Serbian President Vučić on COVID-19, democracy, and Serbia’s bid to join the EU

Serbia's president Aleksandar Vučić speaks during a news conference after donating a batch of coronavirus vaccines, at Sarajevo International Airport in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, March 2, 2021 via REUTERS/Dado Ruvic.

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Event transcript

Speaker
H.E. Aleksandar Vučić, President of the Republic of Serbia

Introduction
Damon Wilson
Executive vice president, Atlantic Council

Moderator
Maja Piscevic
Nonresident senior fellow, Atlantic Council

DAMON WILSON: Good morning to those joining us in the United States. Good afternoon to those in Europe. I’m Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council.

Welcome to today’s Atlantic Council Front Page broadcast featuring the president of the Republic of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić. Atlantic Council Front Page is our premier platform for conversations with global leaders.

As a leader who has shaped and even dominated Serbian politics, our guest today is playing a pivotal role in determining the trajectory of his nation and shaping the future of the Western Balkans. President Vučić was elected in 2017 and previously served as Serbia’s prime minister, deputy prime minister, and minister of defense. His presidency coincides with Serbia’s own inflection point—not only how it emerges from this global pandemic in the coming year, but how his decisions today determine the place of Serbia in Europe and Euro-Atlantic community in the future. The country is rapidly emerging from the pandemic with an innovative strategy of vaccine diplomacy and an ambitious economic recovery plan. Yet, the region remains fragile, facing stresses on reforms and democratic development, and uncertainty over regional stability and prospects for joining the European Union.

So today we’ll consider how Serbia and the region factor into the unfinished business of building a Europe whole, free and at peace. We’ll discuss President Vučić’s stepped up engagement with the United States and his continuing outreach to Moscow and Beijing. We’ll address the growing questions about the prospect of a dialogue with Kosovo, broader regional cooperation, and the state of democracy in Serbia today.

At the Atlantic Council, we’re committed to shaping the global future with our partners and allies. And we see Serbia and its neighbors as partners in this pursuit. The Atlantic Council created this Balkans Forward initiative to foster a democratic, secure, and prosperous Western Balkans as part of the Euro-Atlantic community, and to ensure US-European engagement in the region, to that end. So we welcome this opportunity to discuss how the United States and Serbia can deepen their relationship and support regional cooperation against the backdrop of a new US administration now in place.

I’ll be co-moderating today’s event with Maja Piscevic, our fantastic senior fellow with our Atlantic Council Europe Center, who is based in Belgrade full time. Maja is with the president in person in Belgrade at the presidency for this conversation. So, Mr. President, we look forward to what we know will be a dynamic conversation. You have already generated a lot of interest with a lot of questions coming in.

So for our audience, if you’re joining us over Zoom, please submit your questions in the Q&A box. Everyone else can engage in the conversation using the hashtag #ACFrontPage and #BalkansForward across our social media platforms. Thank you for joining us.

Maja, over to you.

MAJA PISCEVIC: Thank you so much, Damon. And thank you, President. Really deep thanks for agreeing to talk to the Atlantic Council audience today. I have to say that this feels much better than being in my room in front of the screen and just talking to people’s heads. So I hope this will become a new normal soon again.

We have a lot of things to cover today in a very short time. So first things first: health. Serbia has become a vaccination hub for Western Balkans and also for southeast Serbia. Belgrade has ordered over eleven million vaccines for Serbian citizens. We rank, I think, the second best in Europe in terms of number of vaccinated people, just after Great Britain. So many good results. You personally negotiated with the East and West. You negotiated with China and Russia, but also with companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca.

When our neighbors didn’t have enough vaccines or, as a matter of fact, didn’t have any, you were the first to deliver the nations—to North Macedonia, to Sarajevo, to Montenegro. For your vaccine diplomacy you’ve been praised, but also sharply criticized. Although you invited the citizens of—thousands of citizens from the region to come to Serbia to get their vaccines comments were contradictory, to say the least. Some leaders accepted your donations with gratitude as an act of solidarity, but others were a little bit frustrated that they had to rely on Belgrade instead of their own government or the EU.

So you were accused or, as I said, criticized also for being a post child for Beijing and Moscow. You were even accused of using Serbia as a testing ground in Europe for China and Russian vaccines. We’ve heard a lot of these things. So you vaccine diplomacy has brought you good, and not all good. What I would like to ask you today is, first to say, what do you base your optimism on, on the economic recovery post-COVID for Serbia? But also, to speak a little to these critics who accuse you of nationalist tendencies, even trying to create a Serbian world—so-called Serbian world, in which you will be the leader of all ethnic Serbs, no matter where they are in this region?

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: Wow, too many questions. I’ll do my best…

First of all, I’m really honored and privileged having an opportunity speaking to you, Maja, speaking to Damon, speaking to all our friends from Atlantic Council, and hope to see our old friends in person as soon as possible.

