Questions broached on behalf of CEIPA by Peter von Bethlenfalvy, Executive Director of CEIPA, with edits and contributions from Dominique Foubert, Treasurer and Webmaster of CEIPA and Heather Fermor, Policy Advisor CEIPA.
I am today speaking with Ambassador Denise De Hauwere, President of the Centre for European and International Policy Action (CEIPA).
Ambassador Denise De Hauwere, President of CEIPA, recently retired from the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs after having served as ambassador in Belgrade and having been posted in various places such as Skopje, Vienna, Santiago de Chile, Jakarta and Madrid. For long periods Denise De Hauwere stayed in Brussels as member of the European Policy team at the ministry of foreign affairs, director for diplomatic and consular personnel, head of the Balkans desk and director for West and Central Europe and North America.
Before joining the Belgian diplomatic corps, she was a European civil servant at the European Commission, working mainly on institutional matters. Her professional career began in McKinsey & Company in Belgium. Her vast international experience in political affairs and linguistic versatility makes her opinion on Serbia of pivotal importance for European policy makers.
The international press and media are continually reporting on recent incidents in Northern Kosovo, including road blockades, election boycotts, attacks on municipal buildings and violent assaults on police officers and NATO/KFOR forces. Since July 2022, extremist Kosovo-Serbian groups with evident links to members of the Serbian Government have caused tensions in the North of Kosovo by building barricades and engaging in violence against the Kosovar authorities in order to manifest their discontent with the decision to unify car licence plates in Kosovo. In November 2022 Kosovo Serbs decided to withdraw from Kosovar institutions administering in the North of the country. The Serbian President has refused to sign the Agreement on the Path to Normalisation,concluded on 18 March 2023 with the President of Kosovo. The local by-elections in four municipalities of North Kosovo were sabotaged by the main Kosovo-Serbian political parties with close links to the government of Serbia and notably to President of Serbia. In June 2023 Serbian special forces violently abducted three Kosovar border police officers in the border region between the North of Kosovo and Serbia. In September 2023 a group of heavily armed ethnic Serb paramilitaries carried out a terrorist attack in the North of Kosovo, in which one Kosovar police officer and three attackers lost their lives.
According to various sources Serbia has engaged according to various sources in a wide ranging disinformation campaign targeting the EU and its institutions. Pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian rhetoric is being spread by various government officials and government controlled media. Serbia’s close partnerships with Russia and China indicate a profound strategic direction, making the political and economic integration of Serbia into the EU very problematic. It is feared that Russia’s influence on the political developments in Serbia may destabilise the whole region of the Western Balkans, in every aspect.
Nevertheless, Serbia is regarded to be one of the important EU accession countries and future EU member states of the Balkan region.
Is Serbia currently in a good starting position on the road to becomming an exemplary EU member state, with strong principles of democracy, rule of law and western values?
I want to underline that throughout this interview I am speaking in my own name and that my personal opinion is based only on open sources, having no access to confidential information since my retirement from active service some years ago.
Serbia has been involved in accession negotiations with the EU since 2014. It would be logical that as a result of a decade of negotiations, Serbia would now be closer to the EU in terms of democracy and the rule of law, with closer foreign policy views and activities. However, things are going the opposite way and the positions of Serbia and the EU are becoming increasingly distant.
The decline in rule of law in Serbia is the worst in the Balkans, especially on constraints on government powers, criminal justice and absence of corruption. Media freedom is problematic. In foreign policy Serbia tries to balance between the East and the West, it is selective in aligning to European values. For the European Union, the main problem with Serbia lies in its stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and in the ongoing conflict with Kosovo.
The choice to become a member of the EU has to be supported by the whole society. This is now problematic in Serbia. People’s enthusiasm for EU membership has declined in recent years, because the public has lost faith due to the fact that accession negotiations are a very long process; reforms are essential and more should be done by the government in implementing laws. Also, Serbia is the only candidate country in which the government pursues an anti-EU media campaign, while formally supporting EU-membership.
How do you see the current contribution of Serbia towards a peaceful coexistence with Kosovo?
