Exclusive interview with Serbia Prime Minister Ivica Dacic: ‘We haven’t had stability in the Balkans for 100 years – but now we have the same goal, joining the EU’

In an exclusive interview, the Prime Minister of Serbia – and former Milosevic aide – Ivica Dacic tells Andrew MacDowall how his country is embracing the European dream

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.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there