Speaking about vaccines—and you mentioned something that was imminent to everybody that was doing something, that was working on difficult items and issues, which is you have to be sharply criticized whatever you do. You’re not criticized only in a case when you do nothing. And from that point of view, I’m, to be very honest, very proud being a part of a team that did something. And I don’t believe that we did something huge, that we did something historic, but we did—we just did our job. We invested hard work and we got more vaccines than the others.

And I just need to make a few corrections. It means, first of all, we did not participate in that stage three or third trial of Chinese or Russian vaccines. No, not at all. And we were not a part of that process, not for a single moment. We just bought and we got more vaccines that finished all their trials in their own countries.

And first arrangement that we made with someone was with Pfizer. And I can tell you that people from Pfizer were as punctual as—I don’t know whether you have this idiom in American English or British English, but we have it in Serbian language. They were as punctual as a Swiss watch. And you know, it’s—they have always delivered everything that we agreed upon, and I’m very satisfied with that. Also we got our biggest number of jabs from Beijing, from China; then from AstraZeneca; and then from Moscow… And now we made an arrangement with various—we made an arrangement with Moderna, and we’ll start getting Moderna vaccines, I think, from the end of October.

And just to add on that, I think that, yes, we were doing a lot of preparations, investing our hard work, and I’m proud of that. And speaking about those who like the fact that Serbia ranked as number two in that so-called race for vaccines for jabs, I think that what we were doing, it was not about geopolitical issues. It was mainly, I dare to say, all about saving people’s lives. And that’s what we are satisfied with. Everything else, to be very honest and to tell you the truth, I don’t care. Whatever we do here, we’ll always find enough people who criticize you, some people to praise you. That’s always the case. That’s our job.

Speaking about nationalistic tendencies, you have just—certainly, I don’t act like that and I don’t feel like that. And I think that of utmost importance and significance for us is keeping peace, stability, and tranquility in the region, and to be supportive to all the others. And I don’t even comment on some insults and offenses that we got from different parts of the region. I think that’s very normal. That’s something that we are used to.

At the same time, speaking about why did we do so well with the vaccines and inoculation process, first of all, it was being of stronger economy of Serbia. We had the biggest or we were the second-biggest in Europe, speaking about the growth rate last year, 2020: -0.9 [percent]. And—during [the COVID-19] crisis, which was not bad. And even IMF yesterday confirmed their estimation, their assessment, that Serbia will go up to 5 percent. We believe that we’ll go up to… 6.5 percent this year, which is not easy when you compare it with the big basis from last year, which many other countries don’t have.

And secondly, we did this digitalization process in our country, dare to say, faster than the others in the region. And we can be very proud of the [effort] made by our young people for our entire… process. They did it in a terrific way and I really praise them for their great work, and we’ll carry on with this. And we now—how do I base our hopes and our expectations? It’s not—it’s not about our dreams. Actually, it’s not even about our hopes. It’s our expectation that we’ll reach more than 6 percent of growth this year.

It’s about FDIs, number one. Last year we got 70—almost 70 percent of overall FDIs in the Western Balkans. I didn’t explain that therefore it was 61, 62 [percent]; it was almost 70 percent—67 [percent], something like that—of overall Western Balkan FDIs. That was the most important pillar for our growth.

Number two, it’s bigger public consumption. That’s why we wind up with three packages: for the people, for the enterprises, for the entrepreneurs in our country. And people were—you can never say that people were satisfied. People appreciated that. People respected it. And at the same time, we were keeping our public debt-to-GDP ratio on a cannot say very good level, but on a level that we cannot be absolutely dissatisfied, which is below 60 percent—below Maastricht level—which is compared to 80 percent of even EU countries, a bit better.

These are good results. And these are results that follow reforms that took place in 2014 and 2015 after we brought a new, very flexible labor law and then a new bankruptcy law, new bills on incentives and subsidies for FDIs. And also at that time—just don’t forget it—we covered pensions, public wages, which was not done by many countries in the world, and with no pressure on finance.

And now we have… we will carry on our PCI arrangement with IMF, and you know that that’s a bit of my contribution. I always insisted to have this kind of controlling mechanism from the IMF because I know our habits. I know that everybody from Southeast Europe always wanted to spend more than they earned, which is not the case anymore. And disciplined behavior, that’s what guarantees me that we can do it—that we can do a very good job this year.

And speaking about—speaking about all these accusations, it’s either to be—either to do nothing, either to be noticed just by few people or to be noticed by everyone and doing something. Maybe something’s wrong. Maybe something’s not always the very best. What do we do? But at least we strive and we do our best to be helpful to this important country and to an entire region as well, and I’m proud that we could have supported the region with more than 120,000 jabs so far. And when I say this I speak about Bosnia and Herzegovina, I speak about Montenegro, and I speak about North Macedonia. And we are ready to deliver to some other places in the region, but of course, political reasons prevented that. It’s not about us. It’s not about our decision.

