Dialogue and democracy – these were the two most commonly uttered words at the Sixth Belgrade Security Forum, the main question of which was “Will democracy survive the crisis of world order?”
An answer was sought via 25 panel discussions mainly entitled with topics that dominate in Europe and for which the Union does not have good answers, such as the migrant crisis, relations between Belgrade and Pristina, and the rigid implementation of the Brussels agreement, relations in the region and their impact on the EU, Serbia’s path towards the EU and its enlargement, the situation in the media etc.
More than 650 participants, nearly a hundred panellists and over 200 accredited journalists carefully followed and participated in the work of this three-day gathering, which attracted great interest throughout the entire region.
Unlike two years ago, during his visit to Belgrade, when Rama first mentioned the independence of Kosovo as a reality and sought from Prime Minister Vučić that Serbia recognise this reality [“I thought the man would die in front of me when I said that,” recalled Rama later], Vučić now very coolly replied that he knows a little bit more than Rama about Trepča and Kosovo
But the stars of this BSF were undoubtedly the prime ministers of Serbia and Albania – Aleksandar Vučić and Edi Rama. Their direct and open dialogue, with sparks on both sides, showed that it is possible to talk even when politicians don’t agree on some important issues, on this occasion the status of Kosovo and problems that have arisen recently in relations between Belgrade and Pristina. That dialogue, which was carefully monitored not only in Belgrade but also in Brussels, was often mentioned both during the panel discussions and on the side-lines of this event, and it was also used as an example of how, despite differences, there can be cooperation in areas where interests exist, which was shown the very next day at the meeting of businesspeople from Serbia and Albania in Niš, with the announcement of new investments in roads and Albanian ports that would much more tightly connect Serbia with Kosovo and Albania.
Neither Vučić nor Rama, and particularly the guest from Tirana, evaded difficult issues, all of which were related to Kosovo, because Albania and Serbia, as two neighbouring countries, do not have any other misunderstandings, or they are of far lower intensity. Opposing views on the status of Kosovo, the Trepča Mining Combine and the arrest Nihat Thaci marked the debate of prime ministers Vučić and Rama, but that conversation was also seen as a message to the EU that the two prime ministers, despite their differences, want to solve problems, both economic and every other kind that hinders their countries on the path towards the EU.
-Today there are many things in the world that are related and no one has the luxury of not talking about any subject, no matter how difficult it is, regardless of whether the interlocutors agree – said Rama explicitly, then immediately raised the question of “Trepča”.
– Trepča is a mine on the territory of Kosovo and it belongs to all citizens, regardless of whether they are Serbs or Albanians. It is there and cannot be moved. What will Serbia do with this mine? Do you not perhaps wish to relocate it here in Belgrade – he asked publicly, adding that “Kosovo is an issue which we absolutely do not agree on, and that is clear to everyone. My view is that Serbia should recognise Kosovo’s independence as soon as possible, because that will be better for everyone. But, at the same time there is a process which I fully support, and that is dialogue,” said Rama, whose words caused a commotion in the Crystal Hall of the “Hyatt”, where the panel discussion was held.
We are not halting the dialogue process, although it sometimes seems that we have reached an impasse. I consider that we must find more compromise in order to be able to dedicate ourselves to the story of the European path and economic progress,” explained Vučić
-This is not only an economic issue, but rather also a political issue, responded Vučić. – Pristina did the worst thing when it comes to “Trepča”, because it did not want to talk with the Serbs, nor to talk with those who work there – noted Vučić. “They skipped all the procedures of their internal reasons. I cannot find a reason why they did that,” said the Serbian PM, continuing, “Edi said that this is almost certainly to the benefit of both sides, but can you find one Serb who would agree with that? Did they try to find a Serb who would agree? No, because they don’t want to talk to the Serbs who live in Kosovo and work at Trepča.”
Noting that “Rama is a better politician” than him, Vučić said that he did not want to talk bad about people from Pristina, because, as he says, “I’m not like that”.” He immediately linked from this into other toxic topics, which related to the arrest of Nihat Thaci and the continuing prospects of talks between Belgrade and Pristina. Rama publicly asked “what does that (the arrest) say about people when one who has crossed the border ten times is arrested by someone on the 11th time?”
Vučić responded to him by saying that he knew nothing about this case because he has not seen the file, but he also stressed that Belgrade did not use the arrest and detainment of Oliver Ivanović as a reason to halt the dialogue with Pristina.
-You have not heard that as my argument to stop the dialogue, to fight with someone, to say that we should not talk with Kosovo Albanians. Do you really believe that someone deliberately arrested Thaci for political reasons? No. Nobody did that. The order was given in 1999,” said Vučić.
