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Tomislav Nikolic: Relations between Serbia and Russia are “exceptional”

March 08, 0:00 UTC+3
Serbia’s President Tomislav Nikolic spoke about the upcoming visit to Russia and the state of relations between Serbia and Russia in an exclusive interview with TASS
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© FoNet/ Nenad Djordjevic

Serbia’s President Tomislav Nikolic in an exclusive interview with TASS spoke about the upcoming visit to Russia, about relations between Serbia and NATO, shared views on Russia’s role in the operation in Syria, on the migration crisis in Europe and on the EU sanctions against Russia

-- Mr. President, thank you for the opportunity to have a conversation with you on the eve of your visit to Russia, where you are expected to have a meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and with Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill. For you it will not be the first visit to Russia. What are your feelings, what do you expect from the visit, what questions do you plan to discuss?

-- The apparent reason is the award from the Unity of Orthodox Nations International Public Foundation (the Foundation will award Serbia’s President Tomislav Nikolic “for outstanding activities in improving unity of the Orthodox nations and for promotion of Christian values in public life” – TASS). And, surely, I cannot imagine coming to Moscow without asking for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moreover, in situations of the kind we have met many times and thus compensated for the lack of opportunity to organize official visits more often than the protocol would allow us.

I am always happy to travel to Moscow Tomislav Nikolic Serbia’s President

I am always happy to travel to Moscow. Moscow is a city, which I visit for many years. Though not before I got involved in politics. Now I am visiting Moscow often. Even when I was a part of the opposition. We have things to discuss with President Putin. The situation in the world is extremely complicated. And the position of Serbia is exclusively complicated. Sure, we were not able to follow it without the understanding from the Russian Federation regarding the efforts we have been undertaking in the attempts to keep the balance on the other side, too – in the West, by persuading them not to insist on breaking up relations with Russia, as this is not considered in the economic, or in political or in any other aspect.

The trade-economic growth between our countries is not high enough, it could have been much bigger. The conversations with President Putin will be aimed also at certain projects, which are either at the stage of agreements or at the stage of implementation – about what have agreed the intergovernmental commission, the ministries, the companies between themselves. Thus, those would be very busy days in Moscow. And, of course, I am happy to have a meeting with His Holiness (Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill), with who we also often had meetings both in Belgrade and in Moscow.

-- Could you speak on the general program of your visit? What other meetings will you have?

-- You know, there are quite many Russian investments in Serbia. Not only from Gazprom, which is the biggest investor and which has invested in our oil industry, but I also plan to meet representatives of the Russian Railways. I shall try to have meetings with investors, who could help with decorating the Church of Saint Sava in Belgrade with mosaic.

It is a Russian present to Serbia, to the Serbian people, the Serbian Orthodox Church. I plan to talk to people, to decision makers, to those who have managed to find money for that purpose in Russia.

We shall speak about the military industry, about joint projects and about what else there is to be done to demonstrate the neutral military relations between Serbia and Russia, which relations are with NATO (in order to demonstrate that the military relations with Russia do not violate Serbia’s military neutrality – likewise it is not violated by the military relations with NATO - TASS). Thus, those would be very busy days, but, unfortunately, I shall have little time.

-- You have met already Russian President Vladimir Putin. How do your relations develop – not official, but the regular human relations?

-- I do not know what President Putin feels about me, I can only say what I feel about him. It is a fully open friendship, and the friendship to the extent, where I could open to him my secrets, if I seek advice or understanding. Those are relations of understanding.

I do not know what President Putin feels about me, I can only say what I feel about him. It is a fully open friendship, and the friendship to the extent, where I could open to him my secrets, if I seek advice or understanding Tomislav Nikolic Serbia’s President

I believe President Putin and I have brought to our relations the relations between the Serbian and Russian nations. I believe, it is for the first time ever that the president of Russia and the president of Serbia are talking like could talk a Russian and a Serb if they meet somewhere – be that in Serbia, in Russia, or anywhere else in the world. We both know very well the history of our nations and of the relations between them. And, of course, Russia has always been a defender of the Serbian people. From there has emerged that love of the Serbs to Russia. It is based not on economic relations but exclusively on the fact that Russia has always been for Serbia whenever Serbia required it. Serbia suffered at times Russia was not nearby, or at times where Russia was not strong enough to protect even itself, like, for example, during the times before President Putin.