The Serbian people consider Kosovo to be the heart of Serbia, because at the peak of the Kingdom of Serbia, from the 12th to the 14th century, its center of power was in Kosovo. Serbia thus considers Kosovo its birthplace. It does not accept the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo in 2008 and until to-day it is unthinkable that this stance would change. For years a dialogue has been going on between Serbia and Kosovo, facilitated by the EU, to find at least a modus vivendi between both parties. But even this is a very tedious exercise. It is clear that there is no political will on either side to make the necessary concessions. Time and again agreements are not being implemented, both parties accuse each other and tensions flare up again.
The Kosovo problem remaining a hot topic serves President Vučiċ well. For a time, in the first decade of this century, the issue almost disappeared from the media as political priorities then were turned towards better relationship with the European Union and improvement of the social-economic situation. But since Aleksandar Vućič and his Progressive Party (SNS) came to power in 2012, the official narrative became nationalistic again and the Kosovo issue came back to the forefront. The government reminds the Serbian population again and again of the historic and cultural importance of Kosovo, and stresses the need to protect the Serb minority in that part of the country. By then promising the EU to solve the conflict, President Vučić secures himself of the goodwill of the European Union, which gives him an umbrella of impunity, while at the same time he is turning away the attention at home from internal problems and slowly transforming Serbia into an autocratic state. It is not in his interest to work towards a solution resolving dialogue with Kosovo.
Is the Serbian government’s ambiguity in relation to the EU, while supporting Russia’s narrative on the occupation of the Ukraine, shared by the majority of the Serbian population?
The majority of the Serbian population has complex sentiments about the international reactions to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. People compare these with what happened in 1999 and in 2008 and how the international community reacted then, namely: in 1999 NATO carried out bombings in Serbia during the Kosovo conflict – no sanctions against NATO countries were requested nor issued by the international community; in 2008 Kosovo declared itself independent which Serbia considers an attack to its territorial integrity – this attack went unchallenged by the international community. It is in this frame of mind that the majority of the population supports the government’s stance affirming the right of Ukraine to territorial integrity and sovereignty but refusing to condemn Russia and refusing to impose sanctions.
The war in Ukraine, together with EU demands regarding sanctions, led to large-scale right-wing protests in support of Russia. This however, does not necessarily reflect public approval of the aggression. Pro-Ukrainian rallies also took place in Belgrade on several occasions. And there are indications that Serbia is indirectly delivering weapons to Ukraine for its defence against Russia.
Is the Serbian public opinion in favour of annexing Kosovo to Serbia?
As for the Serbian people Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia, the question is rather whether they will accept Kosovo as an independent country. They still refuse to consider Kosovo as a separate country. On the other hand, to the question: if Kosovo would really be part of Serbia, can you then imagine Kosovar Albanians being members of parliament, or maybe government members, and even having the right to run for president? – the reaction is always one of rejection. But this question is hardly ever raised in political debates, it would not serve the government’s nationalistic policy.
Would Serbia, as consequence of Russia’s constant pressure, take arms against Kosovo?
Recently tensions between Kosovo and Serbia flared up again, as a Serbian paramilitary group carried out a terrorist attack in the North of Kosovo. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić declared that Serbian forces had no intention of going to war with Kosovo, noting that this would be counterproductive to the country’s ambitions of joining the EU.
Although NATO has accepted that the Serbian government was not behind this aggression and was actually rather taken by surprise, the Serbian government is still accountable for what occurred as it is impossible that it was unaware of the presence of the militants in a military training area in Serbia. The government also has a hard time explaining how the group came into possession of ammunition freshly delivered from a Serbian ammunition factory which is run by the most trusted members of the ruling party.
This recent increase of tensions raises the spectre of a return to armed conflict. In its resolution adopted on October 19, 2023, the European Parliament said that “aggressive military behaviour, together with radicalised political messaging in Serbia and strong indications of the Serbian state’s involvement in the recent political violence in the North of Kosovo, indicates that the Serbian government is pursuing a very dangerous but coherent policy with regard to Kosovo and its Western partners”. The European Parliament also expressed its concern by evidence linking violent criminal groups in the North of Kosovo and in Serbia with the Serbian state.
To what extent is Serbia’s inclination towards Russia and China a potential threat for the peace on the Balkans?
Increased Russian influence, and the arrival of Chinese influence, in an era of great power competition in the world, shows that the Western Balkans is in play in a new competition between the free and democratic world and the autocratic powers.
