Ambassador: Serbia expects ‘fair treatment’ from EU

Ivan-Viscovic.jpg

Serbia is gradually preparing itself for EU integration, but its quest for membership should not be affected by scepticism among member states or external issues such as the recognition of Kosovo, Ivo Viskovi?, Serbian ambassador to Berlin, told EURACTIV Germany in an interview.

Ivo Viskovi? is a Serbian politician, diplomat and university professor in political science.

He spoke to EURACTIV Germany's Michael Kaczmarek and Ewald König.

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

Serbia has declared its desire to join the EU as soon as possible. What are the reasons for this new push towards European integration?

We feel that we have lost too much time. The 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century have almost been two lost decades in the sense that we have not achieved what we could have. Serbia has had problems with the conditions for European integration for a long time, notably over cooperation with the Hague tribunal.

Today, all government coalition partners and some opposition parties – representing two thirds of citizens – agree that European integration is Serbia's primary strategic goal and should be achieved as soon as possible.

Of course, everyone in Serbia is aware that Croatia is ahead of us in this process and that it is impossible to catch up. Nevertheless, I think that Serbia is capable of doing many things better and sooner than others – not only because of our strong political will, but also because our administrative capacity is better than those in neighbouring countries and the fact that we have learned from the EU integration experiences of our neighbouring countries and those in Eastern Europe.

We have learned to avoid some mistakes and to do things more efficiently and quicker than they did. That's why we think Serbia is able to implement certain reforms sooner than other candidate countries have done.

So will Serbia will be ready to join the EU in 2014, as has been stated several times?

I don't like to specify dates. Some mention 2014, others mention 2018 (as the hundredth anniversary of 1914-18). These are historic dates for Europe and their symbolic meaning is an inspiration for those who work on the European integration of Serbia. It is a motivation to make enormous efforts in a short time. Symbolic gestures have already been used in other instances of EU accession, for example with Spain and Greece. When Greece began negotiating its membership of the EU, the domestic situation was not ideal but it was an important and symbolic step in support of democracy in Greece at that time.

No-one in Serbia will be angry if the EU postpones Serbian accession in 2014 because we have not really achieved the necessary European standards. But people fear that the EU might say that Serbia is almost ready but we don't have an EU perspective for you because of the attitude of a certain country, or this or that external circumstance. The accession of Serbia to the EU has to lie on the achievements of Serbia alone, not developments in third countries or problems within the EU.

We do not ask for special privileges. We don't ask to become a member state before we have reached the required EU standards and benchmarks. Inform us of the necessary standards and benchmarks and we will strive to achieve them. In the visa liberalisation process, we have demonstrated our capability. We had very precise standards and benchmarks and fulfilled them within six months. Serbia expects the same procedure for the EU integration process.

In some of the 'old' EU member states, such as Germany, scepticism about further EU enlargement has increased since the accession of Bulgaria and Romania. You probably do realise this?

I cannot understand this reported level of 'panic' among common citizens over EU enlargement. We are aware that there have been problems and some bad examples, but I am convinced that the accession of Bulgaria and Romania was the best solution for both countries and the EU itself.

We fear that such examples could be used as an excuse against the accession of Serbia and other Western Balkan countries. We feel that we may be the victim of scepticism about Bulgaria and Romania and worries over the current financial situation in Greece. We understand that there are problems in the EU but is it fair that Serbia should pay the price? Neither Serbia nor any other Western Balkan country has contributed to these problems.

Croatia showed that the Western Balkan countries do not join the EU in a convoy. We are not a queue of six or so 'vehicles' travelling together, where the slowest is the standard for the others. Each country is a case in itself. The EU accepted this approach, as did we. So let's focus on the case of Serbia, although we are aware that entering EU and not giving the same chance to other Western Balkan countries is suicidal for both them and Serbia. This could cause problems on our borders.

Looking at a map of the EU today you see a 'black hole' in the Western Balkans. The crucial question is: how long will this black hole have to sap the energy of the EU?

We think that we deserve to leave such a situation once we have reached European standards. We deserve membership for our location, our system of values, our culture, our political system and our economic system. We are not a backward country. We strongly believe that we can reach all European standards, even if we have characteristics that might be strange for some within the EU.

Do you think the Serbian people are ready to join the EU?

The situation in Serbia is very complex. Unfortunately, we still carry the 'baggage' of the 1990s conflicts. We have a lot of troublesome nationalist feelings and political statements in Serbia. Fortunately, their political influence now constitutes less than 20% of voters. These political forces are present and make trouble, but they are not decisive.

