"There is no doubt that in the last four years there have been significant steps forward in relations with Greece. The radical change of our complete political situation after 2000 opened many closed corridors of cooperation, which have now been activated and are constantly deepening. Greece, as far as the Balkans are concerned, has an important political and economic interest, and its approach is emphatically regional," explains Ambassador Batakovic, adding that "our traditional friendship with Greece, based on strong historical, cultural, religious and mentality experiences, now calls for new, deeper contexts, first of all in intensified economic and cultural cooperation".
DANAS: Regardless of the somewhat lengthy list of what has been done in recent years to further economic cooperation with Greece, many Serbian economists, citing results from past initiatives, claim that the Greek side is "flirting" more than it is demonstrating serious interest.
BATAKOVIC: From the Greek perspective the Balkans are the main market for its goods and its services, and a complimentary economic region where it can realize, and is already realizing, significant profits. Consequently, there should not be any sort of illusion that this is some sort of a fake initiative, even though certain obstructions, administrative and legal, which still exist on our side are somewhat discouraging potential investors. I think that there are more companies that want to invest than companies that just show up for information at gatherings like the one just concluded in Athens. In business the criteria are clear: no one wants to waste time at a business forum unless they really have a specific interest. Of course, now everything depends on the skill of Serbian and Greek companies in finding a common language and concluding mutually advantageous business arrangements. Also, we should not neglect the fact that Greece is the fourth economic partner of our country, after the U.S., Germany and Italy. The biggest breakthrough was made in the banking sector. The intent was to ensure a solid banking infrastructure that would enable a more secure presence for Greek business on our market.
Greek officials are not hiding how proud they are of their state plan for the renewal of the Balkans by spreading EU "grafts" in the region. How realistic is this?
The history of the Balkans is a history of missed opportunities and now is the time to gather all the negative experiences from the past and finally transcend the inherited models of irreconcilability, lack of confidence and rivalry. To understand that we are just a small region that is confronted with the challenges of globalization and that no one can succeed individually unless we show solidarity, unless we work closely together, unless we find a rational basis for the furthering of regional cooperation. The Balkans is a region that receives more than it exports, and in the brutal competition of globalization every one of the Balkan countries is too small to be able to bear the weight of the challenge on its own. Thus we need two kinds of association. One is broader and is called the EU, that is something indisputable, and the other is the interactive intensification of intra-Balkan cooperation. This was the dream of all educated intellectuals from all the Balkan countries throughout the entire 19th and 20t centuries. Now the ideological obstacles that slowed us down and divided us during the age of Communism no longer exist. Democratic governments have been established everywhere, which is the appropriate basis for a serious approach to the strengthening of regional association. The Greek plan for the reconstruction of the Balkans has yet to be activated, and the proposed projects and the budget for their realization are now being considered. The third opportunity, which we are also underutilizing, is the so-called "triangular cooperation" for which funds have been earmarked in the EU. Three countries from the region coming forward with a joint economic project, or project from some other domain, can obtain appropriate, very generous financial support from the EU for its realization, which subsequently benefits economic development in each of them. This approach needs to be adopted as soon as possible because available funds from the Union, by our standards, are practically inexhaustible.
Greece is currently helping us to jump aboard the European train. Keeping mind our economic and political situation, what are our chances of succeeding?
At the Thessaloniki summit in June 2003 the EU for the first time publicly called on the countries of the Western Balkans to join the Union and opened doors for them that had long been closed. According to the Copenhagen criteria, every "candidate" country must fulfill specific, strictly mandated conditions and we cannot expect very large concessions in this respect. It's like in football (soccer) where you have to get through the qualifiers in order to play in the European championship. Greece is always ready to offer its knowledge and experience as to what needs to be done and when, because timing is extremely important in such matters. From the Greek side there has always been relevant advice, warning and lobbying for our access to the EU. Whether we will be the pillar of the Western Balkans depends exclusively on us. It's a fact that all necessary preconditions exist. Serbia together with Montenegro represents a key crossroads of the whole region: roads, rivers, rail, air transportation, and in the near future, strategically important oil pipeline routes.
Greek prime minister Kostas Karamanlis recently spoke with UNMIK chief Soren Jessen-Petersen regarding Kosovo and Metohija, and with Serbian president Boris Tadic within a period of two days. Has Greece offered concrete services in resolving the Kosovo problem?
From this year onward Greece is a rotating member of the Security Council and together with Denmark as a European member of the Security Council it participates in the work of the Contact Group through a consultative commission for cooperation. In this role Greece is seeking to proffer its own contribution to the finding of a solution for Kosovo, of course, in the interest of comprehensive regional stability. There have already been specific initiatives but all this is still in the initial phase. We expect that Greece, as a country with experience in resolving painful interethnic problems and with its current political capacities and reputation, will be able to tangibly assist in this process both in Brussels and in Washington. We are understandably open to such cooperation. There is no doubt that the issue of the status of Kosovo is open and that the process of its resolution is speeding up dramatically. The definition of future status may not occur this year but it is almost a certainty that it will be resolved no later than 2006. In Kosovo we have inherited a difficult, almost impossible situation framed by what Milosevic accepted after the NATO bombing and further defined by UN Security Council Resolution 1244 and the Kumanovo Agreement. Our earlier efforts through the special representatives of the UN, i.e. the de facto administrators of Kosovo, have not yielded appropriate results with the exception of one good agreement with Haekkerup, which, unfortunately, was never implemented in practice. In the meanwhile, the situation on the ground has deteriorated dramatically. All this has contributed to the formation of the erroneous conception in international circles that without an urgent resolution of status there is no way out of the present blockade.
