Tomislav Nikolic: Serbia won't align with East or West

Tensions between Moscow and the West have reached new heights. Not since the end of the Soviet Union has the division between the two sides been so apparent. Many talk of a new cold war. 

NATO is moving into Russia’s backyard and Moscow isn’t happy.

When NATO just made Polish-based parts of a European missile shield operational, Russia announced the deployment of long and short-range missiles to Kaliningrad, close to the border with Poland.

And Russia’s annexation of Crimea led to wide-ranging sanctions from the European Union. 

One country is now finding itself squarely in the middle of all this: Serbia.

It continues to push for membership in the EU and has taken part in NATO military exercises, but at the same time, it has long and strong historical ties with Russia, making it unclear where Serbia will go if it has to choose sides.

Belgrade has also found itself caught up in the Syrian conflict with serious allegations that the weapons it sells are ending up in the wrong hands on the battlefield.

The conflict is not just dividing the West and Russia, it also led to a refugee crisis that is threatening European unity and has drawn in Serbia.

We discuss all this with Tomislav Nikolic, the president of Serbia, on Talk to Al Jazeera

We speak to Nikolic about the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network’s claims to have found evidence of a new arms pipeline which goes from the Balkans directly to the Arabian Peninsula and countries neighbouring Syria.

According to the claims, these weapons end up in Syria and in the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, which is also known as ISIS), which, if true, could be a violation of international law.

“Serbia produces light weapons and exports them to several countries in the world,” Nikolic says. “But all of this is done under the control of the UN. There is a UN commission that determines the end users, the countries you are allowed to sell arms to, and these are never insecure countries, unstable countries.”

According to Nikolic “Serbia has never participated in any type of arms trade prohibited by the UN.” It’s up to the UN, he says, “to control how these weapons from legitimate buyers end up in the hands of illegal ones, and to take those legal end users off the list of legitimate buyers.”

Serbia faces tough political and possibly military choices going forward.

It applied for membership in the European Union 16 years ago, held up by EU demands that the country recognise Kosovo, which it refuses to do, and it’s backed in that position by Russia, a country with whom it has deep historical, cultural and religious ties. 

We ask the president whether Serbia, at the crossroads of East and West, would ever look to one more than the other.

“Serbia lives in unity with both the East and the West … Serbia wants to become a member of the European Union. In that regard, it could be said that it cooperates more with the West because it fulfils the requirements that the EU has for each new member … But at the same time, we have great friendships in the East, close relationship, historical, religious, linguistic connection by origin with the Russian Federation,” he says.

Asked why, in seeking EU membership, Serbia does not join NATO, Nikolic says, “NATO is a different story. We were attacked and bombed by NATO in 1999 for no reason. That had enormous consequences, not only for our economy, but also on the attitude of our citizens towards NATO. I am convinced that I speak for the majority of citizens when I say that Serbia will never be in NATO.”

This year, Serbia has held over 100 military exercises with NATO member states, says Nikolic, and two with Russia; however, he maintains that this should not be construed as where Serbia’s alliances are at.

“We belong to ourselves,” he says.

Nikolic calls Russia’s intervention into the Syrian conflict a “turning point”, saying that “until then, there hadn’t been a sincere fight against the so-called Islamic State, which is the greatest evil the world is facing. After that, everyone sobered up a bit, came to their senses and seriously started putting an end to it.”

On the issue of refugees and migrants, for which Serbia’s role has been commended by the EU, Nikolic says, “We treat these ‘new’ refugees with absolute humanity, and we share with them as much as we have.” Yet, he says EU support for their efforts is not sufficient and if northern Europe closes its borders, they would too.

“Serbia can’t become a ‘funnel’ into which migrants are pouring in but not coming out. This would cause great distress,” he says.

Nikolic says Serbia is not viewed by refugees as a destination, but that in talks with Brussels, “we said we could accommodate up to 6,000 refugees until some solution was found”.

On why Serbia wants to join the EU, Nikolic says: “It [the EU] is an organised family of nations. There is a single market which means that investors can freely come to your country and that your country is recognised as an orderly and stable country.”

He continues: “There are two conditions Serbia will not meet even if that means it will not become an EU member. The first one is to recognise the independence of Kosovo and Metohija. We will never do that. The second one is to have a quarrel with countries that the EU quarrels with. Here, I primarily refer to the sanctions against the Russian Federation or any other sanctions the EU many impose.”

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Source: Al Jazeera