-- You have partially answered my next question about what you can say about the state of relations between Serbia and Russia. But still, I would like to ask, what is Russia’s position on the list of Serbian foreign-policy priorities?

-- There are two sides here. Serbia has taken the position of complete neutrality. The military neutrality is fixed in the decision of Skupscina (parliament), but there is also our common desire to have in addition certain political neutrality, which, probably, is more complicated to have, than the military neutrality. As for the military neutrality, everything is clear. We are not joining either union, we work with both these and with those. With these – slightly more, with those – slightly less. The work is done by our specialized divisions. Here a good political balance is observed. Inconvenient is that we really very often turn to Russia for political support and for assistance in international organizations, where we are members, especially at the UN Security Council, where the role of Russia in maintaining Serbian territory integrity and sovereignty is, I believe, a key role, a direct one.

But on the other hand, for Serbia, in the environment where it is now, becoming a member of the EU is imperative. It simply cannot remain surrounded by the EU member countries without being one of them. We are connected directly with the European Union, from Russia we are separated by EU, and this does matter. Perhaps, somebody in Russia may say: why are we helping them if they want to join the European Union? But somebody in the EU may say: why talking to them if they tend and adhere to Russia, saying they love it so much, that they would not announce any sanctions against it? It is a very complicated situation. Our political relations (with Russia) are exclusive and I must say that they are exclusive among other things because Russia has understanding of Serbia. Otherwise it would be very easy to say: well, you want to be part of the European Union, then our position towards you will be the same we have in respect of other member countries of the European Union. No, Russia has always been one step ahead in its support to Serbia than one could expect it to be. And again, looking back at history, looking at what people think, it is what is expected from Russia. I think that should I ask President (of Russia Vladimir) Putin directly, not through diplomatic channels, to help Serbia, the Serbian people, Serbia’s interests, I can always rely on Russia’s willingness to make such a step. Because our grandfathers acted this way, we are acting this way now and our children will be acting this way in future.

-- What spheres do you consider most promising in developing cooperation between our countries? In your opinion, in what spheres have we reached good progress, and where there is still unused potential for development of the relations?

-- In cooperation between huge Russia and small Serbia, potential is everywhere. Serbia has made many mistakes since 2000, as it lost most of its industry.

The privatization, we had to do since Serbia entered the liberal capitalism, was made so that almost everything is robbed, closed or destroyed. Though there is still knowledge, there are technologies, and there is quality. And Russia, which now is an endless market for Serbia, now can say quite correctly: give us the goods. Opportunities are endless. We have the access to the Russian market under special tax-free conditions for, probably, more than 80% of the product. We even may produce in cooperation with foreign companies. If goods are 50-plus-one-percent Serbian, and we can prove so to the Russian counterparts, then we may export the goods without customs duties.

As for the Russian market, we have not used it. Nor even in the agricultural industry, as Serbia is not used to big productions for Russia. Since a Russian buyer comes for one truck of plums to one village and for the other truck to another one. If Russia buys fruit, then the prices are good, and if some year Russians do not come, the fruit will be lost. We do not have any other market. We have the European market, but we do not have goods for the European market.

In the military industry we could also cooperate actively. I believe, this door is wide open. Our plants could repair enough of the equipment Russia has and which it may sell further on.

I believe, the situation is more favorable than it used to be several years earlier, as Serbia is more sincere towards Russia. What it can, Serbia promises, what it cannot – it would not promise. We have come to the understanding of what we cost, what we mean. Whenever you observe the obligations, when you care not to be ashamed, then you are appreciated also by those who bigger than you, who could burn you to ashes in just 5 days with some modern military equipment. And I am happy that we after several decades, after 15 years, are a state again, which everyone considers and which nobody could ignore. In the Balkans we are a factor, to which are appealing both the East and the West. On us depends what the situation in the Balkans will be like. Whenever others begin some conflicts with Serbia, and when Serbia peacefully and with dignity is reacting, the conflicts are fading away.

- As far as I know, judging from the figures the number of Russian tourists to Serbia significantly increased last year. How much does Serbia need Russian tourists? Is it doing anything to increase their number even more?     

- Serbia has exceptional conditions for specific types of tourism.  Serbia does not have a sea but it has lakes and spas (with thermal springs) and Alpine Skiing resorts. I think that tour operators have established numerous contacts. Russians who used to go to Turkey in huge numbers are no longer doing that. They need to look for new destinations. They know that here (in Serbia) they will meet friendship, hospitality and fraternal attitude; and a way of life, which is very similar to the one there is in Russia.  