Even though the goals of the UN Mission in Kosovo as proclaimed in UNSC Res. 1244 are nowhere near being realized, an exit strategy is now in effect. Competencies are gradually being transferred from international institutions administering Kosovo and Metohija to Kosovo provisional institutions which are completely controlled by Albanians. The Serb boycott of the most recent Kosovo parliamentary elections was a great failure for the international community. Without a multicultural dimension and interethnic cooperation, the present Kosovo government does not have the necessary legitimacy, although its primary weakness is that prime minister Haradinaj's name will likely as not soon be found on a Hague tribunal indictment for war crimes. All this further complicates finding a solution that would satisfy the protection of legitimate Serbian interests in the Province. Consequently, it is extremely important that we do not boycott process of resolving the status of Kosovo once it starts. That we are actively involved in it and that through strong diplomatic and political initiative we give our contribution to adequately protect our interests, that we find support for a long-term compromise in negotiations with Pristina. With small and recent exceptions, in Kosovo there has not been an active, strategically conceived and harmonized Serbian policy for the past 15 years. Now is the moment to reenergize it with new, realistic and sustainable initiatives.
What is Belgrade's role in this "exit strategy"?
We always insist on the fact that a solution must be found in Kosovo that takes into account both Albanian and Serb interests, as well as presuming both the participation and the full acquiescence of Belgrade. The independence of Kosovo for us is absolutely unacceptable because it would mean the de facto division of Serbia and would set a dangerous precedent with enormous consequences for every place where there are unresolved interethnic problems from the Basque Country to Abkhazia.˙Therefore the formula more than autonomy but less than independence is a realistic framework within which a mutually acceptable solution should be sought. Because no one must be defeated in Kosovo, each of the negotiating sides needs to put forward reasonable concessions. Changing the borders in the region over the long term would represent a danger to the entire stability of the Balkans and only encourage nationalists because it would represent a solution that imperils the entire balance of national interests. However, despite all this, with regard to the aforementioned exit strategy, we should not underestimate the most recent report of the International Crisis Group, either, considering that it was recently joined by Chris Patten, one of the leading European politicians and, until recently, the EU commissioner for foreign policy. We should take into account all the views of the international community - because Kosovo is already partially excluded from Serbian territory by Resolution 1244 and the Kumanovo agreement - in order to plan our future political steps well. Above all, we need to remain a part of the process and to influence substantial decentralization, further protection of our religious and cultural heritage, and the creation of realistic possibilities for the return of displaced persons. Even though our position is that it makes sense to open the issue of status only after the issues I mentioned are resolved, we should not harbor illusions that the process will unfold according to this course. That is why we need an alternative strategy for which the most important of preconditions is that the authorities in Belgrade begin speaking with one voice.
Does this mean that the international community does not accept the Serbian Government Plan on which the Belgrade government is insisting?
It's obvious that, for now, the international community is not disposed to accept it in its entirety. That is why it is very important that its most important provisions are added to the future decentralization model so that we can effectively protect our seriously endangered people in Kosovo. Because we are not asking for an internal ethnic delimitation but only self-government according to cultural and linguistic criteria in order to preserve endangered identities and significant cultural heritage. And these are fundamental European values.
Do you think that's realistic?
It is realistic for us to actively participate in the process. What the outcome will be will also depend on our political and diplomatic skills. If we have two or three policies toward Kosovo, if we continue to use the Kosovo issue for internal political matters, then we should not be surprised that the international community will chose from among the spectrum of various approaches coming from Belgrade the solution that it likes the best, not the one we consider to be optimal.
There is a fear that Kosovo and Metohija may pay the price for Belgrade's cooperation with the Hague tribunal, future Euro-Atlantic integrations, and entrance to the EU.
Cooperation with the Hague tribunal is the mother of all preconditions. It's no secret what Serbia thinks of this tribunal. However, it is an international responsibility that cannot be circumvented. The sooner this cooperation is again intensified our negotiating position in resolving the Kosovo problem will be significantly strengthened. I would not like us to find ourselves in the position, for example, where Haradinaj will voluntarily go to The Hague in the near future, and cooperation [of the Hague Tribunal] with Belgrade is still not considered to be adequate. Such a development would only serve to further weaken our position in resolving the Kosovo problem.
Since his four-year mandate expires this year, Batakovic will remain in Athens until the end of June, when he will be replaced in his position by Ljiljana Bacevic, who recently received the agreement of the Greek government. Upon his return to Belgrade, Dusan T. Batakovic will be appointed [President] Tadic's diplomatic advisor for foreign policy and Kosovo and Metohija, issues that he has focused on for the past quarter of a century.