The European Union, EU, can and must stimulate the Western Balkans again because other countries won’t wait and do nothing, President of Montenegro, Milo Đukanović, told in an interview with the Voice of America, VOA. Mr Đukanović doesn’t think there’s a threat of new violence in the Balkans, but warns that, having in mind the history of the region, the integration process must be prevented from going downwards. He believes that it is necessary for Belgrade and Pristina to continue with the dialogue, and believes in the consensus of the international community referring to the final solution of tense relations between Serbia and Kosovo.
VOA: You took part at the Berlin Summit ahead of your visit to the United States. After certain progress in the Balkans has been achieved, it seems to be regressing again. Negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo are halted, the views of the leaders of the two countries are too different, the governing coalition in Bosnia and Herzegovina remains dysfunctional, North Macedonia still hasn’t got a date for negotiations despite the name dispute being settled. Does the Balkans go one step ahead and two back?
Đukanović: We can certainly agree this is not the golden stage of the policy of the Euro-Atlantic integration in the Western Balkans. Let us recall that, unfortunately, we took this road later than other countries of Central and Eastern Europe due to the war crisis in the former Yugoslavia. Then we had a period of stressed euro enthusiasm in the region, and I would say the EU’s attention of a better quality. Now, I think, we are at the stage when the enlargement policy and the Western Balkan integrations are not the topmost priority thanks to the various crises Europe has been passing through and the fact the European parliamentary elections will be held this year. On the other hand, it is obvious that the problems we have carried over from the nineties still exist. We have managed to solve the relations between North Macedonia and Greece, but there are two other issues – relations between Serbia and Kosovo and the functionality of B&H. And the third factor we should pay attention to is the fact that these two first circumstances in a way encouraged other countries, or as we like to call them ‘the third parties’, to take part in creating the future of the Balkans from standpoints which are neither Europe’s nor NATO’s. Therefore, we are talking about platforms that oppose the system of values cherished by the European Union and NATO. These are the facts.
Is it right to make a conclusion that you have taken while asking this question, well, I would not be so pessimistic. Given my experience and the outcomes of the Berlin Summit, my overall impression is that there are still chances for the European integration, i.e. for fostering stability and better future in the region. There’s still a possibility to reach the agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, which would resolve the second issue from the agenda, so that the Balkans and Europe can focus on improving the functionality of B&H. I still believe in the European perspective of the Balkans. I think the EU integration is the only way for bringing greater stability, i.e. faster democratic and economic prosperity of the region.
VOA: And the third parties are…?
Đukanović: First, there’s an obvious and huge political influence of Russia. We felt it in our own case in October 2016. And one should note that there are other countries in the Western Balkans as well. We see that China has great impact not only in Central and Eastern Europe, but also in whole Europe. I don’t want to condemn it. On the contrary, we all should see a completely new reality – that China is economically evolving and that it shows its interest to be internationally present and globally important. We can also notice some other countries in the region, e.g. Turkey and Iran, which is also present in a certain sense especially when we analyze some relations that exist between the Balkans and that part of the world.
The halting of the process of European integration and further implementation of the European values in the WB other countries don’t just watch by doing nothing, and we cannot be angry about that as they themselves want to promote their policies, not only in their countries but worldwide. These all are some additional challenges to the WB and EU as well.
There’s no doubt that every part of Europe, including the WB, would have to be in the zone of EU’s primary responsibility while the EU must be much more active in creating the conditions for the Balkans to rapidly respond to those challenges, adopt standards, adopt European system of values and become a member of the united Europe. I’m not talking about dates. I agree that every Balkan country should become the EU member state if it first meets all the necessary requirements for that, but I remind of the fact we can do a lot meanwhile. For example, why should we construct the infrastructure in the region with the non-European funds? Why shouldn’t Europe show its competitiveness and primary responsibility for the development of this European region as well?
