SPIEGEL Interview with Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic 'We Will Defend Our Territorial Integrity'

Serbian Foreign Minster Vuk Jeremic spoke with SPIEGEL about how his country is going to deal with any declaration of independence by Kosovo, and explained that the upcoming presidential elections are really a referendum on how much Serbia wants to be a part of the EU.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Minister, the new government in Kosovo is expected to declare the province’s independence from Serbia. What will you do then?

Vuk Jeremic: It would be a bad decision. It would be a violation of United Nations resolution 1244 and also an infringement of Serbia’s sovereignty. We would use all means at our disposal to oppose this, short of the use of military force, because no good can come of that. Over the past 16 years the people of the Balkans have often enough borne the brunt of physical violence. We will do what a country can do to defend its territorial integrity.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean by that?

Jeremic: Whatever is in our political, diplomatic and economic power, also on an international level, to contest what is an unlawful decision.

SPIEGEL: Would Serbia, for example, block the flow of goods into Kosovo?

Jeremic: We would exert pressure, also economic pressure -- because that is in our arsenal of options. Our objective would be for the government in Kosovo to repeal its declaration of independence.

SPIEGEL: Why should it, especially given that Serbia and Kosovo have negotiated unsuccessfully for years on the international status of the province? Just look, for example, at the effort made by Finland’s Martti Athisaari on behalf of the UN, followed by the diplomatic troika consisting of the United States, Russia and the European Union.

Jeremic: The troika were the only ones to conduct genuine negotiations, although the stipulation was that talks had to be completed by Dec. 10, 2007. We dealt with Athisaari for 18 months, but we had the distinct impression that the outcome was clear to him right from the beginning -- the independence of Kosovo. He submitted proposals and we made our proposals, which he turned down.

SPIEGEL: But you admit that the troika, headed by German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, acted in good faith?

Jeremic: With one exception -- you can’t solve the Kosovo issue, which predates the war in 1999 by many decades, in just 120 days. At the outset, the troika informed us: “All right, fellows, you have until Dec. 10 to reach an agreement. If you don’t succeed, then you know what will happen.” So the Albanian side had little reason to make concessions.

SPIEGEL: The Serbs are not yielding because they have Russia as a powerful ally at their side. The Albanians have staunch allies in the US and the EU; NATO troops are protecting the province ...

Jeremic: Yes, and NATO fought a war in 1999, which was against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic ...

SPIEGEL: ... and what were the consequences?

Jeremic: The war wasn’t against the Serbs, but against a dictatorial regime. NATO won, Milosevic had to withdraw his troops from Kosovo. The victors were able to dictate their conditions and they decided on UN resolution 1244, which stipulates that Kosovo should remain a Serbian province.

SPIEGEL: Presumably, this was a mistake, because Kosovo would have become independent without much resistance at the time.

Jeremic: I, of course, have a different view. Nonetheless, the odd fact remains that NATO granted this tyrannical regime favorable conditions for peace. Today, nearly nine years later, Serbia has changed. Serbia has a democratically elected government, a constitutional state, the economy is growing. Serbia is on its way to becoming a member of the European Union and is making amends with its neighbors. Milosevic was brought down by a democratic movement; he died as a prisoner, charged with war crimes at the UN tribunal in The Hague. Why should Serbia today pay a price for the war that Milosevic did not have to pay?

SPIEGEL: Once again: What were the consequences? There are Serbs in Kosovo who are threatening to split off North Kosovo and join Serbia. Do you support such aspirations?

Jeremic: Well, to be honest, we’re on very thin ice here. Serbia would like to maintain everything within the confines of international law; this is important to us. Aside from that, however, there is reality, and there are people who may see things differently.

SPIEGEL: And how do the Serbs in the North see things?

Jeremic: Virtually all Serbs in Kosovo would not associate themselves with the province’s independence. It just so happens that they are concentrated in the North. This could open up a Pandora’s box and lead to a division of Kosovo, which is something that Serbia does not want.

SPIEGEL: There is simply too much mistrust in your country to believe that.

Jeremic: Don’t forget, Serbia raised no objections when the international community got involved in Kosovo. UN, NATO, EU: We’ve played by the rules. But we’re against the division of our country, against new borders in the Balkans. The philosophy of the EU is, after all, to open up old borders instead of erecting new ones.

SPIEGEL: Slovenia, which currently holds the EU Council presidency, has offered Serbia the possibility of quickly signing the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA). Will you accept?

Jeremic: We are governing in a large coalition. My party, headed by President Boris Tadic, is center-left, and the party of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica is further to the right. We have agreed to two key objectives: maintaining Serbia’s territorial integrity in the Balkans and integration into the EU. Both goals are important, they enhance each other. So we welcome this offer from the Slovenian prime minister.

SPIEGEL: Some EU states have even relinquished their demands that both Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who are indicted for war crimes, must be handed over to the UN tribunal in The Hague before the agreement is signed.

Jeremic: We fully understand that the preconditions include atonement for the horrible atrocities committed in the Balkans, such as those at Srebrenica. That is a moral duty. Consequently, the Serbian government will do everything in its power to find, arrest and extradite these men.

SPIEGEL: Who is responsible for preventing them from being caught?

Jeremic: It's not easy to find people who were military commanders during the war and are hiding out in rough terrain.

SPIEGEL: Where is that?

Jeremic: Somewhere in the region. Look at the Americans. I'm sure they're doing everything to track down Osama bin Laden. I hope they succeed, but it's not easy. We are doing what we can. There is a €1 million ($1.47 million) reward for information leading to the arrest of Mladic.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, Serbia is suspected of allowing them both to remain at large.

Jeremic: On the 10th anniversary of the atrocities in Srebrenica, President Tadic was present and bowed his head. We are doing a lot.

SPIEGEL: Presidential elections will be held in Serbia this Sunday. Are they a referendum on Kosovo?

Jeremic: No, it's a referendum on Europe, because in Serbia there is a general consensus on Kosovo across the political spectrum, from the right to the left. Europe is a divisive issue. President Tadic stands for integration in the EU; Tomislav Nikolic, the deputy leader of the Radical Party, vehemently opposes it. This is an incredibly important election for our country.

The interview was conducted by Gerhard Spörl

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