Serbia to keep balancing West, Russia and China, president says

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Belgrade wants to keep balancing its ties with the West, China and Russia as it seeks to join the European Union and reach a settlement with Kosovo, President Aleksandar Vucic said on Thursday ahead of a parliamentary election.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is seen during an interview with Reuters in Belgrade, Serbia, June 11, 2020. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Before it joins the EU, Serbia must normalise ties with Kosovo, its predominantly ethnic Albanian former province, which declared independence in 2008, almost a decade after a brutal war.

Kosovo’s independence has been recognised by over 100 countries, including the United States and most EU members.

But Serbia, which sees Kosovo as an inseparable cradle of its national identity, has been blocking its membership of international organisations, including the United Nations, together with its allies Russia and China.

Vucic, whose ruling Serbian Progressive Party is a frontrunner in a parliamentary election on June 21, said Serbia was ready to talk to Pristina “without a timeline” and “in good faith”, but that mutual recognition was not on the agenda.

“We are ready for talks but ... no white flag,” he told Reuters in an interview. “The dialogue is welcome if it is a dialogue ... in which it can be seen what is possible, what is a compromise.

“We believe it is in the best interest of (Kosovo) Albanians and the international community ... to talk about a free flow of capital, people and services.”

EU-sponsored talks between Serbia and Kosovo, which has a significant Serb population who want to be ruled from Belgrade, stalled in 2018 when Kosovo introduced a 100% import tax on goods from Serbia.

The removal of trade barriers by Kosovo’s new government this month paves the way for a resumption of talks.

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Vucic was a nationalist firebrand during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, but now espouses alignment with the EU.

Vucic who does not face a presidential election until next year, said he was confident his party would garner a majority of votes on June 21.

The opposition and watchdogs have frequently accused him and his Progressive Party of autocracy, violence against political opponents, election rigging, corruption, nepotism and ties with organised crime, accusations they vehemently deny.

Vucic said Belgrade did not plan to choose between Russia, a natural Slavic and Orthodox Christian ally; the EU, Serbia’s main trading partner; and China.

China sent medical aid and doctors to Serbia in March to help tackle the coronavirus, and Belgrade speaks of an “iron friendship”. In the past decade, China has also provided billions of dollars in soft loans.

“We have ... our own agenda ... one chair, not two ... How could we say ‘Long live Hong Kong and long live Taiwan’ and then expect Chinese support for our territorial integrity (with Kosovo) ... not to mention that they are our friends who have helped us,” Vucic said.

Serbia remains dependent for energy on Russia, with which it also cooperates militarily. President Vladimir Putin has visited Belgrade twice since Vucic came to power in 2012, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is due in Serbia next week.

But Serbia will also continue pushing to join the EU, with which it has a pre-accession Association Agreement and is a membership candidate, even though the bloc currently lacks the appetite for new members.

Vucic described himself as a “Euro-realist,” adding that EU membership remains Serbia’s stratregic goal: “Apart from joint values ... 67% of our trade exchange is with the EU.”

Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Kevin Liffey