The only question is if the people who work in Serbia’s tourism industry will be able to use this opportunity. Spa tourism is specific. Those who have once visited our thermal springs and have experienced their positive and beneficial impact later keep coming every year.  We have a mountain called Kopaonik and our beauty called Stara Planina. Both [mountains] have well-equipped Alpine Skiing resorts.  Even when there is little snow, in bad years like this one, for example, the ski trails are ready. The opportunities are vast. The only shortcoming is that there is no sea.  Many people have got accustomed to spending their annual vacation at seaside and they cannot think differently. I have met Russian tourists practically in all countries, which have a sea. 

We are going to offer what we have.  If we find investors, we will expand our opportunities.  Many of our health improvement centers at thermal spas stand idle. We do not have the money to develop them. Joint investments would mean an opportunity for Russian tourists to improve their health, on the one hand, and profit for the investors, on the other hand.  

- Since we are talking about tourism and recreation, what is your favorite vacation place in Serbia?  

- I am happy to own an estate in my father’s native village where I can spend Saturdays and Sundays, or Saturday or Sunday to be more precise, and have a rest.  We cultivate land there. We have our own gardens. We gather mushrooms and medicinal herbs.  I do not go anywhere: neither to restaurants nor to crowded places.  I do not want to irritate people with my bodyguards and a special regime, which would have to be introduced in that case. I simply go to my house. It is not an apartment. It is nature located 700 meters above the sea level. I think that it suits me perfectly. I spend my weekends this way. I come here in summer and in winter whenever I have a free day

- The law on cooperation with NATO that was recently ratified by Skupstina (the National Assembly, the unicameral legislature of Serbia – TASS) and signed by you attracted public attention both in Russia and in Serbia.  Some Serbian politicians began to talk about "a creeping entry of Serbia into NATO". What do you think about their idea of holding a referendum on Serbia's rapprochement with NATO? What is your opinion about Serbia's cooperation with the alliance in general?

I tell you at once - we don’t need a referendum for any types of agreements, but as for a possible entry into NATO we would need it. I support putting the issue to a referendum, but this won’t pass. Simply not many citizens would like Serbia to be part of the military alliance. Not because we fought against NATO but because Serbia never was a member of any military alliance except for the time when the war began and Serbia joined the right side in that war. We never were part of any military alliance in peacetime and we did not expect that anyone could attack us like NATO did, but then we were an unprotected state. The only defense we had was our army and our people. No one dared to send land troops against us, against Yugoslavia. They tried to infiltrate through Kosovo and Metohija and when they suffered a heavy defeat they changed their tactics and came to Kosovo and Metohija under the banner of the United Nations.

We have enough agreements on cooperation with NATO: five agreements have been signed by now. This one was signed three years ago. Skupstina ratified it only recently, on a special occasion. We have a plant in Kragujevac where they repair weapons. There is a huge stock of ammunition there we cannot even touch. Several years ago there was an accident on a similar ammunition depot in Paracin, which did damage to the city. We should avoid repetition of such accidents. It is possible to avoid it using a US  technology but they set a condition: they will do everything which is needed but their people should be protected. You see, if we have an agreement which allows the NATO troops to go through the territory of Serbia, what about 10-15 experts who prepare those weapons for liquidation? They will have some kind of diplomatic immunity. For us it means nothing.

I only would like to tell the general public that a chance has been missed. When we signed a mine lifting treaty with Russia, it could have demanded the same status for its people the US demanded for its citizens and Serbia would grant it.  

What about that center in Nis (the Russian-Serbian humanitarian center) we will see. It is not a military center. It is intended to help in situations when it is difficult to guarantee protection – emergency situations, natural disasters. The region needs this center, it helped the region but other countries do not want to put up with the existence of the Russian center, which also helps them actually. If there is a fire or a flood they call for help. In this case the center in Nis is good but at the same time they don’t want to have any agreements about it. Regarding the status (of the center – TASS) we have only one agreement which was to be ratified in October of the year before last but the opportunity was missed. Now we will see. Unfortunately, Skupstina has been disbanded and the government has no longer an opportunity to sign it and Skupstina – to ratify it.