In recent years, it became clear that the Kremlin’s strategy is not only to maintain and increase its influence in the region, but also to disrupt the process of NATO and EU integration by exploiting the weak institutions and actively politicising and exacerbating existing ethnic and religious tensions. Serbia is Russia’s main partner and the hub of Russian influence in the Western Balkans. Russia Today started to air Serbian-language broadcasts in 2022, promoting itself in Serbia. Moscow’s opposition to Kosovo’s independence has helped maintain its popularity and leverage with Belgrade and the ethnic Serbian population throughout the Balkans. Moscow impedes the normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia by meddling through dangerous rhetoric and spreading propaganda about clashes between a “Greater Albania” and a “Greater Serbia”.
China’s approach is more subtle than Russia’s, but its ambitions may be more significant — to gain access to the EU through its backyard. China’s main interest in the Western Balkans relates not primarily to the region’s countries as such, but to their proximity to the European Union, which is a major export market for China. It wants to maintain and deepen diplomatic and economic relations with countries in the Balkans, with Kosovo as an exception at the diplomatic level as it is not recognised by China, and with Serbia as China’s main regional partner. It appears however that there are no signs that the Chinese government has attempted to exercise political influence through its economic involvement (or will ever do so) in Serbia.
What is to be done, from your point of view, to minimise the risk of further escalation in the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo? What do you expect from the EU in order to resolve the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo?
As long as the Progressive Party (SNS), under the leadership of Aleksandar Vučić, is ruling Serbia, there is little hope for a solution to the Kosovo issue.
President Vučiċ needs the support of the West to stay in power. Until now, the EU has supported him, viewing Vučić as being cooperative on Kosovo. As long as Vučić is seen as trying to solve the Kosovo issue, the EU will continue to support him. It is time for the EU to wake up and recognise that his attitude is cooperative only in words, and that at home his rhetoric is quite different. It is time for the EU to stop condoning President Vučić’s behaviour. Serbia is by far the biggest receiver of financial aid from the EU in the Balkans. Witholding funds when Serbia engages in anti-European rhetoric or actions, could prompt some moderation on the Serbian side.
At the same time, the EU should put pressure on both Kosovo and Serbia to start implementing the “Agreement on the Path to Normalisation between Kosovo and Serbia” (the so-called Franco-German proposal, agreed on in February 2023) and the Ohrid Agreement (agreed on in March 2023, which is meant to prepare the roadmap on how to realise this normalisation, what needs to be done, by what deadline, who should do it and how), and also come up with financial sanctions if either of both parties does not demonstrate political goodwill.
Could you comment on the role of free press and media in Serbia?
Serbia’s constitution guarantees freedom of press and media. However, journalists are threatened by political pressures and impunity of crimes committed against them. It often leads to self-imposed censorship.
Since the present ruling party SNS came to power, in 2012, slowly the state influence has been strengthened and attacks on the autonomy of Serbia’s universities have intensified. Media outlets are now mostly owned by state enterprises. There is no more media pluralism. Anti-EU narrative dominates the news. There is no room for any opposition: President Vučić is 14 times more present on national television than the entire opposition.
Recently, not later than October 2023, the government seems to be heading towards an even more hardline policy that recalls the moves in 1998 by the Milošević’s regime: 20 years ago Milošević adopted laws on education and information which completely suffocated the autonomy of high education institutions and freedom of the media (Vučić as then information minister implemented these laws). Now, 20 years later, the drafts of two new media laws were adopted with a similar impact.
One law appoints a number of controversial people to the councils of faculties and universities. Such a council is not an advisory body but rather a steering committee with a mandate to make all the important decisions. The council also elects and dismisses rectors and deans. It is not the first time that a government has appointed members and supporters of the ruling party, but now people linked to violence or who played a major role in the Milośeviċ’s regime are to be appointed.
The second law strangles the media financially and makes them less competitive on the market by allowing (state owned) Telekom Srbija to found and own media outlets. It is expected that Telekom will strive to push independent media out of the media scene, with the help of huge amounts of money, a monopoly and support from the authorities. Thus, the new law will allow the regime to control through Telekom Srbija the information provided to citizens to an even greater extent.
It is worrying.
Is there, in your opinion a credible and strong opposition in Serbia advocating the rule of law, democracy and EU values?
The opposition remains fragmented due to ideological and personal differences, as well as its stance on cooperation with the government. Concerning leadership of the country, so far nobody is perceived to be able to measure up to Aleksandar Vučić. Serbian people need strong leaders.