MAJA PISCEVIC: Thank you. So I would like now to move to the new administration in Washington. I know that you have met President Biden several times. I think he was even in Serbia twice.

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: Yes.

MAJA PISCEVIC: You know Tony Blinken for many years, state secretary. And now we just heard that Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund, is the nominee of President Biden for the assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, and you know her as well.

So these are all good things because we have a good team of experienced people who care about the Balkans, although we don’t expect the Balkans will be the top priority of US foreign policy—which is, I hope, good news, actually, because we remember in history when we were the top priority. But on the other hand, you had a unique but close relationship with President Trump’s administration. And even at the time when US and EU, which was for the first time did not work together on the Kosovo issue, Serbia benefited from this relationship. And when I say that, I mean—I think mostly of the so-called Washington agreement or Washington commitment, and then also on opening the DFC office—the first regional office of Development Finance Cooperation here in Belgrade for the region and the whole approach of this document, focusing on the normalization through economic integration.

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: Well, first of all, I would divide my answer to your question in two parts.

Number one, speaking about personal relationship, I met President Biden four or even five times… because we met each other in a corridor at that Munich Security forum and we discussed something for three, four minutes. I don’t know if he will actually remember that. But he’s a thousand times more important than I am, and I do remember.

I meant that when I met the president of the United States, I hosted him here in Belgrade. And what I can say personally, he was the best—politically, the best prepared man I’ve ever talked to. And he knew some things that I was very much surprised. But you know, I’m not someone that is ready to flattering everybody to dress those people in power up. We had a good relationship with Trump administration, but I have to say that I met President Trump twice in my life but only once I had an opportunity speaking to him about politics. Which means that speaking about personal engagement, we are much closer to—I am—I know President Biden much better than President Trump.

But I can say that I don’t expect easier time for Serbia because politics is not always—is not necessarily about personal issues. But we’ll do our best to boost the friendship between the two countries, to—not only to recall ourselves on our former alliances in the First and the Second World War. We need to find our place with new approach towards United States of America, getting support and finding some other ways to get more from America and to deliver more to Washington.

At the same time, there are, of course, differences, particularly on Kosovo issue. But we are ready to discuss this—ready to discuss it. I can say that President Biden, when he was in Belgrade and even that when I was meeting him, he always had a good sense and he always wanted to listen to us, which was very good for us. And now I can reveal—(laughs)—I have a small secret. I believe that he remembers that. He can remember my words, at least about this. I was asking him after Obama’s tenure why didn’t he go for the presidency for the president of the United States, and he was maneuvering in a very proper way, avoiding the real answer on this question.

Anyway, I believe that—substantively speaking, that we need United States as a friend of Serbia. And I’m not a guy that is pretending, that we can do something or that we can be an economic power of such a small region, that we can progress in a very fast way without US support. Which means that we need to find a common denominator with the United States of America on the most important issues, and then to deliver on that, and then to see that that will be a sort of preterm or precondition for getting better economy and better living standard for our people.

Although there will be a lot of political difficulties for us—we know this and it’s not an easy time for us—I know Tony Blinken very well. We had a very open and very sincere discussion in State Department a few years ago. And I got his letter, but—his personal writings…—then I did the same to him. And I know many people. I know more people from this administration than from the previous administration.

But I cannot say that we had a bad relationship with Trump administration because he is gone. I cannot be—I cannot lie to anyone. We had very open talks with Mr. Grenell and with all the others—with all the others. But you know, they were saying everything in a very open, sincere way, very frank way, but we were doing the same.

And I hope that we can have serious, responsible approach in developing our relationship. And I think that US interest in the Western Balkans is having Serbia as an ally, although we are very small comparing to such a superpower. But of course, ten times more in America’s interest having Serbia as a friend is our interest having America, if I can say—if I cannot say the best friend in the world, I can say the friend with which we share a common interest and a common future.

MAJA PISCEVIC: Thank you.

And now I think Damon has a few questions, maybe even following up on this one. So, Damon, please, to you.

DAMON WILSON: Thank you, Maja.

Mr. President, let me just ask a quick follow up to that. I mean, you’re clearly signaling that you have tried to open a new chapter with the United States, both in the previous administration and clearly you just shared your goals with this one. You sent your right hand, Ambassador Marko Đurić here to upgrade Serbia’s presence in Washington, but also in Chicago, you’re upgrading the mission in New York, opening a trade mission in San Francisco. We’ve seen stepped up mil-to-mil engagement through the Ohio National Guard, US forces exercising with Serbian forces in Serbia. Just why is the US a priority for Serbia now?