The Serbian Prime Minister insisted that Belgrade will continue to be committed to the dialogue with Pristina in the future, because that must be done for the future of relations between Serbs and Albanians, which are the two largest nations in the Balkans.
Discussion of EU enlargement and the routes of both countries towards membership was even humorous at times. Vučić mentioned Serbia’s love for Russia and its friendship with China, along with its determination to move toward membership in Europe, to which Rama replied that “for Serbs it is much harder because they have several loves, while Albanians have only one and it is called the European Union”
-Good will is essential, because with that everything will be more easily resolved. I know there are many citizens of Serbia who do not understand that and who would put a qeleshe cap on my head and say that I am a friend of the Albanians, but I’m not bothered about that. We are not halting the dialogue process, although it sometimes seems that we have reached an impasse. I consider that we must find more compromise in order to be able to dedicate ourselves to the story of the European path and economic progress,” explained Vučić.
The dialogue between the two prime ministers was filled with praise for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Rama said without hesitation that “she protected the face of Europe when it comes to the migrant crisis” and wondered what life would be like if in Berlin we had a leader like Orban (Hungarian Prime Minister). Rama added to this by saying that “Serbia acts much more European than some EU member states when it comes to the migrant crisis”.
Almost all participants in the numerous panel discussions agreed that recent years have seen the EU confronted by several more serious crises that have seen EU enlargement placed on the back burner, so the Balkan political elites, by force of habit, have revived old disputes. Thus there was hope that this meeting and the open discussion between the two prime ministers would trigger the implementation of the Brussels agreement and enable a comprehensive approach to it.
Trepča was also a reason for panellist James Ker-Lindsay, an analyst from London, to turn to relations between Pristina and Belgrade. He asked why Pristina had now withdrawn from this issue and why there had been no discussion of property in Kosovo to date.
I think the point is that which Vučić pointed out – why now. I think that is what he is concerned about – not why Trepča, but why Trepča now. That is the big question,” said Ker-Lindsay, adding that because of that we will have a crisis that will harm relations.
Speaking about the problems of the countries in the region, Vučić was clear in stating that the main goal of the Government is to do everything on the European path in order for the country to move closer to membership.
-People say that there are countries that want to leave the EU, while you want to enter it. I’m not here to complain and whine about our difficult fate. We need to work on that being better for us – said Vučić, not hiding the fear that there could be “European disorder” if German Chancellor Merkel leaves her function.
There was plenty of interest around the panel whose speakers included Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dačić and James Appathurai, Deputy Assistant Secretary General of NATO.
-Serbia leads a policy of military neutrality, state bodies are not considering membership in NATO, but that is not an obstacle to partnership and broad cooperation with NATO – said Dačić explicitly. – All of the Serbian governments have in the first ten years led a policy of partnership relations between Serbia and NATO, without aspirations for partnership relations.
He added that Serbia wants relations with NATO to be honest, with the assessment that the region of the Western Balkans faces instability, which is why it is important to preserve peace and stability.
-Serbia will also remain a pillar of stability and a partner to all those who want peace,” said Dačić, adding that he hoped Serbia and NATO share an interest in preserving peace and stability. Cooperation with NATO is also important for Serbia because of Kosovo, which represents the biggest security challenge for Serbia.
-Kfor is the basic guarantor of peace and the protection of the Serbian population, and a security guarantor of the implementation of the Brussels agreement. That’s why our relations are of vital importance,” he said.
-NATO has not imposed solutions, cooperation is adapted to our needs and our strategic goal of EU integration and our commitment to peace and stability in the region – explained the minister.
With regard to military links between Serbia and Russia, he said that they are on a far smaller scale than military cooperation with NATO and bilateral cooperation with some NATO member countries.
For NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General James Appathurai, “Serbia is a firm, reliable and stable partner”. He said that NATO needs strong partnership, dialogue and practical cooperation with Serbia, adding that “no one has a secret plan for Serbia to join NATO”.
-It is necessary for us to hear from Serbia at the highest level as to what the stances of Serbia are like and what we can do together,” he said. Serbia and NATO do plenty together, for 10 years already, with Serbia, as he said, playing an excellent role in missions and contributing to stability on the international front. Through NATO funds, there are many opportunities for new projects, and this should be examined.
There was also plenty of discussion about Serbia’s military neutrality during other panel discussions, but the prevailing opinion was that this is a good thing, while Dr Ivo Visković said that it is natural to also have links with other countries, because that is also done by the major powers.