VOA: Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi said divisions within the EU and between the European countries and the United States have boosted the risk of ethnic conflicts in the Balkans. Does this mean there’s a possibility of violence in the Balkans?
Đukanović: I would agree with the basic statement of President Thaci. So, unlike the 1990s, when problems in the Western Balkans stemmed from the internal misunderstandings in the former Yugoslavia, it seems to me that today a large part of the problem in our region is caused by some issues taken from the global scene. Therefore, this is something that needs to be addressed even in the context of those policies developed by the third countries, whose interests are contrary to the European ones. Those countries play their games in the Balkans and the Balkans is not of their primary interest. Unfortunately, the Balkans again represents the central point for resolving some issues that have no geographical or political ties to it.
However, I wouldn’t be so pessimistic as President Tachi is. Right now, I really don’t see any chances for war conflicts or some serious instability in the Western Balkans.
What we are talking about and what we warn of is that, having in mind the history of the Balkans, we shouldn’t wait for too long or allow any downfalls. We have to work with great responsibility in order to continue with the policy of the WB integration thus ensuring the adoption of the European system of values and preventing any possibility of repeating the history.
VOA: Does the existing EU has strength to encourage the region to move forward and is it possible without strong US interference?
Đukanović: I think that Europe can do and that it must do it. The European continent is the place of our joint life. And when I say this, I do not say it as an inferior Balkan resident who looks at the European Union with eagerness and is just thinking about how to use money from the European fund. No. I’m telling this as a European. Our joint interest, the interest of all of us who live on this continent is that Europe should be prestigious globally. The European Union represents a driving force for the European continent. And this driving force is responsible for the development and stability of each country. If the WB is the last priority of the European continent, then it’s logical that the EU will contribute to it so that it can overcome the obstacles and join the contemporary Europe. When I’m speaking about Europe, I never forget the importance of the Euro-Atlantic partnership.
VOA: Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Hoyt Yee, recently noted that it was not realistic to expect that some WB countries would join the EU by 2025 and that the reforms in the Balkans were not real. What do you think about these statements?
Đukanović: Well, of course, everyone has the right to have the opinion. Mr Hoyt Yee is not someone who does not know the situation in our region so he has right to make his own assessments. Montenegro will be fully ready for the EU membership by 2025. Of course, I should go back to the basic question: will the European Union be ready for the new enlargement? At this moment, despite some views that the EU’s door is open, we see some obvious differences in the opinions of some very important political actors. I believe part of those different views are consequences of the crisis in Europe and part are consequences of the pre-election rhetoric ahead of the European parliamentary elections.
I believe soon after that we would have better situation so that we can have clear views on the vision, and that is, the united Europe. If the vision exists, then we have to create a clear policy of dynamic of the European perspective of the WB. In case the vision is confirmed and we create such a policy, I have no doubts that Montenegro will be able to meet all the requirements and thus join the EU in 2025.
VOA: As I mentioned, there is no progress in the talks between Belgrade and Pristina. The Serbian president said the demarcation had failed and that he did not want Kosovo to be independent. Prime Minister of Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj, is against the demarcation. What would be the solution to this issue, in your opinion? Is the demarcation idea excluded or it’s still on the agenda?
Đukanović: I strongly advocate for the continuation of the dialogue, that is, to finally solve this issue that has been a matter of discussion for months. This was one of the topics at the Berlin Summit and I had some proposals. And here’s what was our opinion on this matter: let’s discuss this issue without focusing on the responsible ones for the halt. Let’s agree on a moratorium for the existing differences and let’s define how much time we need to find the solution through dialogue, and then, all the issues that moved us away from discussion would be irrelevant. I don’t think this is impossible. As you know, the Summit in Berlin is over and the new one is scheduled to take place in Paris. It will be organized soon with the purpose of continuing the already initiated dialogue. Therefore, the dialogue must continue. In case this really happens, I am completely sure that positive outcomes are likely to happen.
