New President Tomislav Nikolic inherits a debt-ridden economy and will have to impose severe spending cuts, says Serbia’s ambassador to the UK. The same is true for other European countries, even where the people are against austerity, he says.
Serbia hopes to receive EU approval later this year to open accession talks with the 27-nation bloc. RT spoke to the Serbian Ambassador to the UK, Dejan Popovic, about the possible turn in the country’s policies after Nikolic, a nationalist right-wing politician, won Serbia’s highest office.
RT: The victory of the new president and former nationalist and opposition leader Tomislav Nikolic surprised many outside Serbia. Ambassador Popovic, did it surprise you?
Dejan Popovic: To an extent, yes. It was actually the economy that was the most important topic of the electoral campaign. The perception of the general population was that they were not satisfied with the performance of the economy. So contrary to the perceptions of some observers, the “more important” issues like EU perspectives of Serbia or Kosovo were not in the focus of the campaign. The economy was.
RT: What were the social factors that lead up to his victory would you say?
DP: The unemployment rate is as high as 25 per cent, and that is the most important factor that actually concerns the majority of Serb voters. Given the environment, which is globally unfavorable to the economic growth, actual performance of Serbia’s economy was perceived as unsatisfactory by the majority of voters. And that’s the outcome.
RT: What did President Nikolic promise to bring to the table under these circumstances?
DP: His rhetoric was concentrated on the economic issues, the facilitation of foreign investment, improvement of the investment climate in the country and the reduction in the corruption scales. There is a perception among the voters that corruption still remains a major problem. Criticisms by President Nikolic and his supporters were aimed at these issues, and the majority of voters did accept that.
RT: And what about the relationships with the outside world? Will the new president’s victory lead to a rejection of Tadic’s approach with the West?
DP: I wouldn’t say so. The most important difference between pre-2008 and post-2008 rhetoric of Mr. Nikolic is his move towards the political center and repositioning of his newly-established Serbian Progressive Party as a pro-European one.
RT: We see across the Europe the movement towards the right-wing and Mr. Nikolic is traditionally right-wing politician. Is that part of that movement?
DP: To an extent, yes. Although the clear cut distinctions between right and left in Serbia’s political environment are not easily made. There is a lot of left-wing populist rhetoric in some right-oriented political parties and vice versa. But generally after four years of predominantly left-oriented government led by two social-democratic parties, the Democratic Party and the Socialist Party of Serbia, we are now having the majority, which is explaining itself as something completely different.
RT: Does that make Serbia psychologically a part of Europe in such a social trend?
DP: I would say so, yes. There are trends that can be followed throughout the region, not just in Serbia, and I am content because of these developments.
RT: What policy shifts do you expect to see in President’s Nikolic government?
DP: When you speak about policies, I think that economy would be in focus, because, as I said, that was the only important topic on the elections. Very tough decisions have to be made by the new government. Our indebtedness is now high; it exceeded 45 per cent of the GDP, which is statutory limit established by the law. There is very little room for additional indebtedness. On the other hand the deficit is running high, between two and four per cent of GDP. And given the low rate of growth, which is actually just above zero, we do not have much room for maneuvers but to enter a very strict domain of austerity measures to be implemented in the months to come.
RT: It seems in fact that the rest of Europe is moving away slightly from austerity electing governments that don’t support austerity, while Serbia is moving towards this.
DP: We’ll see how the new government will formulate its policies. We will also have to see how the newly-elected French government will radically change the course of the economy. It is rather easy to talk against austerity – but to implement an alternative scenario is something different.
RT: We've talked a lot about Europe, but Mr. Nikolic's first visit as a president was made to Russia. What should we read into that?
DP: It is my understanding that Mr. Nikolic in his capacity as then-president of the Serbian Progressive Party was invited to the congress of the United Russia party – his party’s sister-party in Russia. It was something which was pre-arranged before the election results. Anyhow it shows the relevance Mr. Nikolic is giving to the relations Serbia would like to enhance with Russia. They are already excellent relations, and I think there really is additional room for improving these relations.
RT: As a diplomat, do you think it is possible as President Nikolic's wishes to be a country with two doors open: one looking to the East, one looking to the West?
DP: Yes, I have a lot of examples with such policies. Some very good friends of Russia, for instance Bulgaria or Croatia, are members or are becoming members of the EU. I don’t see why Serbia shouldn’t become a member of the European Union – provided all the conditions are met – and at the same time keep and enhance its relations the major economic partner, which Russia is. Anyhow, EU and Russia are partners, not foes.
RT: There are stumbling blocks for Serbia on the path to Serbia becoming a fully-fledged member of EU. One of them is possible NATO membership, which President Nikolic said he would never accept. The other is the recognition of Kosovo. Mr. Nikolic has already made in clear that if Serbia has to choose between recognizing Kosovo and the EU than it can forget about EU.
DP: There is nothing new in the formulations you cited. The same formulations were made by former President Tadic. Serbia’s National Assembly had adopted five of six years ago a resolution declaring military neutrality of Serbia. So Serbia within the present constellation is politically determined not to become member of NATO. On the other hand Serbia’s constitution proclaims Kosovo as part of the country. So no politician can disobey the basic principles as stated in the constitution of the country.
RT: He has already sort of undone some of the work that was done to restore Serbia’s relations with neighbors. The leaders of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia have said they won’t come to the inauguration after Nikolic denied the genocide in Srebrenica.
DP: I am a lawyer. In my previous life I was professor of law. Judgments of a court, particularly bearing in mind the International Court of Justice, are something that are predefinition the facts that are established. I think that Serbia’s national parliament adopted two years ago a declaration condemning the crime that happened in Srebrenica – that was committed against Bosnian Muslims living there – as it was defined by the International Court of Justice.
RT: Has President Nikolic now rejected it?
DP: You will have to talk to him. I am not sure how the things are now developing. But what I know is that President Nikolic also condemned the tragic serial enormous crime committed in Srebrenica. And we have this resolution of the National Assembly of Serbia.
RT: What do you think EU is going to offer Serbia, given the debt crisis going on in the country and also the crisis is going on inside the EU?
DP: The EU now has 27 member states and the 28th is preparing to enter in 2013. I do not know of any that is trying to leave the European Union. There are some values that are inherited in the European Union, which are exceeding the present problems – the problems of the recession, the crisis in the eurozone. Within three or four years we’ll have another set of problems and the recession which is behind us. So things are always changing, but geographically, politically and culturally Serbia as other countries in the region does belong to this neighborhood, which is integrating in the European Union. We are speaking about the rule of law. We are speaking about the economic environment that is providing incentives for foreign direct investments, which is aiming at increasing the employment rate in Serbia.
RT: If Serbia has to choose, what would be the most important relations – with EU or with Russia?
DP: I would again not try to explain these relations as being contradictory. To the contrary, I think that they represent the complementary value for the country like Serbia. Serbia is aimed towards having the best possible relations with Russia while keeping its pro-European path open. President Nikolic told that to President Putin when he recently paid a visit to Moscow.