But the Prime Minister (Vucic) in conversation with Russian Prime Minister Medvedev and me in conversation with president Putin - we will agree on this matter and we will convince our Russian partners that Serbia will never become a member of NATO. As for the people in NATO we will say - what is the problem? If we have an agreement with you, why cannot we have an agreement also with CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization - TASS) or directly with Russia? That is the sign of neutrality.  Either we have agreements with everyone or no agreements at all.

-  Migration crisis is becoming more and more pressing issue and it directly concerns Serbia which lies on the so-called Balkan route. Some countries on that route restrict their admission of migrants. What is your country undertaking to solve this problem, not to spoil relations with neighboring countries and to soothe your own citizens?

Serbia has an advantage – it is a transit country. In fact none of them (migrants) wants to live here. Firstly, they cannot get used to the local life, secondly, they have no one here – neither relatives nor anyone who relocated to this country before them and could help them. Thirdly – they don’t have a job.  We have problems with employment of our own citizens and they know it. But there are also other transit countries but not all of them act as good as Serbia does. It happened to the EU that it conceded to the first challenge. It showed that all the agreements, many countries sacrificed part of their sovereignty for placing themselves under a supranational sovereignty, are now falling apart in the face of challenges.

We are a transit country, which meets all its obligations but in fact we depend on others. We depend on situations when Germany or Austria says: we have run of all our resources. This chain has stretched up to Greece. The problem is what to do with the people who came and do not want to leave. What to do with people when they start to arrive. There is no fence or barbed wire, nothing. We did not want to build cages for anyone. How should we act with people who no longer respect our law but at the same time they are still human beings? It is not the fault of Serbia that they cannot find work in the Middle East or in Africa, that the war is going on there. Serbia is less guilty than other states but it may happen that Europe (on the border with Serbia) fully closes its borders and they (migrants) continue to arrive infiltrating through the borders of Greece and Macedonia and Serbia. I think we would receive more than 3,000 migrants on our territory who don’t know what to do and where to turn to. We would not know what to do with them. That is why we are trying to prevent all these challenges, we approved the decision allowing the military police to participate in protection of the border if it becomes necessary, exclusively as an assistance to our Interior Ministry, our police.  

I am not very optimistic when it comes to thinking that this process of migration will come to an end one day. Tectonically the entire continent has been shifted. Sparking wars in five-six countries and thinking that there will be no consequences - only someone who had evil intentions or did not have enough abilities to do politics of a large country, when the policy of that country influences almost the whole world, could do that.

- Currently the EU - and Serbia is a candidate for the membership in EU - is going through hard times. In your opinion, what is the main problem of the EU member-states? Do you believe that the EU will be able to maintain its original structure and philosophy?

- I studied the history and the structure of the EU. The EU has deviated from its principle that it is a union of states. Brussels intruded itself upon others as the capital of the new supranational state. They say: if you are in the EU - you must! They don’t say “you may”, but “you must”. Must do this, must do that…

People who are sitting in Brussels receive huge salaries and they no longer care about their countries at all. They are more concerned about where they will be after their mandates expire – what their next appointment in the EU and how to avoid moving too far away from Brussels.  

I can’t say what will happen to the EU. Perhaps the EU knows. But the euro crisis did not hit the EU as strong as Russia’s sanctions. This is the biggest problem especially for small member-states of the EU. If you ban me from exporting my goods and force me to compete with European countries on the EU market, the countries which are more developed and are capable of supplying their products for the price which is 3-4 times lower, than we are not equal. In this case the EU is the mother for certain countries and stepmother for others. I really want the EU to get over this crisis, but this requires an immediate dialogue with Russia.

I know that Russia is also in crisis due to the sanctions imposed by the EU. I don’t belong to those who say, also here in Serbia: sanctions will do nothing to us, the global economic crisis won’t do anything to use. I know how painful it is for the citizens. Perhaps conflicts and sanctions do no harm to us, politicians - we are comfortable as we always were. Meanwhile when there is reduction in salaries, when people get unemployed and they cannot sell their goods - that is how the crisis is felt.  When the national currency rate starts to fall you know exactly that the country is in crisis. Now it is a critical point. I think that several EU member-states will oppose the automatic extension of sanctions against Russia because these are sanctions against their nations too. You never impose sanctions against the country you have a large turnover with. What country, on what continent, in what alliance will be your new trade partner? But if the relations between Europe and Russia are unfrozen that would help a lot and it would calm down the situation in the world.  I think that the US has nothing against peaceful life and economic growth in Europe, when people can work as they used to. And if they have something against it - let them say it.

