Serbia and other key international players believe that the US plays a decisive role in the territory, including during the recent checkpoint tension between Belgrade and Pristina, according to Ivo Viskovi?, the Serbian ambassador to Berlin, who spoke exclusively to EURACTIV Germany in a wide-ranging interview.
EURACTIV Germany’s Michael Kaczmarek, Ewald König and Daniel Tost conducted the interview with Viskovi?.
To read a shorter version of this interview, please click here.
The dispute over the control of border posts in Northern Kosovo escalated in July. How do you explain this incident?
I'm afraid that some people in Pristina lost patience and tried to misuse the situation, knowing that Serbia is currently very sensitive to the influence of the others. If we want to be a candidate for the European Union, we have to be extremely careful about the desires and demands of the EU officials and EU member states’ officials.
Pristina tried to create a new situation that we would be unable to prevent by using force. I know that Pristina is not satisfied with the current situation. But don't forget that we had a very similar situation during the 1990s. Then there were parallel structures on the Albanian side. To make a little irony: what is happening now is only a mirror image of their actions and behaviour during the 1990s. They had parallel systems and did not respect the existing government, laws and so on. They didn’t pay taxes, they had their own schools and hospitals. And now they are trying to stop this from happening in the north of Kosovo by unilateral violent actions, which even Miloševi? didn't do at that time.
This is an essential issue in the problem: if one group has the right not to be dominated by the other – in this case Albanians saying they do not want to be dominated by Serbs – does the other group have a similar right or not? Do you have the same standards for all or are there double standards? I guarantee you that 90% of Serbs in Kosovo don't want to live under Albanian domination. They don't trust the Kosovo-Albanian government and its authorities, and they do not want to live under domination from Pristina. This has to be respected. How to find a solution for that issue is another – very difficult – question. We hoped that at the beginning of the dialogue with Pristina we could try to solve some so-called technical problems, not the most difficult ones.
The customs stamp issue was one that was supposed to be discussed during the dialogue. Is not the outlook for the dialogue rather bleak at the moment?
It is a simple issue: if you recognise a customs stamp stating "Republic of Kosovo – Custom Office" you have recognised that it represents the state. Naturally Serbia cannot do this. We can accept some compromise solutions and have made proposals such as "UNMIK-Kosovo – Customs Office " or "EULEX-Kosovo – Customs Office". They don't want to accept this. In the end, everything is about the status [of Kosovo].
But, there are also some issues which are very important for us. What, for example, about the Serbian property in Kosovo? Everything was taken from us (state, firms, individuals) and no one in the West thinks it is a problem. Isn't the issue of property a sacrosanct in Western values and legal systems? How can you take someone's house or land and say: “From this moment on this is mine”?
We tried to solve the problem of telecommunications. Most people here do not know that Kosovo does not have its own country code, because it is not a member of the International Postal Union. It uses the dialling code of Monaco. We already have a code and an operator which has worked for many years in the whole of Kosovo, and especially in the north. Ought that to be respected or not?
We also tried to find a compromise concerning electricity. Our government is ready to distribute electrical energy to the north of Kosovo. But Pristina’s representatives do not want it. Is this helping the people to lead a better life if they are not given the chance to have electricity?
Then come some very specific and delicate issues such as this customs stamp. Our idea was to find solutions to less difficult problems at the outset and to build some kind of trust between the two sides. Take, for example, the issue of university diplomas. There are Albanians from the territory of Serbia who have studied in Pristina whose diplomas cannot be recognised in our country because they bear the title "Republic of Kosovo – University of Pristina". We were ready to find a solution by getting recognition for the diplomas through the procedure of some third country’s universities, and thereby to get these diplomas accepted, or some such similar solution.
If you labour only one issue you can cause big problems, especially at the outset of negotiations. Recent developments are connected to an embargo they imposed. It is a sort of revenge for what they think is an embargo on Kosovan goods coming from the Serbian side. We have no boycott of Kosovo goods. There is only one condition: that they come with documents – this is normal in international trade – on which there is not a stamp that states "Republic of Kosovo – Custom Office".
President Boris Tadi? was very critical of the US position, and specifically about Christopher Dell, the US ambassador to Pristina. On what basis?
We, and we are not alone, believe that the US ambassador to Pristina has played decisive role in many of these issues, including this one. Many other countries and many of my colleagues, whose name I am naturally loath to mention, are fully aware of the fact that he is in charge of many things. What he says is practically a “must-do” for the Kosovan authorities in Pristina, with or without consultation with other Western countries.
