Less than a year after taking office, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic paid a state visit to Israel earlier this week. The 61-year old statesman, who defeated incumbent Boris Tadic in May 2012, has been a key political figure and parliamentarian in the region for more than two decades.
A tall and impeccably courteous man, Nikolic spent much of his career as a senior leader of the Serbian Radical Party before resigning in 2008 and launching the Serbian Progressive Party. Since assuming power, he has unwaveringly guided Serbia toward joining the European Union and tackling the country's moribund economy. Last month, he signed an agreement in Brussels that was brokered by the EU which aims to normalize relations with the breakaway region of Kosovo.
Last week, on the eve of his visit to the Jewish state, Nikolic granted an exclusive and wide-ranging interview to The Jerusalem Post at the presidential compound in Belgrade.
Mr. President, why are you visiting Israel and what is the current state of Israeli-Serbian relations?
I received the invitation to visit Israel a long time ago and I was always ready to go. But the Israeli side has a limited number of state visits per year. Once it became possible I said that I am going. We have excellent relations with Israel. Serbia is in a very complex position concerning the issue with Israel and the Palestinians because we have friendly feelings toward both, and that is why this conflict hurts us very much.
Do you see any similarities between the historical experience of Serbs and Jews?
Of course there are many historical parallels between Serbians and Jewish people, particularly concerning attempts by others to conquer us and deny us the right to our own country. Throughout history, just like the Jews, we were always, so to say, jeopardized under some kind of occupation. When we got rid of the Ottoman Turks, the Austro-Hungarian empire came here. Then the Germans attacked us in World War I and World War II.
During the Second World War, the Germans and their Croatian allies targeted Serbs and Jews, as well as the Roma. Just like the Jews, we were uprooted a lot, though the Jews were of course sent thousands of kilometers away while we were only 100 or 200 km. away from our land. For example, Serbs that were expelled from Croatia still cannot get back their property or have their rights there respected. And Serbs were also persecuted and exiled from Kosovo. So there are similarities to be found between our two peoples. You have a saying, "Next year in Jerusalem." For some of our people it is "Next year in Kosovo."
Your government recently signed an agreement in Brussels aimed at normalizing relations with Kosovo.
As a nationally-oriented Serbian leader, why would you do so? We faced a dilemma regarding whether to be in a permanent conflict with the Albanians or to resolve this issue. We did not have too much power in our hands. We did have good arguments and justice on our side, but the international media supports the Albanians very openly. Over the years, our people were forced to leave Kosovo and if this was allowed to continue, we might wake up one day to find out that we have no more of our people there.
That is why we have decided to raise the negotiations to the highest possible level and not to take off this territory that is Kosovo that is not fully under the power of Serbia anymore. In the same way we said to the Albanians there is no way to take Kosovo territory that is not under your power, and that is the northern part with the Serbian community. We ask for certain rights for this community. And now we are not waging war, we are negotiating.
Was it difficult for you to take this stance?
For every normal person this would be a very difficult thing to do. I have constitutional limits – because Serbia is recognized as a country which includes Kosovo.
But the EU and US not only recognize the independence of Kosovo and promote it, they also exert pressure on other countries to do the same. And they implement it on the ground. They say that Kosovo is a country which they have recognized, and which has the right to spread its power throughout the territory.
There are five countries in the EU that do not recognize the independence of Kosovo but huge pressure is being exerted on them, and some of them are in financial difficulties. But I think that just as those countries can be members of the European Union even though they do not recognize the independence of Kosovo, then Serbia too can become a member of the EU even though it does not recognize Kosovo.
Don't you fear that you are opening the door to eventual Kosovar independence?
One could say that with the acceptance of these negotiations, perhaps we ourselves are participating a little bit. On the one hand, I truly want this agreement.
But on the other hand, Serbia cannot feel humiliated.
I had to write a letter to the presidents of various countries to explain to them that these negotiations do not represent recognition of the independence of Kosovo.
We know that Serbia will be exposed to terrible pressure to recognize [Kosovo], but it will never do so, and without the consent of Serbia, Kosovo will not be a state. The pressure on us is of an economic nature. Of course the EU will say that if we recognize Kosovo, our children will have a much better future. But we cannot do so. It is not about nationalism and it is not about hatred. It is about love – love for our own people, our own country.
How did your critics respond?
Even during the negotiation period, we were denounced as traitors. Those who declared us traitors were also in power but they did nothing. Some critics wrote that we surrendered Kosovo and asked us sarcastically, "why didn't you at least sell it?" But we are neither surrendering it nor selling it.
The fact is that we secured much more rights for the Serbian community in Kosovo than they had up to now.