-  As for the situation on the Middle East, in your opinion - what should be done in order to consolidate the forces of the global community in fighting the international terrorism? How do you assess the role of Russia in operation in Syria?

If you asked me about it several days ago I would not know whether there would be some progress, but the agreement Lavrov and Kerry reached is a very encouraging sign. If both parties are persistent in their intention to prevent Turkey from acting like the master it actually was on the Middle East most of the time when staying in the shadow.    

My position is Russia should be in the military aspect involved in protection of Syria at the request from Syria, as it would mean protection from terrorism, and it is much better to get protected from it in Syria than in Russia Tomislav Nikolic Serbia’s President

If Russia had not interfered with the situation in Syria, then Syria could face the history of the countries, which prior to it, did not have protection, did not have support. If it did not interfere, Syria now would be a country of the so-called Islamic State, which somebody in the world even could recognize.

You know, at the time where the Kosovo terrorism developed into establishment of a quasi-country, which some countries, both progressive and fundamentalist, began recognizing, I was confident time will come and some forces in the Islamic world will realize guns and weapons may be used to establish a state.

Ignoring international and humanitarian law, human rights, killing people, posing a huge danger to the world, protecting borders of some territories they created they enjoy someone’s support.

My position is Russia should be in the military aspect involved in protection of Syria at the request from Syria, as it would mean protection from terrorism, and it is much better to get protected from it in Syria than in Russia. This is a doctrine, which is used also by the U.S., as they travel the world to fight terrorism. It is a good doctrine but it is necessary to cooperate.

I believe, no matter who the organizer is, it is important to study pictures from space together, study maps together and pick targets together. They could even make joint flights – Russian and the U.S. bombers.

-  You have already partially answered my next question but still I would like to clarify this. After Russia introduced retaliatory sanctions against food exports from the EU the supplies of Serbian food products to our market increased. In your opinion - did Serbia fully use the opportunity to occupy its niche on the Russian market?

- I think that it did not use it in full. That’s because, as a result of privatization the food industry in Serbia ended up in the hands of foreigners expect for cultivation of fruits and vegetables. Our dairy industry is almost fully run by foreigners. So we need to explain it to our Russian partners, to prove that it our production, our milk. We still have problems there, and we will work on that with Russia.

Serbia was to become an agricultural country. But after the Second World War industrialization began. Now it should go back to working the land. I do not know whether Russia has this problem but we weaned our children from the village, our children go to cities, looking for a better life. Sometimes they can hardly make ends meet and do occasional jobs, even hard physical labor, but still they do not return to the village to their parents to cultivate land. Very often you can come across an 80-year-old man driving a 40-year-old tractor going to work the land. His son, daughter, daughter-in-law are all in town, although they could make more money in the village. Serbia needs to invest a lot more (in this sector). I think Russia should invest in Serbian food industry. Do you need 100,000 tonnes of meat? Then I invest, and you pay back with meat because I need it for our market, for our people. Here you can consider ways to invest in Serbian production.

Russian partners, large retail chains could invest directly in production of meat, production and processing of fruit. We won’t earn a lot by simply selling plums and apples. We can make more money on juices, fruit processed products. This is also a chance to bring our young people back to the village. They can even continue living in the city but work 5-10 km away from it. This is not Russia when you drive 500 kilometers to another city.

While we are on the subject of food I cannot help asking you about the national cuisine. We see more and more Serbian restaurants open in Russia. More and more Russian tourists come to Serbia. What food would you strongly recommend to our tourists to enjoy? What is your favorite Serbian dish?

It all depends on whether it is a home dinner or a restaurant dish. Because the food we usually eat at home we never eat at the restaurant. At home we eat different kinds of soup, beans, cabbage rolls, stuffed zucchini, mashed potatoes, and at the restaurant we eat meat - kebabs, cevapcici, pljeskavica. At a restaurant I would recommend you to taste Serbian beans and Leskovacka muckalica (Serbian grilled meat). But when you order it ask them to not to pepper it too much, if you are not used to eating spicy food. The Serbian cuisine is related to the Arabic cuisine and Turkish cuisine. But we do not have so much seasoning as they do in the East. Serbs eat healthy food, except for young housewives – as for them I don’t know if they know how to cook at all.

Interview by Maria Federova, TASS correspondent in Belgrade

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