So you are assuming that the US administration is behind the recent Kosovo border crisis?
I have not said that. They deny this. The US ambassador in Belgrade denied that they were informed and stated that it was a unilateral action by Kosovo authorities. But they have also not criticised it as severely as we would have expected, nor have they asked for the restoration of the pre-existing status.
And the most important issue in this whole case is that we were promised that there would be no unilateral actions during the dialogue with Pristina, especially no actions attempting to change the status quo in the north. This was one of our conditions and it was fully guaranteed. This was betrayed by the failure to stop the unilateral actions of Pristinan authorities, and we now have many reasons to be very cautious and not to believe everything that is said to us, including many “serious promises”.
What is your assessment of the role [NATO-led] KFOR and [EU law enforcement mission] EULEX are playing?
In the beginning they tried to be neutral and to stop possible conflict. But at the moment – and I cannot explain why – they seem to be trying to support the decisions of the government in Pristina. They said that it is their obligation to bring Kosovan officials – policemen and custom officers – to the border. In our opinion this is neither included in the framework of UN SC resolution 1244 nor in our agreement with them on their role on such occasions. To have neutral status means, amongst other things, not to help one side to fulfil its intentions. In the beginning we had quite good conversations with KFOR commander Major General Erhard Bühler. After some time he changed his position and tried to explain to our representatives that he has to carry out the decisions of Pristina, but fortunately this has latterly been resisted.
President Tadi? stated that it was not in Serbia's interest for the incident at the border to happen, as its "international position was weakened immediately". How and to what extent?
We do not want any problem or conflict. But Serbia has “red lines” just as Germany had at the time two Germanies existed. You had provisions in your constitution just as we have. And no one in Serbia can go against these provisions. We were ready to find a compromise, which would enable us to find ways even to change some provisions of our constitution, aiming to find what we call a historic solution with Albanians.
Of course we are aware that this conflict has weakened our position. At that time – especially having delivered all remaining suspects to the Hague Tribunal – our position was extremely good. But since the beginning of this conflict the attitude of some EU member states has changed. They think that the Kosovo issue has become the most important condition for our candidacy and especially for the beginning of the negotiations with the EU. This is critically important for us, and president Tadi? is fully aware of it, and that is why he estimates consequences of each move and – trust me – he is a politician who has an instinct for politics, internal and international, and is able to see what benefits and what hurts our interests.
But has the Kosovo issue now not actually become the single most important condition?
If we are faced with the dilemma of choosing between Kosovo and the EU at this moment, our choice cannot be the EU. We have constitutional provisions, which cannot be neglected. If we are cornered or even blackmailed, then our answer would be “No, thank you”. This is the attitude of the large majority of people in Serbia. About two-thirds of Serbs asked if they would like to see Serbia within the EU said “yes”. But, asked if they would like to see Serbia in the EU under the condition that we recognise Kosovo, two-thirds said “no”.
It is not only an issue of dignity – and Serbs are a very proud people – it is not only an issue of justice, it is the issue of the destiny of our people living there. Until we fully solve some very sensitive issues such as the protection of the Serbian people in Kosovo, special rights for Serbian monasteries and churches, there is no way anyone in a leading position in our country will say “yes” to choosing the EU over Kosovo.
Does this not pose a problem for the negotiations?
We are ready for it. We have been ready since October, we have had a negotiating team, we have had a platform for this dialogue, and we have been patient in waiting for Pristina. At the moment when both sides could not find expected solutions EU mediator Robert Cooper proposed a break during August to find some new solutions. Now some countries criticise us, and many say that we have to continue the dialogue as soon as possible, but we have not stopped it and we are ready to continue it.
So if the rights of the Serb minority in Kosovo are better protected, Belgrade will recognise Kosovo?
I cannot say that now. Prior to making this possible, we have to solve many problems. And then, one day in the not-very-near future, someone in Serbia might say: “We can do it now.”
