Ivan Angelovski of the Belgrade weekly NIN did
this excessively long interview with me last week. I gather it was
published yesterday or today:
HOW DO YOU SEE THE WORLD IN 2018? WHAT ARE THE
The world is in bad shape in 2018. The big issues
confronting the United States have to do with North Korea and Iran
but apart from the success against Daesh in Iraq and in Syria there
isn’t a lot of good news for the United States. There’s a lot of
concern I think in Washington and beyond that the president is
weakening the United States internationally rather than
North Korea and Iran are the key hotspots in the
near term. In the longer term we face a big adjustment to Chinese
power, especially in the Pacific but also elsewhere in the world. We
obviously face some challenge from Russia as well, but I think it’s
a very different challenge. Putin is looking large today but when
his bubble bursts he will not look all that large. In the meanwhile
we face real challenges, especially from their expertise on the
There are lots of other challenges. Challenges in
Africa and the Middle East especially in Yemen and Libya. The world
is not in good shape.
HOW DO YOU EXPECT THE NORTH KOREA ISSUE TO UNFOLD?
Deterrence has worked and it probably will
continue to work. It’s very clear why Kim Jong-Un wants nuclear
weapons. It’s for regime preservation.That’s quite
rational.Attacking the United States unprovoked with nuclear weapons
would be an obvious and serious error because we would respond. But
by the same token an American attack on North Korea would be a
serious mistake because they can respond not only with nuclear
weapons but also with conventional artillery against Seoul and kill
hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. So what options do
we have? The main one is to sit down and negotiate with the North
YOU DIDN’T MENTION THE ISSUE OF JERUSALEM?
The issue of Jerusalem is a self-imposed wound by
the United States. There is no issue with Jerusalem that has to be
solved tomorrow. There are many other issues that have to be solved
between the Israelis and the Palestinians first. The president chose
to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem in order to satisfy domestic
constituencies, apparently without any serious thought being given
to the international repercussions. Why would he do that? Because
the Christian evangelicals and a limited number of his big donors
wanted it. I also think that he had come to understand that his
peace initiative was going no place so he wasn’t ruining anything by
doing this, at least in his mind. That said it would have been very
easy to do this in a way that was palatable to the Palestinians and
to the Arabs had he added a sentence to the decision that said “I
look forward to the day when there will also be a capital of
Palestine in Jerusalem”. Arabs and Palestinians would have
applauded, everybody in the world would have been happy with the
addition of one senstence. It’s very telling that he didn’t end that
sentence. He’s completely hard over on the Israeli side. Not just on
the Israeli side but on the Netanyahu side of this dispute.
Netanyahu doesn’t want a Palestinian state and certainly not now.
Trump committed an own-goal. It’s just fantastic that a hundred and
twenty-eight countries voted against us in the General Assembly.
What more evidence do you need that this guy is weakening the United
USA NEVER LOOKED MORE ALONE THAN TODAY.
It’s not surprising. This is a guy who puts
America first, who’s criticized our closest allies, at this point I
don’t think he can even visit Germany or maybe even London. I think
the demonstrations in London against him would be truly massive.They
know that and that’s why they’re not scheduling that visit. But
Germany feels the same way. He is intentionally alienating our
closest allies. The negotiations with Mexico and Canada over the
North American Free Trade Agreement are going badly, he’s made the
South Koreans very nervous.The Japanese seem to get on ok with him
because their inclination is to move in the direction of doing more
on defense.Trump wants that so I think there there’s a meeting of
the minds, the Saudis obviously like him, the Emiratis like him, but
everybody else in the Middle East is pretty grumpy about him,
including even Sisi, who Trump declared his best friend.
One problem that isn’t so visible abroad is if
that the Americans are having trouble speaking with one voice. You
hear very different things out of the National Security Council, out
of the president, the State Department and the Defense
Department.That alone causes nervousness around the world and makes
people hedge against the possibility that what the president said
yesterday isn’t going to be true tomorrow.That’s a big problem.
USA ALWAYS HAD DIFFERENT VOICES FROM THE CONGRESS
AND THE ADMINISTRATION IN THE WHITE HOUSE, BUT NOW IT SEEMS THERE
ARE DIFFERENT VOICES IN THE ADMINISTRATION ITSELF
You don’t usually have six or seven voices coming
out of Washington. There’s a big deterioration in mental and verbal
discipline. ThePresident himself is not mentally or verbally
disciplined, he doesn’t say the same thing from one day to another,
so why should anybody else be disciplined if he isn’t?