And the army of Kosovo cannot come to this territory of the north, where the Serbian population lives, for a period of 10 years. And they will manage their own income and revenues, health system, education and planning.
By recognizing Kosovo, which was part of sovereign Serbia, as an independent country, aren't Western nations setting a dangerous precedent and encouraging various secessionist movements across Europe?
We warned the West of this possibility and we pointed to more than 100 examples of such movements around the world. It is easy to break Serbia with the use of force, but what are you going to do if the whole European civilization starts to break apart? Or if multicultural countries begin to split along ethnic lines? In the draft resolution in which I secured rights for the Serbian community, I said about many solutions that those are "Catalonia solutions" and then Spain reacted and said, "why are you mentioning Catalonia?" If the Albanian army would go to the north of Kosovo, we could defeat them and stay in Kosovo, but then bombs would start being dropped on Belgrade.
That is why I'm really trying to avoid any sort of conflict.
In the past 20 or so years, too many people died because of war.
Last year, the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) in The Hague overturned the convictions of two Croatian war criminals on what appeared to have been a technicality, and they returned home to a hero's welcome in Zagreb. Do you think the ICTY has been fair in its handling of the cases it has dealt with?
We do not ask anyone to favor us at the cost of other people. But I will give you one piece of data.
Serbia extradited 46 defendants, including two former presidents, various government ministers, three army chiefs of staff and several police and army generals, including the director of our intelligence service.
The court imposed punishments amounting to more than 1,150 years of jail on Serbs, while all those who committed crimes against Serbs received a total of just 50 years.
More than 300,000 Serbs were persecuted and forced to leave Croatia, and they have still not been allowed to return there, and Croatia is now about to enter the EU. Someone has to be guilty – who is guilty? It is impossible that such a huge crime happened and no one is guilty.
When those two generals were acquitted, there was national euphoria in Croatia and no one said a bad word to Croatia about that. Croatia celebrated the fact that no one was sentenced for the crimes.
So what is the nature of your relations with Croatia today?
We are trying to establish normal relations. We did not prevent Croatia in any way from entering the EU. We did not raise the issue of Serbian property in Croatia although we could have done so. I think it is not a nice thing to prevent someone from doing something if they want to become better, and I wish them all the best. But the bitter taste remains in the mouth and there are thousands and thousands of people who have their property and houses there and they have to live here as refugees.
Iran is moving closer to obtaining nuclear weapons and Iranian leaders speak openly about wiping Israel off the map. Do you think sanctions will be enough to deter the ayatollahs?
Serbia has friendly relations with Iran, and Iran did not recognize the independence of Kosovo. But I think that Iran will continue with their program.
I don't see the wish there to stop with their program even when they are being advised to do so by their friends.
But I say to you now, if Serbia had an atomic bomb, I would bring it to the UN and ask them to take it. I would be afraid of having such a weapon; it is a bit like taking God's power into your hands, and I don't think any man can bear this. But when I speak of Iran, I also speak of Russia, of the US, of everyone who has an atomic bomb. To have the ability to destroy the world – it is a frightening possibility, one where everyone is afraid of everyone, and then they make more and more weapons. Serbia does not participate in this and I pray to God that no one uses the weapons that they have.
How big a threat does terrorism pose to the world?
Terrorism is going to be the world's No. 1 problem in the future. And you know quite well who is exporting this problem and where it comes from.
A few weeks ago, anti-Semitic posters were put up in the center of Belgrade blaming the Jews for the 1999 NATO bombing campaign. What practical steps is your government taking to combat the hatred of Jews?
There is no systematic anti-Semitism in Serbia.
The Jewish community in Belgrade is small, but all these years we have been living together in peace.
In December, I was invited to the synagogue for Hanukka, where I took part in the celebration and lit the candles. We have had important and wellknown Jewish writers and artists whose works were enjoyed throughout Serbia. Even in the time of Yugoslavia, which sided more with the Arab world in the conflict with Israel, you did not feel anti- Semitism among people.
What do you most admire about Israel?
Today, our relations with Israel are excellent. We have a lot to learn from Israel – not only how to love one's country, but how to create earth out of sand, how to develop hi-tech, how to feed your people.
Finally – a philosophical question. In Jewish tradition, we are commanded to remember the past: "Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations: ask your father, and he will show you; your elders, and they will tell you" (Deuteronomy 32:7). What role do you think historical memory should play in shaping global events?
History is the teacher of time. We base almost everything we do on the past centuries of Serbia's history. If every statesman in the world would stop and pause before addressing a problem and try to resolve it based on the experience of the past, perhaps everything would be better.