Try to remember how many years it took to make the fundamental agreement between the two Germanies. It took 20 years and you expect us to do this in two years? For more than 90 per cent of the Serbs, Kosovo has been a part of their own and their collective identities. Serbian culture and religion emerged in Kosovo. It also has a kind of national mythic status because of the famous 1389 battle of Kosovo, which has always been associated by Serbs with heroic notions of self sacrifice for the good of others. It is one of the most famous episodes in the history of the Serbian people. There are hundreds of Orthodox churches and monasteries in Kosovo. More than 100 of them were burned in 2004. Monks and some women living in the monasteries have been attacked. Who can guarantee their protection? Unfortunately we have a situation in which the people in Kosovo do not trust each other. Kosovan-Serbs are afraid what fate awaits them, and sometimes fear that they could be massacred. This almost happened in 2004.
I can guarantee you that the Serbs have no intention of ruling over Albanians in Kosovo again. Our president said that this is even in our best interests. By some calculations estimated by the Serbian Academy of Sciences it could very easily be that – in some 30 years – Albanians will become the majority within Serbia if Kosovo stays in Serbia, because of demographical trends. They have an extremely high birth rate and we have a loss of almost 35,000 to 40,000 people each year.
Is it the Serbian strategy to separate the northern part of Kosovo from the rest?
No. This is one possible solution, but there are many other ideas we have. It wouldn't be wise to publicly state your plans and goals during the beginning of negotiations. Many people in Germany mentioned, for example, the model of two Germanies from 1972. In the official talks in 2007 we mentioned the model of Hong Kong. Making a new demarcation is just one possible solution. Most people don't know that the territory in the north was given to Kosovo in the mid-fifties by Tito's regime to make a kind of ethnic balance. It was not part of Kosovo before, but then was administratively added. There are no easy or clear solutions for such complicated issue, and we are absolutely ready to discuss what is possible or acceptable.
Everything would be much easier if we all were closer to the EU. In the moment that both Serbia and Kosovo would come into the EU, the situation would be absolutely different. Then you would have European standards, institutions for protection and more confidence that your people would be protected and treated equally to the others.
The international community's response to the arrest of alleged war criminal Goran Hadži? has been positiveoverall. Seeing as this issue is now more or less off the table, was it not foreseeable that the Kosovo issue would take the centre stage in Serbia's EU accession?
Most of our citizens are afraid that whatever we do will be followed by the next condition, that this is a kind of game to prolong our integration toward the EU. Because of this we have had a downfall of support for EU from 72 to 53 per cent. One fulfilled condition is immediately followed by a new one. I am afraid that some politicians in the West think that this is the moment where they have leverage while Serbia is in the process of EU decision-making for the status of candidate and the beginning of the negotiations with the EU, and therefore “weak”, i.e. not able to reject any demand.
Many of our citizens, and especially our leading politicians, are ready to make some concession. But there is a limit. After that our people take it as humiliation. We can do some things but if we understand that it is a kind of blackmail – that we have been put under pressure just because some think that it is the right moment to do so – people will not accept it. And no politician in Serbia is ready to do anything against this will of the people.
Is it not normal that the EU can only integrate candidates when these are willing to live in peace and solve their problems including in Serbia's case the issue of Kosovo? Otherwise the EU would have the same problems as with Cyprus…
Do you know how many EU members have unsolved bilateral problems including the recognition of territories and borders? Does it hurt the functioning of the European Union? We have no conflict that threatens the stability of the European Union. We guarantee stability in the region. A year ago our president stated that he is immediately ready to sign a declaration that we shall and will not make any problems with other Western Balkan states entering the EU. Are all our neighbours ready to sign such a declaration?
We need time to solve the problem of Kosovo. We are ready to solve many practical problems, but not to accept unilateral or imposed “solutions”. Who, for example, could have pressed the Federal Republic of Germany in the sixties or seventies to recognise the GDR? Why is only Serbia being put under such pressure? Give benchmarks to us and ask us to fulfil them. If we don't fulfil them, then it's our own fault. But we cannot be responsible for experiences with other countries, including Cyprus, which is a special problem. We know this. But it is not the same situation – there is no Serb soldier on the territory of Kosovo. Of course the EU knew of the Cyprus situation when it was accepted into the EU. And I think that it is better that Cyprus is in the EU, like all other “problematic countries”. Because it would not be any better if they were not. On the contrary. If all Balkan countries were in the EU as well, they would have to accept their rules and this could help very much.
So you don't agree to the condition that Serbia should first solve the Kosovo issue and then negotiate for EU integration?
You have to ask every candidate country to fulfil the same conditions. There are many in the EU and many EU candidates, which have a problem with their neighbour. Why would this only be a special case for Serbia? We are just asking to be equal to others.
