bundestag.

In October of last year there was again the assessment of full collaboration, which allowed Serbia to submit its application to the European Commission for full consideration. It would not be the first time for Serbia's collaboration to be judged satisfactory, even with Mr Mladic still not being in The Hague.

Serbia's collaboration is a way to give justice to the innocent Bosniak victims. We have proven our good will by adopting the Srebrenica resolution last September in parliament or by the presence of President [Boris] Tadi? at the commemoration in Poto?ari last summer.

There is no doubt about our political will to collaborate. The recent visit of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal Mr Serge Brammertz in Belgrade was another occasion to demonstrate that. We are looking forward to his positive report in June and in December 2011.

You mentioned the fight against corruption and organised crime. What are the concrete results of this action?

Corruption and organised crime are the biggest stain on the name of the Balkans. Our European partners ponder quite often on it. It is up to us to demonstrate that democratically elected and not mafia leaders are running the country.

In this area there is no space for rhetoric, there is only space for action.

Last year we signed, for example, an agreement to extradite criminals with Croatia. It has been applied with success when two suspected killers of Zoran Djindjic were found in Zagreb or when people who are in Serbia were judged for the killing of the Croatian editor-in-chief of the paper Nacional, Ivo Pukanic.

A similar agreement was signed between Serbia and Montenegro and this has been applied on several dozen occasions as well. Previously, the mafia was collaborating very well and states were not. Now we demonstrate that states do collaborate to defeat the mafia.

Today in Serbia all major criminal figures are either under arrest or on the run. In the fight against corruption we have had high-level arrests of people who used to run our railway system, our road system, teachers, professors, surgeons, public officials. It is still not very pleasant but it is a demonstration that there has been a critical mass within the administration and the people to fight these phenomena.

President Tadi? mentioned in a speech at the Council of Europe that organised crime has threatened to enter the European Union via Serbia. Has this threat been stopped now?

Organised crime has used the Balkans as a transit route for drugs since the break-up of Yugoslavia weakened the states in the Balkans.

Now we are a strategic partner in the international fight against drug trafficking in the region. We will continue on this path and we ask for support from our European colleagues.

At the same time we adopted a law on freezing and confiscating the assets of condemned criminals.

The time when people were quietly speaking about the fact that this nightclub or that company or that newspaper is actually owned by the mob are over. Organised crime will not be tolerated.

We are in the middle of this battle and we have no choice: it's either them or us. It's either the mafia and crime or democracy in a European future.

What kind of support do you expect from the European Union to assist Serbia and the Western Balkans in  fighting organised crime?

Collaboration at the operating level and at the intelligence level is crucial. Due to the collaboration of French and Serbian police services we were able to capture illegal weapons that were supposed to be smuggled into suburbs of France.

Furthermore, we're working on a judicial reform. We went through a very delicate process of reappointment of judges and public prosecutors, which created havoc in the underworld because some of those people had their judges and prosecutors. You cannot only have the police do the job. You also need the judiciary and the laws, which hit the strength of organised crime.

We hit a lot of companies that were purchased with drug money and offshore funds. The burden of proof to prove that they are not bought by dirty money is on them, not on us.

Relations between Kosovo and Serbia are still tense. When will the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo start?

We appointed the chief negotiator, we have the team and we have adopted our platform for discussion. We are ready. Because of the political turmoil over there, Pristina was not. But we do expect this dialogue to start as soon as possible. We have so many things to discuss [the interview was taken before the sides begun their first direct negotiations in Brussels, under High Representative Catherine Ashton's watch, on 8 March].

For example?

We should start to deal with everyday problems. Let's take the licence plates. The shortest route for Kosovars to get to Switzerland or Germany is through Serbia. We need to find a way so this can be done in a safe and mutually acceptable way. People should be able to go back and forth between their families and jobs. The same applies for people from the rest of Serbia who want to enter Kosovo with their own licence plates. That should not be a problem.

I hope that this year we will be able to solve the issue of the stamp that is being used by the Pristina customs authorities and also the issue of representation in regional forums of Pristina, which has constantly been a problem in the last few years. Another topic is water supply. A lot of the water supply for Pristina comes from a lake in the northern part of Kosovo. These are everyday things we need work on in order to build confidence.

At the end of EU integration negotiations Serbia will have to answer the question if it recognises Kosovo or not.

If we come to the table and we repeat well-known positions we are not going to get very far. The only way forward to lasting peace and reconciliation in the region is through a compromise between Serbs and Albanians. You cannot have lasting peace if you support one nationalism versus another. It is much better to support an unsatisfactory but workable European type of compromise.

This is exactly where people will need to show creativity. Five EU member states do not recognise Kosovo as an independent state. Pristina cannot be integrated even if it wanted to be, because Spain is not recognising it. This creativity and compromise will also create European unity on a complicated issue.

You talk about creativity, but not about a solution.

I do talk about a solution but not about recognition. Speaking of creativity, we have proposed to consider the 1972 model of two Germanys. We have discussed the possibility to get inspiration from the Hong Kong model. We also discussed the model of the Åland Islands between Finland and Sweden. We are ready for a very specific solution for a very specific situation.