The necessary reforms are another problem. In my opinion, in the first two Serbian governments following Slobodan Miloševi?, some politicians tried to go two or three steps ahead of the common citizens. This was a problem because the citizens could not follow their leaders as they did not understand them. I firmly believe that in countries in transition, political leaders have to go only one step, sometimes two steps, ahead of the citizens to be able to lead effectively. We have learned this lesson. From time to time you see our president or other politicians make statements that are not always in accordance with the majority of citizens. But they understand that in certain situations, they have to lead and take political risks in order to achieve our strategic goals.

Many people still have an issue with the new standards. They would like to join the EU but maintain habits that are not all in accordance with European values. For example, our working habits are completely non-European. Many people think it is their right to have a job without actually having to do any work. Even today, almost two thirds of people think that they were better off when Serbia was part of socialist Yugoslavia than they are today, with the exception of political or religious freedoms of course. It is changing, but slowly.

Many people fear that we will lose our identity by integrating into the EU. There are rumours that Serbs may lose the right to write in Cyrillic script and we have to explain to the people that this is untrue and show them the case of Bulgaria. There are other such examples. People fear that they might lose the right to prepare their own brandies – an old habit in Serbia. Many people in rural areas produce the famous Slivovitz and we are very proud of this family tradition. Again, we have to explain that it is not true. You cannot sell a brandy on the market unless you fulfil certain production standards, but you can produce it for your own consumption. We have to fight these prejudices every day, but progress is being made.

When we ask older people if they are in favour of EU integration, some of them will say: no, not personally, but I would support it because of my children or grandchildren. This shows that they themselves are wary of European integration, but they know that there is no future for Serbia without it.

Around 90% of the younger generation supports European integration, though the other 10% are militant nationalists, strongly opposed to European values. These groups dealing with Serbian nationalism are an absolute minority, but they are very militant and therefore very present in the media.

The Srebrenica massacre still divides the people of Serbia. President Boris Tadi? has proposed two resolutions to pay homage to the victims of Srebrenica and the Serb victims of the war. Political resistance to these resolutions is growing. Will they fail in parliament?

We strongly intend to make a resolution in our parliament condemning the Srebrenica massacre. This has divided political parties, politicians and individuals. Most people understand that what happened in Srebrenica was terrible, that it was a crime by people who supposedly acted on our behalf. They claimed to be defending Serbia and the Serbian people. Many Serbs feel very guilty about it. The scale of the massacre –several thousand people killed – is of course terrible. But on the other hand, many people remember that thousands of Serbs were also killed and no-one mentions them. They ask: do our losses count less than the Muslim victims?

That's why most political parties prefer to have two resolutions. One on the Srebrenica crime (some refuse to call it 'genocide' and prefer the word 'crime') and the second on the Serb victims of the war. This resolution ensures that the victims on the Serb side can be recognised. Serb victims must be mourned as well as those killed by certain Serbs.

President Boris Tadi?, who leads the Serbian Democratic Party, decided to go this way regardless of the cost. I expect that voting on the two resolutions will happen very soon, within the next two months. If the coalition partners are not ready to agree, the coalition will fall apart and the president will have to call early elections. Then we would see what people really think.

We have to find out what is going on in Serbia. Is it really the will of the people or only that of politicians, including those who are not able to face their own past? I know that some people think it is too early for this step. I learned that the Germans needed 20 years to face their past. But Srebrenica is not only a political issue, it is also a moral issue. The president has said on several occasions that it is in our interest to face up to our history in order to progress. We must accept our partial responsibility over Srebrenica and move on.

President Tadi? informed me that cooperation with the international Hague tribunal should also be ended as soon as possible. The best men from our police and secret police are searching for Ratko Mladi? 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Many people in the West speculate that our president and political elites are afraid to arrest him because there would be demonstrations. This is not true: we experienced it with Radovan Karadži?.

Several hundred people demonstrated for several days when Karadži? was arrested, but nothing significant happened. And politically, Karadži? was a more complex case than Mladi?. It was difficult for some Serbs to accept the idea that Karadži? is a war criminal. Politically it would be easier than with Karadži?. Many people know that Mladi? did some bad things, including Srebrenica, which cannot be justified as a defence of our nation's interests in any way. We have no reason to protect Mladi?. We have been prisoners of Mladi? for a long time, because Serbian accession to the EU very much depends on this case.

How is it possible to talk about Croatia and Serbia joining the EU while some Western Balkan countries, and Bosnia and Herzegovina in particular, lack political stability and while border disputes in the region are far from resolved?

There have been very unpleasant comments in the West over the so-called intentions of Serbia. But Serbia does not ask for any split of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH): we do not want it and we do not support it. Our leaders understand the complexity of the situation in the region and we know what kind of problems a split could cause. We are aware that it is necessary to keep BiH together. Our president said publicly several times that Serbia backs the integrity of BiH.