What is your personal outlook if there is this fear of being blackmailed?
I don't think that this is the official position of the European Union. No EU institution has made such a decision. Some countries have this idea. In many cases it was stated that this is not an official condition for Serbia to become a member. I am not naive. I understand what is officially said and, on the other side, that some people in mighty countries think that it might become a condition.
We will try our best to not let the problem come to a level where it has to become an issue for official decision-making within the EU institutions. We will do our best to solve all problems in the region with all neighbours before we become an EU member. We just expect to be treated equally. Some things need time. Pressure to do something immediately can cause more problems than a little bit of patience. We think our case is very similar to that of Germany after 1945. Some things cannot be done overnight.
German politician and Member of the European Parliament, Doris Pack called the north of Kosovo an unlegislated area with mafia structures and stated that the Serbs there are held as hostages by criminals. Do you agree?
I can agree that there is a lot of crime in the north of Kosovo but not only there. Serbian criminals cooperate wonderfully with Albanian criminals. Ask any German soldier who has been in Kosovo about criminals on the Albanian side. It is absolutely well known that many in Kosovo are living off smuggling – and not sugar or gasoline, like in north, but drugs and weapons – and trafficking. We have started a very serious fight with big criminals. But be careful: We have no formal authority in the north of Kosovo. Our police cannot come there and arrest someone. We try to fight criminal in cooperation with our neighbours, like the Montenegrin government. Most of the criminals have two or three passports. When they are accused in Serbia they go to Bosnia or Montenegro or Croatia. I'm not sure if they have a sort of rule in the north of Kosovo, but their influence is sometimes evident.
We also have a majority of politicians in the north who oppose the existing government of Serbia. They are not supporters of Tadi?. They criticize him and call him a traitor. Most of them are supporters of nationalistic parties in Serbia. How can anyone expect of our government to shut them up or arrest them just because some from KFOR suspects that they have been engaged in criminal activities? We can arrest them only in so-called proper Serbia and only for something they have really done in Serbia. Politically you can fight them but you cannot say they have no right to say what they think or take local power if they win local elections. And for some of them I cannot say that they have really been criminals who take our people living there as hostages, even as metaphor, despite my disagreement with their attitudes or actions.
Europe's politicians seem rather worried about nationalistic parties winning the next elections and Boris Tadi? losing power. How realistic is this?
Who can predict the result of the next elections in Germany today? I personally think that the present government represents a pro European Serbia. Even some formerly very anti European parties have changed their position now. Therefore I am quite optimistic and I think that in the end people will support those who are pro European.
Perhaps the composition of the government will be different. We have two big parties supported by the people: the Democratic Party of Boris Tadi?, which is now leading the coalition government, and the Progressive Party headed by Tomislav Nikoli?, who changed from a position of strong nationalism to a more moderate and pro European position. They each have some 28 to 30 per cent support. All others have much less. In Serbia no one can rule by himself, the parties need coalition partners. On two occasions radicals won the elections but were not able to form the government.
I know that many citizens in Serbia are unsatisfied because of the bad economic situation, the extremely high rate of unemployment and so on. But there are still several months until elections and the actions prepared for “last minute” – and in all Balkan countries we decide most things in last moment – and campaigns have yet to contribute to the success of the parties. And what is happening now with Kosovo and our EU integration can have an important influence on the final result, as well. I hope that politicians in the West are also aware of that.
Is Serbia aware of any suggestions from Pristina's side about the issue of Serbs living in Kosovo?
We don't trust that they are willing or able to do what they say, because we know what is realistic or not in Kosovo. We need serious guarantees and actions, not only promises. For example, they promised to reconstruct the churches in Kosovo burned in 2004. What they do instead is publish books where all Serbian churches and monasteries have at once become part of Kosovo history. They say these are Kosovo monuments, and Kosovo “belongs to Albanians”. Can you imagine the Orthodox Church as a part of Albanian history in the Kosovo?
And perhaps the most important question: Why do they do everything to discourage Serbs who lived in Kosovo to return there? Try to read only articles about life of Serbs in Kosovo by western journalists. Some positive examples cannot replace mostly negative experiences, like some leaders from Pristina would like to present. I have been a strong supporter of multiethnicity and multiculturalism, but that is, unfortunately, not a reality in Kosovo today.