TO WHAT DO YOU CREDIT THIS?
His lack of education and bullheadedness are
important factors. He simply did not get a good education. I don’t
care if he went to Wharton.He doesn’t show much more than a
sixth-grade education. He doesn’t read much, he doesn’t learn
easily, he learns from things that affect him personally but not
from things people tell him about something else. He has made a
career of lying – he lies about his real estate projects, he lies
about how much money he has, he’s unreliable in paying his
contractors. He has gotten away with it. So why would you expect him
to be different at over 70? He enjoyed success for 50 years by
YOU WROTE SOMEWHERE THAT HE WAS LESS REALISTIC
ABOUT RUSSIA IN HIS NATIONAL SECURITY STRATEGY?
On Russia the president is simply way beyond where
anybody else is in Washington, except for a few crackpots. Russia
clearly interfered in the US election, the president still doesn’t
accept that. He must know it’s true, so if he doesn’t accept it I
have to assume he has good reasons for not accepting it. I
personally believe that those reasons are not political, that they
are financial, that there’s a lot of Russian money in Kushner and
Trump real estate properties and that he’s terribly frightened that
they’ll yank the money.
He always says he has no projects in Russia.That’s
true, he has no projects in Russia, he just has a lot of
Russian-owned apartments in the United States. And those Russians
are not just ordinary Russians buying multi-million dollar
apartments. They are people who are are recycling ill gotten gains.
It’s quite clear that the Trump Organization never did the due
diligence required by American law. You cannot, as an American
businessman, accept investments from a corrupt practice abroad. It’s
prohibited and American companies spend a lot of money and a lot of
time doing due diligence. But if you’ve read the description of the
Trump investment in Azerbaijan for example, it’s absolutely clear
that no due diligence was done. They withdrew from the project in
the end because they realized it was supported by the Iranian
Revolutionary Guard. I mean how stupid can you be to get involved in
the project supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which is
designated I believe as a terrorist organization?
It was a dumb thing to do, but I think they’ve
done a lot of dumber things and Mr. Muller will be finding those
DO YOU THINK WE’RE GOING TO WITNESS TRUMP’S SECOND
Yes I do. Removal of the president can only be
done in two ways. One is impeachment in the house and trial in the
Senate. Republicans control both houses at the moment and it’s quite
clear that nothing will happen on impeachment before next November,
unless some dramatic development happens. Impeachment has never been
The other way of removing the president has never
been used, and that is use of 25th amendment to declare the
president unable to fulfill the functions. That’s done by the vice
president with the support of the cabinet and has to be confirmed in
the Congress. It is a much simpler process that has timelines
attached to it, so it doesn’t last for months. I think it’s
perfectly obvious that this man is unable to fulfill the functions
of president. But it doesn’t matter what I think, it matters with
the vice president and the majority of the cabinet thinks. They
clearly are not there yet, though some think they may have thought
When you see the idiocy of vice-president Pence
sitting there in a cabinet meeting heaping praise on the president
like somebody sitting in front of Stalin fearing for his life, or in
front of Kim Jong-un for that matter, and heaping praise in order to
stem off any unhappy consequences, when you see that happening, I
think it’s partly because the president fears Pence and wants Pence
to bow down and kiss his feet. Trump is afraid that Pence might go
along with an the twenty-fifth amendment. I don’t know Pence, I’m
not sure that that’s true, but I know enough about Trump to know
that that’s something he would fear.
THE HAGUE TRIBUNAL JUST CLOSED. YOU SAID SOMEWHERE
THAT IT SERVED IT’S PURPOSE.
I think it served one purpose and not another. The
purpose it served was to capture all of the indictees and to get
them out of the countries in which they might have caused additional
difficulties. If Milosevic had stayed in Serbia with Djindjic in
power, that would have been a very messy affair and even worse if
Serbia had tried to conduct the trial inside Serbia. It would have
been a complete mess. I feel the same way about Haradinaj, even
though he was not convicted, the same way about Naser Orić, Šešelj,
Gotovina, all of them could have been difficult political factors in
their home countries. Had Karadzic and Mladic not disappeared, it
would have made politics very messy.
But the trials are messy as well because they’re
adversarial, in a tradition of Western jurisprudence that is not
entirely well accepted in the Balkans. They are difficult because
people in the Balkans had strong sympathies with some of the people
who are on trial, so they’re always disappointed. The reaction to
the trials has not been one of reconciliation but of division. Serbs
resent the fact that more Serbs than anybody else were convicted.