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: I can say to you that you—well, it’s easy for you to make a conclusion that we change our attitude towards United States of America because we have never expected anything from Washington. It was just our obligation having an ambassador in Washington. Now it’s changed. I already sent one of my closest associates to Washington and I’m proud of his diligent work. But not only that, we’ll have to invest into our relationship much more because we have—it sounds strange, but I’m very sincere with you. We underestimated the role of US because, you know, we always thought that we are center of the world, as a small nation, the most important nation, you know, and that was the case with us. And then—and I just hope that we understand today and that we are ready to change our mindsets in understanding the political situation in the world. And I hope that we’ll invest more of our time, that we’ll bring more of our people in doing something and then getting closer with US administration, which would be important for us. But we were not matured enough, and we didn’t understand even in this country what happened with fall of Berlin Wall. And I’m not speaking only about the others. I’m speaking also about myself and about many other people that didn’t get what was happening here.

And now, you know, if you ask me what was—who was our ambassador, let’s say, ten years ago and what he was doing in Washington, I wouldn’t know the answer, to tell you the truth. And now we know what is our aim. We know we want to get to as many people as we can. We want to gather support. We want to see what we can do together. And I can tell you, in all different fields that was not a part of my—I hope not an abstract answer. But speaking about military technical cooperation, speaking about our—speaking about new FDIs from US, speaking about our cooperation in different—in all different fields, it’s getting better. It’s getting better.

You can see the real results. You can see even who is becoming the biggest buyer of the products of our so-called military industry, thinking about ammunition and everything else. Bigger and bigger interest of US companies, and this is—this is really good. And speaking about some industrial complexes and plants, they’re also interested in investing into Serbia and these are good news for us. DFC presence here, it’s very important for us. And you know, now you have some shifts. You have some changes. Anyway, we’ve overcome all this stuff and we’ve already prepared some there to save on a good ground and some good projects in delivering on this as well.

DAMON WILSON: Mr. President, let me come back, if I might, to Serbia and Europe. EU membership is your top priority. However, we haven’t seen the process move very fast. There haven’t been opening of new chapters recently. And some of that is because of the concerns that you hear, whether from Washington or Brussels, about the state of democracy.

So let me bring in a question here from Ivan Kostov, if I may. And he asks: Mr. President, Serbia has declared a strategic policy of joining the EU. Recent reports from the European Parliament, the State Department, Freedom House have raised serious questions about the state of democracy in your country. The rule of law and media freedoms, according to the reports, are regressing, especially with concerning attacks on journalists, unresolved corruption cases. So Ivan’s asking about your views on these common findings by these different institutions and the overall state of democracy in Serbia today.

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: Of course, this is not—this is not always the easiest answer to be made by someone who is in power. But I’ll be very honest: You expect myself saying, well, everything’s lie, falsity, propaganda, or something like that against us. No. I am very much aware that we are not perfect and I’m not hiding this. And that’s why we very recently started delivering—and I hope that you—when I see you in IGC conference—in IGC in June—that European Union will open an entire cluster with Serbia. These are my hopes. Of course, I have no promises from the European Union, but these are my hopes.

We started delivering on many rule-of-law issues. And speaking about corruption cases, this is more political issue. And I think that we do so—that we do a lot of progress in our fight against organized crime, and with some big corruption cases as well.

Speaking about everything else, you always have a sort of mixture. It’s a bit of politics, then you have big organizations that don’t forget always that we are not criticizing Russia and China, and you always easier—find an easier way to criticize us on the other issues. But there are significant problems, of course, which we’ll have to tackle in times to come. And I have to admit it. I have to acknowledge it. And we’ll have to invest huge efforts into overcoming all these difficulties and all these problems that we created, and hopefully we will be able to do so. And we are ready to listen to all the critics and to hear everything that some good people like Ivan Kostov might think that we should change and we should do. And very ready to listen to them and to implement everything that we have already agreed with the European Union on this.

And to tell you the truth, we’ve got a list of, let’s say, ten, then thirteen, then thirty-four items we need to take care of, but we started putting ticks—ticking the box. Not because of ticking the box, but because—you know, because we are begging someone to open… new clusters. Now we speak about your methodology. We do it because I really think that’s useful for us and it’s good for Serbia. It’s good for Serbia’s democracy and it’s good for Serbia’s image. And if we are capable enough of delivering the very best results in economy in this region, the very best results in inoculation process in this region, I have no doubts that we are ready to improve the state of human rights and democracy in this country as well.

DAMON WILSON: Let me hand it back to Maja in Belgrade.

MAJA PISCEVIC: Thank you, Damon.

Now, the next question, Mr. President, comes from another friend from European Union, Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference.

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: Just wait a second. That will be the most difficult question, I guarantee you. (Laughter.)

MAJA PISCEVIC: Let’s see.

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: Before I hear it.

MAJA PISCEVIC: (Laughs.) Mr. President, it is my sincere hope that before too long it will be possible for you personally to appear again on the stage of the Munich Security Conference—this was easy—to discuss the way—

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: Yes. It was not a question. (Laughter.)