But something interesting has been happening since last spring. Prompted by two mass shootings in May, large-scale public protests in Serbia grew throughout the summer into a wider anti-government movement unprecedented since Milosevic’s ouster. Uproar was initially directed at the climate of violence and fear-mongering that many see as being promoted by Vučić and government-controlled media outlets. But protesters’ placards also called attention to deteriorating rule of law across Serbian society. The rallies were held every Saturday and only stopped in November after Vučić decided to hold snap elections on December 17, 2023.
Protesters’ demands for stronger press freedoms, free and fair elections, and a crackdown on corrupt officials are not new. The difference is that now these demands are drawing a wider base of support than they have in decades. The dissatisfaction in Serbia right now is widespread but not uniform: some see Vučić as a direct challenge to Serbian democracy, while others support him but demand he make real reforms. Nevertheless, this is the first time since 2000 that civil society’s calls for democratic reform have aligned so closely with the concerns of Serbian society. In this way, the ‘Serbia against Violence’ protests are a historic mass mobilisation for democracy, even if it is rather improbable that the next elections will overturn the present regime.
How do you interpret Serbia’s strategic direction based on close partnership with Russia and China?
Serbia traditionally leads a policy that balances between the East and the West. In 2009 Serbia adopted its “Four Pillars of Foreign Policy” strategy with the EU as the key pillar, and with Russia, China, and the US as the other three. The premise of this policy is rather simple, Serbia will stay on its EU path, but it will pursue strategic partnerships with the US, China, and Russia. This strategy is a reaction to the secession of Kosovo from Serbia and EU and US support of said secession.
Pro-Russia and pro-China sentiments in Serbia are high. They are seen as friendly countries. Serbia needs Russia, permanent member of the UN Security Council, as an ally in its stance on Kosovo. Serbia had to agree to Russian expansion in the energy sector in exchange for Russia’s political support. Over the past few years, Moscow has used the close political and energy ties to expand its influence in Serbia’s media, science, culture and NGO sector (e.g. the Orthodox Church). This complicates Serbia’s alignment with the West. The West is presented as an ally and sponsor of the government of Pristina, and Russia as the only real defender of Serbian national interests.
The invasion of Ukraine has triggered processes loosening Serbia’s bonds with Russia. Belgrade supports Ukraine in its struggle to preserve its territorial integrity. It has not recognised the annexation of Crimea, Donbas and the southern regions of the country. Although Serbia has not imposed sanctions against Russia, it is already feeling their negative effects. Military cooperation is also weakening because Serbia cannot buy the weapons from Russia which it signed contracts for due to Western restrictions.
The Serbian-Chinese relations gained momentum after 2010. Belgrade hoped that funds from China would not only finance the construction of infrastructure but also bring benefits to the ruling elite, which would not be the case with Western funds, since higher transparency standards apply. In order to achieve its goals, Serbia joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Digital transformation is another area where cooperation has been strengthened. Huawei has become a key player in the Serbian telecommunications market. During the Covid-19 epidemic Serbia received substantial medical assistance from China. Both countries are also developing military cooperation. And China could become an important ally in the UN Security Council on the topic of Kosovo.
The question arises whether China will replace Russia. It might, in some aspects of Serbian foreign policy. Serbia is likely to maintain its ‘special’ relations with Russia. However, the relations will be more and more superficial. The Serbian elite probably wants to remain neutral on the Ukraine war, so as not to irritate the pro-Russian part of the public. Furthermore, the increasing financial dependence on the West and erosion of the last fragments of ties with Russia (i.e. energy and military cooperation) could strengthen the country’s pro-Western orientation.
What is to be done in order to minimise Russia’s influence (including safe havens for Russian companies, social media platforms directly supporting anti-democratic movements on the Balkans) aiming to destabilise and threaten the stability of the whole Balkan region?
The current weakening of Russia’s position in the Western Balkans creates an opportunity for the EU to strengthen its own position in the region in the long-term and to provide it with new triggers for development. This is only possible if the EU continues to show real interest in creating an EU integration perspective for the region and to firmly push for the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. The EU should also improve its communication strategy. Although Serbia is the country in the Balkans with by far the biggest financial EU assistance, this is hardly known by the Serbian people.