We need to find a solution through dialogue with Pristina. Instead of this dichotomy – that we need to choose between Europe or Kosovo – a much superior outcome for everyone involved is to find a historical compromise that will allow the entire region to move to Europe and recreate unity on this issue, which has also been dividing the world.

Our goal is to find a solution by peaceful, legal and diplomatic means. We are also expecting no-one else to use force to enforce changes on the ground. Violence is not the solution.

The Serbian government is calling on Bosnia's Serbian population to support the integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Why don't you tell the Serbs in northern Kosovo to respect the integrity of Kosovo?

Those are very different cases. In the case of Bosnia, we recognise Bosnia and Herzegovina, we support the Dayton Accord, and Serbia is not controlling Serbs in Bosnia. That would be a very big illusion. We will support any solution that brings Bosnia and Herzegovina closer to the EU.

Serbia has taken no step that will lead to a break up of Bosnia because this is something we are against. Serbia has not given its passports to Serbs in Bosnia. Bosnian Serbs are not voting in Serbian elections. They are not electing the Serbian president. By the way, this is not the case with Croatia. Bosnian Croats vote in Croatian elections, they elect the Croatian president and they all have a Croatian passport.

We are also against Serbia being broken up. Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) of 2008 is an attempt to unilaterally break up Serbia and we are not accepting this. At the same time we want to find pragmatic solutions. I talk about solutions where our interests are recognised as well.

This attempt of the UDI is an attempt by some to see one nationalism triumph over another. That is not the European way. The way forward is one where both Belgrade and Pristina respect each other's interests and rights, and find a common solution.

Currently Kosovo is the only state in the Balkans without a visa-free regime. What is your assessment of this situation?

This is a reflection of the unsustainable status situation. Serbia has no wish for life in Kosovo to be bad. But it is certain that a compromise with Belgrade would facilitate everything, including this visa-free regime. We issue passports for our citizens from Kosovo, but those passports are not opening the way for visa-free travel. This is an effect of the negotiations with the European Commission.

Although we wish for everyone in the Balkans to travel visa-free, Serbia's primary concern is to reduce the number of people asking for asylum coming from our country. Almost 10,000 people have come to Germany and applied for asylum status. Many knew that they would never get asylum status. They came for the money.

Now that they do not get any allowance and we are more active, the number of people asking for asylum has gone from 1,200 in November 2010 down to 490 in January 2011. We look forward to decreasing figures in the weeks to come.

Every single demand by the German authorities for readmission is being acted upon swiftly and with no delay. We want to make sure that this newly-found freedom for our citizens to travel visa-free is not being abused and is not creating a problem for Germany, Sweden, Belgium or any other member of the Schengen area.

How do you inform your citizens and how does the government deal with asylum seekers that had to return to Serbia?

Over 90% of the asylum seekers are of the Roma minority. Therefore the communication focuses on this minority. We explain that their demand has no chance of ending in success and that they will not get any money.

Of course there is the need for a holistic approach to reintegration and prevention. That's why I am also the head of the Roma Inclusion National Council in Serbia. We have proposed several projects. Lots can be done with little money. A German partner with European money has built homes for 21 Roma families that have been internally displaced from Kosovo.

They used to live in horrendous conditions, with rats, with trash, without electricity. The government purchased the necessary furniture and our social services made sure that the children go to school and get the necessary vaccines.

The responsibility to ensure inclusion lies above all within the nation states. Nevertheless, the Roma issue is a European one. A pan-European Roma inclusion policy should be adopted during the Hungarian Presidency. We will be a very active participant in that.

It's a question of ethics, because the Roma have much tougher lives than the rest of us in Europe. But it is also a question of migration, which happens mainly by bus. It is very important that the police officers at the Hungarian frontier, which is the Schengen frontier, bar entry to the Schengen space for people who have no return ticket or who cannot demonstrate that they have the necessary resources to finance themselves and to come back to Serbia once their short-term trip is done.

But let's put things in perspective: there were over the last year 1.5 million Serbs who legally and rightfully used the new visa travel freedom to see their families, but also as tourists and on business. This is for mutual benefit. Vienna registered directly the upturn in the tourism industry after the beginning of the visa-free regime.

Then there were a few thousand people who tried to abuse it. We are going to take those figures down, but let's not create a huge crisis out of something that can be managed.

When you handed over the answers to the European Commission’s questionnaire in January you also proposed an increase of EU funds aimed at reforms in the Western Balkans. Could you explain this proposal?

The current situation can be exemplified by the case of Croatia: as a EU candidate Croatia has very low EU financial support, which is not allowing the country to really get ready for membership, nor readying the institutions for structural funds and then having a huge jump once you enter, which cannot be absorbed. It's frustrating before and it's antagonising afterwards. The current [system] is not working well.

Therefore we have two suggestions. The first is to keep the expected envelope for the Western Balkans for this decade. We know that a significant increase of EU funds for the Western Balkans will not be forthcoming. But we propose to have a much more natural linear progression of support to the Western Balkans.