MAJA PISCEVIC: —to discuss the way forward with your Kosovo counterparts. But in the interim, my question for today is this: After so many years of unsuccessful attempts by the international community—by the UN, by the EU, by the US—to help Belgrade and Pristina to agree on a final settlement, what exactly will be required to happen for Serbia to accept the reality of the independence of Kosovo, and when?

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: Well, as I told you, I knew that it was going to be the most difficult question. But I see it a bit differently from the great man, Wolfgang Ischinger, and my best regards to him.

First of all, I think that what we signed in Brussels exactly eight years ago has to be fulfilled by both sides. And it’s—and here is the catch. Here is the problem. And I know—I see Jim O’Brien and Valerie. They know everything about these politics. But what I felt at that time I feel today, eight years after that Brussels agreement that we accomplished at that time. It was—I saw that the other side wanted to sign it just because they were certain—absolutely certain that they didn’t need to fulfill everything they signed but we’ll have to deliver more than they signed. That was something that they were just waiting for in the last eight years, and that is something that you hear it every single day.

If you do just an objective analysis, my dear friends, you don’t hear from Serbia, from Belgrade—you don’t hear any kind of blackmails: If you don’t do that, we’ll go with war compensation requests; we’re going to do another—we’re going to file another lawsuit against you. That’s what you don’t hear from Belgrade. But that’s what you hear every single day from Pristina, and there are no reactions either from the United States of America, either from European Union. Even we don’t react even anymore on a daily basis because it’s unnecessary. But we need to change the normal atmosphere. We need to discuss everything in a totally different way. We need to boost trust and confidence between us, not to see each other as the real enemies. It’s OK seeing someone as an adversary, but we are not enemies. We are—we don’t need to—we must not create hostile environment between us. But when you hear it and when it’s always a competition who’s going to offend the other side in a worse way, there are no results.

And the problem is that the United States of America, Germany, and the strongest countries from the Western part of the world, they always just say we just wait for Serbia to recognize Kosovo’s independence and what is needed to happen. And when you ask someone, OK, what do you offer? Because no one can get all, and I think that everybody understands this. And then you hear nothing. No one can even guarantee you full-fledged membership status. No one can guarantee nothing to you. When you ask them, OK, what Serbs might get, wherever is that Serb community or Serb association, whatever you call it, which was foreseen by Brussels agreement, well, you know, it’s a difficult time for new Kosovo government because, you know, they have some problems, they—we have no problems here in Belgrade, and it has always been the case. We need an absolutely different atmosphere if we want to reach a compromising solution.

And I discussed that with Damon a thousand times. And you cannot—you cannot skip the subject. It’s not about number one up to number ten items that someone has to fulfill. No, it’s about totally different environment, totally different atmosphere. And then we can start believing in each other. We can start doing more things. And this free flow of goods, capital, people, and services has to be guaranteed. And people will speak to each other, businesspeople to businesspeople, ordinary people to ordinary people. Then everything will get us much closer to a compromise and solution. Without that, looking or staring at the other side as an enemy, that won’t bring us to the solution.

You know, you can create a big pressure on us saying you have to do it, you have to do it. Well, even if we become very weak politicians here, saying, OK, OK, give in, but Serbian people won’t do it, won’t accept it. We need both people, Serbian—Serbs and Albanians, to accept that compromise and solutions. That’s why we both need to change an atmosphere. And I’m afraid that the atmosphere in Pristina is, dare to say, much worse than in Belgrade. And in Belgrade it’s not the very best atmosphere, speaking about reconciliation issue and speaking about getting closer to the compromising arrangement with Pristina.

MAJA PISCEVIC: Thank you for this response. I would like now—to turn now to a more interesting—(laughs)—at least dynamic conversation, which is about the regional cooperation. And for this, I have the pleasure to invite dear friend of the Atlantic Council, but also friend of Serbia and of Balkans, Jim O’Brien, who is also vice chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group.

Jim, to you, and welcome.

JIM O’BRIEN: No, thanks, Maja, and thanks for the interesting conversation. Hi, Mr. President.

So you already said Wolfgang’s question will be the most difficult. But I’ll ask a question that is, I think, seems easy but will get complicated. You’ve been one of the major advocates for greater economic integration across the region, a common market. Sometimes it gets called mini-Schengen. It’s what the Berlin Process aims for. It’s what the European Commission now says is a key part of integration. There’s a lot of resistance, though, to the idea. I don’t think it’s substantive. The IMF said that more integration would add 10 percent to each country’s GDP—pre-pandemic levels. So the substantive case is clear.

And it’s an example of Serbia leading in the region, because Serbia’s doing very well from current arrangements. It’s the other countries that need to join European supply chains. And I think more integration will help with that. But I’m curious about the obstacles that the—and the complications that the idea faces. And I’ll ask in three ways, and you can kind of pick. One of them is just some countries see this as an effort to create an alternative to integration with the EU. Do you think that’s right?