We are ready to put this statement in official form, though we know that it is not a popular statement for many people in Serbia. Many think that it is the 'natural right' of Serbs in BiH to declare their independence, like the Albanians did in Kosovo. Some surveys indicate that up to 90% of the population in the Republika Srpska (the Serbian enclave in BiH) would vote for independence.

However, Serbia naturally tries to protect the rights of Serbs in BiH that are guaranteed by the Dayton Agreement. Everyone is aware that the Dayton Agreement is not ideal. It was designed to stop the war and was not really a long-term solution. Many people think that BiH in its current form is not a functioning state. We accept the arguments, but we cannot accept that the rights of the people in the Serbian entity in BiH are harmed because of these problems. You cannot simply come and take away the rights of Serbs in BiH. Perhaps a sacrifice is needed, perhaps something needs to be changed, and perhaps something has to be done in a new form. The people of that country have to find a solution and we cannot do it for them.

Another unsolved problem is the status of Kosovo. How is it possible for Serbia to join the EU when there is still no definitive solution for Kosovo?

The Kosovo issue is not an official condition for Serbian accession to the EU. We see this as a separate process, one that is not involved in the process of Serbian integration into the EU. You won't find the Kosovo issue as a condition in any official EU negotiation document or statement.

There might be individual political statements in EU member states referring to Kosovo as a 'potential' condition for Serbia's EU integration. But we negotiate with the European Commission and the position of Commission officials is that they are two separate issues. If you link both processes, we will have a serious internal problem in Serbia. We think there may even be a regional problem, too. We are aware that the current situation is complex and politically unacceptable for some countries, but I think that the Kosovo situation could be solved fully after we have entered the EU.

In October 2008, the International Court of Justice was asked by the General Assembly of the United Nations for a non-binding advisory opinion on Kosovo. We expect the opinion around June of this year. This will set a precedent for the international community. There are similarly complex situations in some African, Latin American and Asian countries. The idea that one part of a country can simply declare its independence and secede from the rest is very dangerous. If one day you declare such a unilateral declaration of independence as legal, you will then start talking about new Abkhazias and South Ossetias. And there are some other cases in Europe that I don't wish to name.

We are ready to negotiate a final solution for Kosovo once the advisory opinion has been published. The so-called solution of today – that one side gets everything and the other side loses everything – is not acceptable for us. It was an attempt to impose a solution prepared by others and does not have the agreement of Serbia.

From Serbia's point of view, what is the spectrum of possible solutions for Kosovo?

We are convinced that the only possible solution may be a compromise. We know that Serbia will have to sacrifice something for this. But you cannot put one side in a situation where it can lose everything and not gain anything, not even symbolically. It is important not to be humiliated, not to be blackmailed. Saving face is very important in this issue, like in many others.

There are examples where Western countries have solved similar problems following World War Two. Take the example of the territory of Trieste. The United States and Great Britain came up with a solution to put the areas claimed fully by Italy and Yugoslavia under a so-called civil administration. Everyone knew this would be a final solution. This formula was in Italy's interest as it allowed it to save face and not be treated like a country that has lost territories. Twenty years later, Italy and Yugoslavia sat around the table and found a solution themselves. There are many other cases in history that could be used – not literally but as an inspiration – for Kosovo. We are ready to discuss all possible solutions and reach a final compromise, even if it involves a lot of sacrifices on our part.

There are people in Serbia with unrealistic demands, but none of the current leaders believe that Serbia will rule over Kosovo once again. Serbia has already proposed to the Albanians in Kosovo all rights except for two: first, formal international sovereignty and second, military sovereignty.

Based on our constitution, we cannot accept that Kosovo is treated like a sovereign state with a seat in the United Nations and so on. And we want to see a demilitarised Kosovo because of the bad experiences of the past where force was used against the Serb minority there.

All other issues – those affecting almost all aspects of life, including an autonomous police and judicial system – have already been proposed to the Albanians in Kosovo by our negotiators.

Serbia has been hit badly by the financial and economic crises. In May 2009, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) increased its financial support for Serbia to 2.9 billion euros. The state has had to cut public spending and implement unpopular reforms. Is there a risk that this will push public opinion towards Serbian nationalists?

It is quite a frequent phenomenon in countries in transition to 'punish the government' that introduces changes, but governments change in established Western countries too. We are now in the politically comfortable situation that even if the government does change it will be, I believe, on the same pro-European path.

With our application for EU membership, we have formally announced our decision that Serbia will go in the direction of Europe and not another. I know there are people in Serbia that would like to see Serbia closer to Russia or China, but they are in a minority. Today they represent no more than 18% of voters.