As you know, we from Montenegro believe that we should not give priority to the idea of exchanging territory. Let’s call it whatever we want, someone calls it the exchange of territory, someone the demarcation, someone else as drawing of borders still not precisely drafted. But let’s talk about what’s most important. We believe that it’s extremely important for the Balkans and other countries as well, the idea of multiethnic democracy to be realistic. I’d like to recall that this was the cause of war crimes in the 1990s when some Balkan countries, mostly mono-national, mono-religious and mono-cultural, were trying to find support for their idea. Finally, the idea of multiethnic democracy won but it’s obvious some old ideas still exist, seeking to find support after a long time.
I won’t say the proposal in the negotiations between President Vučić and his Kosovo counterpart Thaci are of that kind, but I do want to say that we have to think carefully about our proposals so that no one ever thinks about the slightest possibility of returning to those destructive ides from the 90s. As a man who strongly believes in multiculturalism and as a man who is very proud of the fact the multiethnic democracy survived in Montenegro even in the 1990s, I believe I have a duty and right to warn of this matter in any conversation about it. Finally, I’d like to remind that there will be difficulties in the process of ensuring a unique or exclusive approach in resolving relations between Serbia and Kosovo, and that many from the region and Europe as well are waiting for that moment in order to express their own opinions and demands.
VOA: The United States says it’s open for all solutions even when it comes to the demarcation. A part of Europe, especially Germany, is against it. Who will win in this case?
Đukanović: I believe the consensus will be reached. You’re right, there are some different views on this matter, and in our region as well. Finally, not every solution proposed by the two leaders is the best one. Sometimes those solutions might be fatal, as was the case with Bosnia in the 1990s, which immediately reflected on the whole region. Therefore, I strongly support the continuation of the dialogue between the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo. I’m in touch with both of them and I absolutely believe in their good intentions.
I think the international community, Europe and the U.S., will be even more included in this matter. For now, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and President of France Emmanuel Macron expressed their interest in this issue, and we know that President Trump also sent letters on this topic, so I consider it’s possible to reach the international consensus. And this is important for another thing as well. If the final solution would eventually mean correction of the Banditer model, i.e. a mere administrative demarcation on the territory of former Yugoslavia, this would require absolute guarantees. And the same guarantees would have to be of highly international character in order to avoid serious consequences. That is why I think it’s very important to reach the consensus at the international level as well and I’m quite optimistic. I think it’s possible.
VOA: You said Montenegro was ready to contribute to the dialogue in a constructive manner and that you communicated with President of Serbia. Tell us more about the relations with Mr Vučić and the relations between Montenegro and Serbia.
Đukanović: Over the last decade or decade and a half, we have had different experiences. Just before the independence referendum, after it and in times of recognizing Kosovo, our relations were very bad. After that, change of power in Belgrade brought a phase of very good political relations when it seemed there were no crucial political issues to disagree with. Now we have a new phase, i.e. a part of the political public and media from Belgrade are expressing critical views about Montenegro. I link this with the Serbia-Kosovo issue. It seems to me that a part of Serbia’s public wants to compensate the unfavorable circumstances in this matter by their exaggerated care for the rights of Serbs in the region. Again, we’re dealing with the kind of paternalism which already caused many problems in our neighborly relations and the region as a whole.
The political or media interpretations from Belgrade sometimes exaggerate and stagger neighborly relations that we firmly considered as being good. I believe the neighborly relations should be further fostered. I’ve been trying to give my personal contribution, and, regardless of some negative statements, I won’t let them provoke me or distract me from my primary responsibility, and that is, to represent the national interest of Montenegro. The national interest of Montenegro is ensuring stability in relations with all the neighboring countries and countries of the region.
VOA: The Economist recently published article saying that you are Europe’s most durable leader and that last protests showed many people think you have been in power for too long. Is there a democratic society without changing power?