Second question is about Kosovo. In your discussion just now of Kosovo, you mentioned that the free flow of people, and goods, and services somehow gets caught up in the other political issues to be discussed. And I wonder if it has to, or whether we can proceed—as the EU did—by addressing some of the economic issues even while the broader environment is being addressed. And then the final point is just how all this ties together with the green deal, because Serbia’s economy has benefitted enormously by the fact that you don’t have to pay a price on carbon, and EU members do. That’s likely to change really soon, and I wonder if as the region goes through this change in integrating it also needs to go through attracting investment to achieve its green transition. So those are three very different issues, but I’m interested in your reaction.

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: Jim, just—first of all, Jim knows politics ten times better than I do. And—

JIM O’BRIEN: Please.

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: No, no, no. I’m not—that’s not—you know that I think that. And it’s not an alleged modest approach.

I wanted to say one thing. I think that, speaking about number one that you mentioned, that people would say, well, this is an alternative to our EU path, and that’s why we don’t want to join this, not a real unification but a unification of some ideas which are good for our entire region, and no one can say anything against it. They say, OK, that’s your replacement. That’s your substitution and alternative to EU path, which it’s not. And it’s not an empty story because that’s—I will say this, that that would be a sufficient excuse—just a sufficient excuse not to participate and not to be a part of this great idea.

And I have to say that Americans—and I’m profoundly grateful to US administration, that it doesn’t matter whether it was White House or State Department, even stronger—even stronger, which was not mainly consisted of Trump’s people. I remember Matt Palmer, he supported it several times. Jim, all the other people did it. Always, Americans supported this idea ten times stronger than Europeans. I have some doubts why is that so, but it wouldn’t be very wise for my side saying it publicly, to be very honest. But we had no problems with Americans on this issue. With the IMF, with the World Bank, with all the other international organizations that are taking care of this region, everybody was very much in favor of this idea.

Number two, I believe as a matter of fact that there are some political issues. And I’ll tell you that there is part of fault on our side as well, because when we started speaking about it… Of course it’s a big idea. And I’m proud of this idea. And we invented this, which I believe would be a future of the region, although it was not easy to sell it politically to our domestic audiences. I think it was the easiest way for me to do it, and to—(inaudible)—as well. Not easy to—(inaudible)—because of Kosovo’s refusal—Pristina’s refusal to participate in that. And if you ask them why do they do so, there are no rational responses to that or they respond nothing. Then they signed in Washington that they were going to change their position on that. So far, they didn’t do anything. And what’s wrong with that for them? I don’t know, to tell you the truth.

And now I’m coming to what I think that’s partly a problem. Let’s say part of Bosnia and Herzegovina and 1.5 out of 3 members of presidency will always support it. The other part, no. Why? Because of political reasons. They think that it was proposed by Serbia, and that’s the reason why they wouldn’t do it. It’s pretty much the same with Montenegro because you don’t hear any real arguments from them.

But why I’m saying that there is part of our fault? Because we need to understand their fears about Serbian domination in the region much better than we do and much better than we used to. Which means that we need to give more guarantees—not only more guarantees. We need to be very persuasive and we need to convince them that it’s not good for Serbia only; it’s even better for them.

And I have the real example of that, which is FDIs. When we speak about the same level of incentives, the same taxes, excises, and customs, it’s more important for the others than for Serbia. Today it’s a good situation in attracting FDIs for our country. They will get more than we might get if we’ll go for mini-Schengen. I don’t know why they don’t see it. If we create a unique market, it’s—we can be a machine of growth of an entire Europe. OK, we are lagging behind Western European countries, but it will have twice bigger growth rates. Or at least we can come to the same level not within two hundred years, but within fifty-something years. And that’s a long period of time, many people might say, but historically speaking not that big time. Because we were lagging behind most of those countries for the last two hundred, three hundred, four hundred years. It’s not even comparable.

And that’s why we need, once again, to assess our position, maybe to change our attitude. Maybe I behave in an arrogant way from time to time. I need to change that as well. But I think that they need more rational approach. That’s it.

DAMON WILSON: Thank you, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: Wait a second. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

DAMON WILSON: Yes.

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: It was Jim about green agenda as well. That’s not an easy issue. That’s not an easy issue for us at all. And Maja is smiling or, I don’t know whether laughing or smiling, because people think, you know, the easiest way today for all the politicians is, yes, we need green environment, ecology is the most important question for us, and that’s it, you know. And then we going to deliver, or are we going to do something with the trees. I don’t know what they do with those trees, taking care of them every single day. But you know, and what are you going to do with the coal? What are you going to do—how are you going to produce electricity? But we come to much bigger problems.

