The Balkans have the chance of peace and stability for the first time in more than 100 years, and Serbia, a pariah a decade ago, can be at the heart of this transformation, the country’s Prime Minister, Ivica Dacic, told The Independent yesterday.
The former spokesman for strongman Slobodan Milosevic rose to prominence in the early 1990s as Serbia became embroiled in wars in Croatia and Bosnia, in which the country was widely seen – correctly or otherwise – as the main protagonist behind conflict and ethnic cleansing. Mr Dacic heads the Socialist Party once run by Milosevic.
But today Mr Dacic is leader of a resurgent country which began EU membership talks last month, and hopes to join the bloc in 2020.
As he braces for elections in March and a battle to hold on to his premiership, Mr Dacic is keen to project a message of peace for his battle-scarred region – just before the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, which was triggered by a shot fired by an ethnic Serb in Sarajevo, Bosnia.
“Unfortunately, looking back 100 years, and even further, I don’t think we ever had stability established [in the Balkans],” Mr Dacic said as a burly aide lit one of his cigars in the somewhat shabby surrounds of Serbia’s Belgravia embassy.
“For this reason, I think it’s good that the countries in the region have the same goal – membership of the EU.”
He said Serbia had transformed its image abroad and could be “a factor for stability and peace within the region”.
Only two of the seven successor states to the former Yugoslavia have joined the EU: tiny Slovenia, which was almost untouched by war, and Croatia, which became a full member last July. Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania are even further from the EU than Serbia, which faces years of difficult and unpopular judicial, economic and political reform.
Progress will also have to be made on Serbia’s troubled relationship with Kosovo, which Belgrade regards as a renegade breakaway state.
Last April, Mr Dacic signed an EU-brokered deal with Kosovo, effectively ceding control of the region to the Kosovan authorities in Pristina, but stopping well short of recognition, which is also blocked at UN level by Russia.
“Opening EU accession talks is a historic moment for Serbia, because in this way our path for next 15 to 20 years has been determined. It is our agenda to be ready and to become a full-fledged member of the EU by 2020.”
EU membership is generally thought to be unlikely without further compromise on Kosovo, probably de facto recognition of independence. Mr Dacic – who was born in Kosovo – refuses to rule out full recognition, but says that “we doubt any change in our standpoint”. He argues that the talks in Brussels are not directly related to Kosovo’s status.
Ethnic Serbs in north Kosovo continue to shun Pristina’s institutions and regard their region as part of Serbia.
“A final and long-lasting solution to the Kosovo issue, cannot be achieved without an agreement with Serbia, especially in regard to the UN,” says Mr Dacic. “For this reason it is very important for the dialogue to continue. Up until now we have not had any requirements of recognition of Kosovo in return for our membership.”
Belgrade also has troubled relations with Croatia. Each country as filed claims of genocide against the other at the International Court of Justice. Some EU members continue to regard Serbia with suspicion but, broadly, its international relations are improving. It is strengthening ties with Russia and China as well as Brussels and Washington.
Investment such as a €1bn Fiat plant in central Serbia point to the economic potential for a country with low costs close to the heart of Europe. Mr Dacic points out that the average monthly salary is just over €400 (£330).
Whether Mr Dacic will continue to preside over the country’s resurgence remains to be seen. He will need all his famous tenacity and political nous if he is to remain in office. He faces a strong challenge from his Deputy, Aleksandar Vucic, whose party looks set to sweep the polls.
Mr Dacic is not universally popular in Serbia. Both he and his party failed to win more than 15 per cent of the vote in 2012 elections. But he became Prime Minister in the new government, largely staffed by a conservative party headed by former ultra-nationalists, and held on to his post as Interior Minister, a position which wields considerable power.
Critics say the government – and Mr Dacic’s Interior Ministry – remain instinctively authoritarian.
Media freedom is a bone of contention, with Freedom House remarking in a 2012 report that, while legislative reforms have been made, on the ground, “the media environment remains constrained by political pressures, pervasive corruption, a climate of impunity, regulatory setbacks, and economic difficulties”. Few feel the situation has improved.
Has Milosevic’s poacher really turned liberal-democratic gamekeeper? At this question, the previously languid Mr Dacic becomes more animated and intense, leaning forward and making sustained eye contact for the first time.
“The time of Milosevic has long passed. The policy of the party of today is based on totally different grounds. We have a pro-European programme. The fact we were the leaders of this change and those who introduced and helped Serbia enter the EU, speaks of this change.”