The electoral system in Serbia guarantees coalition governments. The government that ruled in 2000 after Slobodan Miloševi? was a coalition of 18 parties. The current government is a coalition of six parties. Sometimes parties – especially small ones – tend to blackmail and misuse the structure to benefit politically. They ask for this or that privilege, making political life difficult at times. But the setup guarantees that a single party could not install a form of dictatorship, so there is almost no possibility that one party will govern in future, especially not a party that could change the course in which Serbia is going.

What reforms are underway in Serbia and what are the main challenges for Serbian integration into the EU?

We just made a sweeping reform of our judicial system and have also reformed our healthcare system. In the economy sector we have got rid of some 700 regulations. We take the rules of Western countries and adapt them to our situation. We want to make the system more transparent and attractive for Western investors. For example, in the former system it was not possible to buy land for private property. You could rent land for 99 years, but not buy it. Now we are introducing standards that are normal in Western countries.

We are also aware that corruption in the Western Balkans is much more prevalent than in Western European countries. The system that developed in the 1990s in Serbia was virtually a legalised system of corruption. Everyone was expected to be corrupt. You have to make huge efforts to change this. Almost each week, corrupt people are arrested. We have even sentenced a supreme court judge for corruption. I cannot promise that we will solve the problem tomorrow or that Serbia will have reached the normal standard of a Scandinavian country within two years. But the situation is improving each year.

One of the biggest problems for Serbia today is the pension system. A healthy pension system can only work if there are at least three people in work for every pensioner. In Serbia we have 1.3 working people that pay for one pensioner. The main challenge for our finance minister is to find enough money each month for retirement pensions. It is difficult to cut pensions, not only because pensioners are voters but because we have to admit that the average pension is shamefully low. It is only around 190 euros per month.

Pre-candidate and candidate countries receive some money from EU funds that should help to make these reforms, but this is not enough. The day that a candidate country becomes a member state, the financial support from EU funds increases significantly – up to ten times, experts have told me. I think a progressive assistance programme would be better: the money from EU funds should increase based on the progress of the candidate countries. The current regulation is not good because most Western Balkan countries need strong support now to initiate the reforms. Progressive assistance would encourage investors and help people to find a job. If people see results they are willing to work for the goals. People need results, not just promises.

You cannot expect people to support reforms that endanger their position and make their life more difficult. We have to adapt our specific system to the rules of the market economy. This is not simple. In the countries of the former Yugoslavia, there was so-called social property. It was not state property like in Eastern countries – everyone was the owner and no-one was the owner. It has not been easy to change the system, but we have almost finished the process of privatisation.

We now have a better economic performance. For example, Sartid, the biggest steel company in Serbia, was making terrible losses each year but was employing several thousand people, so no politician dared to close the factory. In 2003, US Steel acquired Sartid and six subsidiaries. They made the company profitable. The company, that was a real burden for the country, became the most successful company and the biggest exporter in Serbia.

Of course there is another side of the story: many firms have gone bankrupt. Politically, it was very difficult to deal with the redundancies that followed.

How established is the commercial relationship between Serbia and Germany?

Our balance of trade is very negative and we are, of course, unsatisfied with this. Our exports to Germany are two times less than our imports. But last year, Germany was our main trading partner – ahead of Russia.

Serbia imports mainly gas and oil from Russia and cars and machines from Germany. None of the German companies contributes more than 4% of the imports. On the other hand, the aforementioned steel company exported 18% of all our goods to Germany in 2008. Another company, a producer of wind generators, exported 14% of Serbian goods to Germany. So, two companies are producing more than 30% of all our exported goods to Germany. Now, we are trying to enter the German market with other products – starting with our traditional food products, vegetables and fruits. We export mushrooms and Serbian raspberries, which are renowned worldwide for their quality. During the 1990s when sanctions were imposed, other countries entered the market and it is difficult for us to regain our position.

German companies are important investors in Serbia and we think there is more potential. Around 70% of our technology comes originally from Germany. Now, our task is to modernise machines in Serbia that are often very, very old.

How are political relations between Serbia and Germany?

We want to improve our relations with Germany. Diplomatic missions usually have five tasks, the fifth being to develop cordial relations. When I was sent to Germany, my president told me that this would be my number one priority: to improve and develop friendly relations with Germany.

It is well documented that we have had problems in the past. We fought in two world wars and we consider the conflict in Kosovo as another war. There was a split in diplomatic relations between 1957 and 1968. It was Germany that made the split because we recognised the GDR (former East Germany).

May I point out that we did not break our relations after Germany recognised Kosovo? Is this not a signal of a new era in our relationship? Our leaders often visit Germany and the embassy team work hard every day to improve relations, just as the German ambassador does in Belgrade. I think that it can be said that our relations are significantly improving despite some differences, particularly over Kosovo. Perhaps even more importantly, our citizens, companies and cultural institutions are constantly involved in a deepening of relations.

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