We’ll have to tackle it, and we do it—we started doing it together with European Union. And people from European Commission are today ten times more satisfied with us than, let’s say, a month ago—just a month ago… But I can tell you that I have some fears—I have some fears, and I’m not absolutely jubilant about everything that we need to do. Because you know even at least that I’m always very sincere speaking about our economy, which is of an utmost importance for us, and it’s not easy to sacrifice something that works for you because of green agenda. We’ll have to do it, but we’ll have to balance it smartly.

DAMON WILSON: Mr. President, thank you for that. It’s a big issue this week in Washington as President Biden convenes on that issue. But while we’re in the region, let me just—let me ask a quick question before I bring in Valerie Hopkins, because there has been a lot of chatter in the region this past week about a so-called non-paper that went back to the past, that was proposing redrawing borders along ethnic lines. And I had a chance to read this.

And it strikes me almost as an intentional effort to stir the pot. We saw your remarks on Bosnian TV dismissing this whole concept. But let me just ask you about the sentiments behind it. Why do these persist? Why is there continued chatter of greater Albania, greater Serbia? How do you see the future of the region, and getting beyond sort of these issues that keep dragging it back? And then I’ll turn to Valerie after you respond.

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: So, friends, I see that we have just a short time in front of us, and that’s why I’m going to be as brief as it is possible.

We have never, ever heard from myself, from the prime minister of Serbia, that we are located in greater Serbia. But you hear it every single day from Pristina and Tirana—every single day, with no reactions from anyone, and even from our side.… Some people made some comments which are also unnecessary. But that’s a sort of different approaches that you—and when I say “you,” I mean US and Western world—around this issue.

Now, concrete response, concrete answer to your question: We are not interested in creating any kind of greater Serbia. Great Serbia to us means better economy, more FDIs, more plants, green agenda implemented but—implemented but not jeopardizing our economy. At the same time, better unemployment rate, which means to decrease the level of unemployed people. Bigger salaries, better living standard, better road and railway infrastructure. That’s what we are interested in.

And I insist on this. And then I see, OK, people—oh, we don’t believe him. I don’t believe him because it’s easier for us to say that we don’t believe him, and we get some votes if we don’t believe him, which is OK. But—and I know that we need time to show to all the others that we are serious about it, that we are very sincere, and that we’re going to do it.

And today I went to Banja Luka and I got some questions from the journalists. When are we going to have new wars, or something like that? People are fed up with wars here. People were leaving this region for more than twenty-five years. Now we have—we see the first steps forward on this issue because some people started coming back to the region, particularly to Serbia. It’s people with a higher education.

But we need those handymans, craftsmen that left Serbia in last twenty to thirty years, to bring them all back. All young people, talented, intelligent young people that left the country, we need them to come in back to our country, not to create new wars, new instabilities. Only stupid people can think that it can be useful to them or they might win in elections. We’re not going to allow that. Even if someone would like to wage wars, they won’t wage wars with us. That’s what I can guarantee to everybody.

DAMON WILSON: So, Mr. President, let me pass the word to Valerie Hopkins, a Financial Times correspondent who’s joined us from Budapest; covers the regional extensively.

Over to you, Valerie.

VALERIE HOPKINS: (Speaks in Serbian.) Thank you very much, the Atlantic Council, for having me.

I know we have a very short time, but I too would like to compete with Ambassador Ischinger for most difficult and most interesting question. And I think I would like to ask about something that combined a lot of the topics that other people already asked about. And that is Chinese investments and the environment.

I was in Belgrade on April 10 when thousands, some say ten thousand people, converged in front of the parliament to protest against certain large infrastructure projects mostly but not only by Chinese companies. And many of the critics, people that I spoke to at that time, said that they were primarily concerned not about the Chinese companies themselves but about the government’s willingness to uphold its own transparency and environmental laws, mentioning the same kind of democratic deficit that Mr. Kostov noted in his question.

But I was quite, actually, surprised to see that in the week after the protest, two large—one larger than the other—Chinese companies had their operations halted in Serbia. A waste factory—plastic waste factory near Zrenjanin and another one, Zijin Mining, a mine in Bor. This is the first time—one analyst I spoke to said that this is the first time that the government of Serbia has blinked on anything related to China, and that it seems like one of the biggest hurdles in the Sino-Serbian partnership.

So I would love to ask you to say a few words about this. How has these—both of these temporary halts of operations affected your relationship with Beijing? Is this evidence that citizen protest can actually affect your policy? Are you worried that this is becoming a political issue? And what can we expect in the future?

Thank you.

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: Thank you, Valerie.

Valerie is very well informed and she knows almost everything. She just skips, from time to time, some facts, you know. But anyway, she’s very smart and she knows how to get to the point. What she skipped—unintentionally, no doubt—is that the biggest part of that protest was not against Chinese companies but against Rio Tinto, which was brought to this country by the previous government in 2011, I think, finally—or 2009, something like that. And they have acted against it because of lithium deposits. And it’s—we think that we have 10 percent of lithium deposits—well, lithium deposits, which is huge and very important for Serbia’s future.