There should be a bit more before accession, much less after, but overall for the same envelope. Given the modest size of the Western Balkans, we're talking about a few hundred million euros being spent slightly earlier in the decade rather than later. This will enable the countries to be quicker and better prepared to join the EU.

The structural funds could be mixed with loans from the EIB [European Investment Bank]. The money could be spent on bridges, roads, energy, ecology, the knowledge economy and social inclusion. This EU money might finance a highway which connects Europe to Istanbul. This EU money might finance Roma integration projects in Serbia to prevent Roma problems in the suburbs of Hamburg.

The second idea refers to the new European economic governance model. Why don't we in the Western Balkans every year show our budgets and our projections for pension systems and others, as EU member states have started to do with the European semester?

The figures could be checked by Eurostat or whoever wants to, and would allow Europe to actually have a say on and influence those budgets and policies. The plus for Europe is to avoid populism, to avoid financial time bombs entering the European Union.

Serbia is currently benefiting from the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA). How do you utilise this EU money?

We get about 200 million euro a year. Of this amount almost two thirds go to per diems for European consultants that work with us on institution building. Only one third of this money is actually allocated to projects, which are linked to infrastructure. This is definitely a limited amount of money to change the situation on the ground.

Your EU funding reform proposals imply that Serbia will join the EU in the current decade.

Our internal goal, which Serbia has set for itself, is to be fully ready to join the EU by the end of 2015. This means approximating the acquis communautaire and implementing the necessary reforms. From then on things are in political hands. It does not only depend on us if we join in 2016 or later. It is going to depend on the economic situation in Europe, on the general mood and that we find creative solutions on the issue of Kosovo.

Support among Serbs for joining the EU has dropped significantly. Why?

The figures of Serbs to vote 'yes' in a referendum to join the EU went down from 70% to 57%, but the number of people who would vote 'no' is still a low 19%. The support dropped first of all because of the crisis. The support for anything is going down. And Europe itself is looking weaker because of the crisis.

EU citizens have gone on strike and say that they are unhappy within the European Union. All of this has contributed to a relative decline in support. But joining the EU is very much an element of national consensus in our country and I am certain that it will remain so in the years to come.

Are the Serbian people as discontented as recent protests suggest?

Times are difficult. Unemployment went up from 13.6 to 19%. In order to maintain macroeconomic stability we had to freeze wages and pensions in October 2008. The discontent of our people is the same as that which exists everywhere in Europe, with the difference that contrary to some other Europeans, life for Serbian citizens has been quite difficult for over 30 years.

That's why we have an even higher responsibility to attract more investment, develop the necessary infrastructure and focus ourselves on the next steps concerning European integration.

In November we expect the trial production of the Fiat factory to start. This is to produce about 250,000 cars a year and have 1.6 billion euros worth of exports. This will be the first car factory to open in Europe in five years.

We also look forward to a 51% sale of Telekom Serbia's capital, in which Deutsche Telekom along with Austrian Telekom and others are showing an interest. We also look forward to further investments in the energy sector. In 2010 we attracted about one billion US dollars of foreign direct investment, in 2009 about 1.4 billion euros, which is a record in the region. For this year we are looking forward to three to four billion US dollars.

Despite all the difficulties, Serbia has become one of the most cost competitive countries in Europe. Many German, Austrian or north-Italian investors such as Leoni, Falke, Panasonic or Benetton invest in Serbia.

Nevertheless the Serbian government has just been reshuffled. Are there going to be snap elections?

We just went through a crisis. One of the leaders of the ruling coalition has quit the government but recommitted his ministers and his party's support to the government. Knowing that regulatory elections are due next spring, I think there is a fair chance for our government to go the full term of four years.

At a recent event in Berlin you spoke about the Danube Strategy. Why is the Danube the river to EU enlargement in Serbia's view?

Europe is now discovering that the Danube is really a vector of further integration and enlargement. The Danube Strategy is the first and last EU macro-regional strategy that will include Serbia. Even though we are not a candidate country, we are able to participate on an equal footing in setting up this strategy and we are trying to do our best job.

We are glad to have been designated by our partners as the co-coordinator for railroad, traffic and infrastructure with Slovenia and for the knowledge economy with Slovakia. The Danube is something that used to divide Europe and now has to unite it.

It is very important for Serbia and we would like to use this macro-regional strategy by doing the first steps: we have already allocated 18.5 million euro of IPA funds to Danube-related projects. At the end of March, we will be signing cross-border cooperation between Serbia and Croatia in Vukovar. We hope that this city that used to be a symbol of destruction will become a symbol of hope and rebuilding.

What is your assessment of the ongoing institutional crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Maybe some people dream of something else but the reality is that Bosnia is made up of three major communities: Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. The only way forward is an agreement between those three. Serbia will certainly support any agreement that those communities reach.

Serbia supports the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the elements of the Dayton Accord to which we are part of and a guarantor. The Dayton Agreement is also an elaborate solution for a relatively complicated situation.

One should be careful before taking out elements of this architecture without having issues understood and accepted within Bosnia itself. Changes in Bosnia cannot be imposed from outside. They have to be product of an agreement between Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.

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