Đukanović: I am always talking about true democracy if the election results express the free will of citizens. And I don’t think we’re talking about democracy if any group in a country believes it has the right to change power just because it’s fed up with a policy of an individual. That’s not democracy. That’s violence. On the other hand, I understand that people might think some individuals are in power for too long. Such situations often happen among people, in families or some other relationships. And that’s why I won’t tell anything new when I say that for the democratic stability, it’s good to have competition.
I would like to see more powerful opposition as I’m convinced strong competition brings better quality. The party I’ve been running would have been much better if only it’d had worthier opponents. Unfortunately, that was not the case and that’s why it was always winning in the elections. Thanks to the opposition failures, people in Montenegro expressed absolute trust in our policy. People didn’t neglect our disadvantages, they saw them clearly, but, having in mind the challenges in those hard times, they made wise decisions.
VOA: Opposition keeps emphasizing that there are no conditions for free elections in Montenegro and that institutions cannot act. What do you think about their complaints?
Đukanović: Their complaints are completely irresponsible and ungrounded. You wouldn’t believe me if I tell you the Montenegrin society is ideal, without crimes, corruption and drawbacks. Let us be so critically distrustful towards these sayings of the opposition, which has the right to be dissatisfied because in the past 30 years they are constantly losing. Is there any reason for me to believe in their assessments when it comes to the quality of the elections in Montenegro? Allow me to remind you that no election in Montenegro has ever been held without the close monitoring of our international partners. OSCE was giving suggestions on how to improve our election system and that is what we were doing.
No election was held without the observers of the Council of Europe, OSCE/ODIHR and various countries that expressed interest in monitoring the quality of the election. In the end of all those elections, it was concluded that the election results reflected the free will of Montenegro citizens. Do you really think NATO or the EU would accept a country that the opposition is constantly criticizing? I understand their anger, which is the consequence of their inability to present themselves as a real alternative to the ruling coalition.
VOA: Thousands of citizens are protesting in Montenegro. Will you respond to their demands?
Đukanović: It’s an integral part of democracy in a society. We’ve never used a word or any act to prevent them from their right to convey their views and their expectations, especially when it comes to civic protests, as they include people who don’t have a possibility to be in the parliament and express their views. On several occasions, we told them we were ready to talk with them whenever they wanted, on issues that bothered them and that might improve their status and the status of democracy in our country. They never responded to our proposals because they do not want to talk.
VOA: Based on evaluations of the international organizations, freedom of media in Montenegro is in decline. The Committee to Protect Journalists says there are no conditions for the work of independent and investigative journalists in MNE. What would be the following steps?
Đukanović: I’ve read those evaluations. It’s not so important that I disagree with them because I really think there are conditions for media freedom in Montenegro, and that the state itself has never done anything to impose limitations on media expression. On the contrary. It seems to me that we have significantly improved media freedom in Montenegro and we managed to do that for a short period of time – a decade or two. And many people noticed, not just we from Montenegro, that media in our country is unusually and harshly critical of the ruling coalition for which it does not bear any consequences.
If it’s about some inconvenient individual actions taken against a citizen, yes, we are aware of this problem and we’re trying to solve it. And I think we are moving forward. Some of the cases are already solved and by using rigorous punishments, we will prevent the repetition of similar cases and thus stop those who are settling a score with the media just because they are not satisfied with the reports on themselves or their businesses. Whenever you receive a warning from the relevant international addresses, it’s something you should pay attention to and act accordingly. I’m sure we will successfully get rid of all the reasons for the complaints.
VOA: How do you plan to do that especially when it comes to the work conditions of investigative journalists?
Đukanović: As for the legislative framework, everything’s more or less aligned with the EU laws. It’s necessary the relevant institutions to act in order to prevent the smallest incident or any deviation from rules and good intentions determined by the strategic documents. I think the competency and responsibility of the institutions are the most important issues that the Government of Montenegro has been dealing with and will keep doing it in the next period.