And now those people that brought Rio Tinto, they protest against Rio Tinto, which is also OK. And we’ll have to take care of green agenda, no doubt, to put more emphasis in our politics, not because of partners but because I think that they are jeopardized that less than six thousand people—or it can be sixty thousand people, doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter from the sense that we have something against them. No. But we’ll listen to their words. We’ll listen to their words. We’ll listen to not only their words, but to the words of ordinary people. And of course, we’ll do our best in protecting an environment.

But to come to the substance of the issue, it’s not about Chinese companies. It’s not about Chinese companies almost at all. But if there are some Chinese companies which might break some rules, we’ll act in accordance with the Serbian rules, with the Serbian laws, no doubt. But to tell you the truth, I am afraid of some people that might position Serbia in a way that we don’t need any industrial plants, anything, because now they live much better than they used to. Now it becomes the main problem is Serbia. It’s not anymore how to be employed, how to get a working place. It’s not even anymore—although people are never satisfied enough—whether they’re going to get—whether they’re going to have better living standard or not, because they expect that. They know that—they know that Serbia’s heading in the right direction. The main issue is becoming an environment and ecology, which says good things about Serbia.

Of course, we need to tackle it much faster, in a much more organized way, together with the European Union, together with all our partners. But you know, we should not exaggerate on this because it can go to a sort of fatalism that no one wants to see. Because if you say to us don’t use those 10 percent of lithium deposit, never ever, even if the investor will guarantee that everything will be done in accordance with all necessary procedures, with all the rules that are accepted from Australia to the United States of America, then I would ask myself why we would do it.

But, anyway, we’ll have to take care of this issue, and we’ll do it. And of course, Valerie knows that we’ll have elections within a year, and there are big chances for the others winning in elections, and that’s not a problem. Before that we need to do many things, and hopefully we’ll do it.

DAMON WILSON: Maja, back to you to bring us home.

MAJA PISCEVIC: Right. I think we’re getting really close. Oh, we are actually beyond our time. All I want to say is thank you so much for this, as Fareed Zakaria says, fascinating discussion. I think we’ve tackled most of the really important issues. And I hope you found—

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: Damon was bored. Damon was bored. That’s what—

MAJA PISCEVIC: No, he wasn’t.

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: That’s what I noticed.

MAJA PISCEVIC: No way. (Laughs.) And I hope that it was useful to you to hear some of the views from the transatlantic friends of Serbia.

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: Of course. You know, I’m amazed, you know, with their real—to speak and to listen to us, and to exchange some views. Why would they do so? That’s why I’m profoundly grateful to all of them. And I really thank them for listening to my answers in a way that I learned a lot from their questions on the issues they raised today.

MAJA PISCEVIC: I’m just sorry that we didn’t have time to tackle the question about your legacy because you mentioned it in several interviews recently, and I think that would be really interesting to hear how do you—how do you—

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: Yes. It’s getting closer to analyze it, but I think that the development of Serbia is something that I would be very proud of, and the number of plants, number of investments, number of kilometers of highways and railroads that we built in the recent time. And you know, even if you compare the average salary, which was 329 euros when I became the prime minister; today it’s 562 euros. That salary, it is not good, which still shows that we are a poor country. But it’s almost twice better than it used to be, I think, for a short period of time.

These are not bad results, not bad results at all. But there is something else within the region that we need to do that would be the real legacy that would satisfy myself and, dare to say, all those people that believed in us.

MAJA PISCEVIC: Thank you.

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: Thank you. And thank you all.

MAJA PISCEVIC: Damon.

DAMON WILSON: Mr. President, just to close us out, if I may, thank you. We’ve had so many comments and questions we couldn’t even scratch the surface. We’ve got comments here from Ambassador Godfrey, welcome from Belgrade. Ambassador Kurt Volker, the head of Microsoft in Serbia, GMF, Human Rights Defenders, an extraordinary number of questions we’ll send to your team, Mr. President. But thank you for your time today. Thank you, Maja, for moderating there in Belgrade.

And I want to thank our audience for joining us today and encourage all of them to remain engaged by following our Balkans Forward initiative. I’d also like to invite all of you to join us for our next edition of AC Front Page tomorrow, same place, same time, on the future of Afghanistan in the wake of decisions from President Biden and NATO with withdraw forces. With the Rockefeller Brothers Fund we’ll be releasing a new transatlantic charter of Afghanistan, outlining an enduring partnership with Secretary Madeleine Albright, former EU High Rep Federica Mogherini, and Chairperson of Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission Shahrzad Akbar.

And with that, we’re signing off from Washington and Belgrade. Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you to our audience.

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER VUČIĆ: Thank you.

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