Albanians don’t think all the Serbs who should have been convicted
have been convicted and want to see the current chief of staff sent
to the Hague. Bosniaks and Croats in Bosnia are disappointed that
one or the other wasn’t held more responsible. So the trials
themselves and their impact in the Balkans was not great. They
haven’t promoted reconciliation in any serious way.
HOW DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHEN SERBIAN JUSTICE
MINISTER VISITS MLADIC, OR WHEN PRALJAK GETS HERO’S COMMEMORATION IN
I dislike it. But politics is politics and
politicians have to play the game.
None of these people are heroes, none of them.
I’ll tell you my kind of hero: my kind of hero is Jovan Divjak. He’s
a Serb who remained in Bosnia and fought for his country. He’s the
one who was in command of the Bosnian forces when they fired on the
Serb forces being withdrawn from the Serbian headquarters in
Sarajevo.There is film of him getting up on a truck and yelling at
the Bosnian soldiers to stop firing. He’s still wanted by Belgrade.
He can’t even travel in Republika Srpska. He established an NGO
during the war that helps Bosnian war orphans and he now devotes his
whole life to the care of orphans. That’s my kind of hero.
ATLANTIC COUNCIL’S REPORT ON THE BALKANS MADE
QUITE A STIR IN THE BALKANS. A LOT OF PEOPLE THINK OF IT AS A
PREPARATION FOR FUTURE US DECISIONS IN THE REGION. YOU DON’T THINK
THAT’S THE CASE?
No I don’t. The Council on Foreign Relations
report also created a little stir. The fundamental point of both
reports is that the US should pay more attention to the Balkans. I
haven’t seen that happening and I doubt it is going to happen. I
think we should pay some more attention, but these people in the
White House have too much on their hands, some of it self-created
problems. They are preocupied with other things right now.
YES, BUT WITH HOYT YEE’S ENGAGEMENT IN MACEDONIA
CRISIS, WITH HOW THINGS UNFOLDED WITH MONTENEGRO COUP, WITH PENCE’S
VISIT TO MONTENEGRO, VUCIC VISIT TO PENCE…
Those are good things. I think Hoyt did very well
in Macedonia, I think Pence did very well in Montenegro, but you
know a couple of visits don’t make a policy. The US is preoccupied
with a lot of other things. Either a special envoy or delegation to
Pence of Balkan issues would satisfy me. But I’m told that a formal
delegation of authority to Pence with a mandate to solve the issues
that still plagued the Balkans is unlikely. The key issues are
Serbia-Kosovo normaliatiozn, Macedonia’s entry into NATO, Bosnia’s
constitutional reform, along with the Russian interference in the
region. I don’t think the US should be involved more deeply in lots
of other things. I think those are the main issues and formal
delegation of those to Pence would make an enormous difference, but
I don’t see that happening, and I don’t see a special envoy
happening. So we’ll muddle through with hope that whoever replaces
Hoyt is as clever and knowledgeable about the Balkans as Hoyt is.
YOU DON’T SEE HOYT YEE STAYING IN HIS POSITION?
He’s been there I think three years. Foreign
service officers usually rotate after three years. Most he might get
in addition is probably a year.
YOU DON’T EXPECT AMERICA GETTING MORE INVOLVED IN
The Kosovars want it, and I think the Americans
might be willing, but Vučić is threatening to bring in the Russians.
I don’t think that’s very wise since the Russians support the
independence of South Ossetia Abkhazia, Transnistria, Crimea, maybe
even Donbass. Russia is not a principled actor. Serbia relying on
the Russians would be a big mistake.
The fact is that the Americans are virtually
present in those negotiations because everybody keeps them
well-informed, so I don’t really think that there’s a need for an
American presence in the room at all times.
The main concern for the United States should be
the normalization. By normalization I mean entry into the UN and
exchange of ambassador or level representatives. I don’t think we
should worry about whatever the Belgrade-Prishtina dialogue is
talking about now on border posts or telecommunications, energy
cooperation, all of that is well handled by the EU.That’s not what
the United States should worry about. We should worry about the big,
political and diplomatic heavy lifting.
THAT’S HOW YOU DEFINE NORMALIZATION – A SEAT FOR
KOSOVO IN UN AND EXCHANGE OF AMBASSADORS?
Yes. There has to be acceptance of the sovereignty
and territorial integrity of Kosovo. That’s what’s missing today.
DO YOU EXPECT THAT HAPPENING IN 2018?
I don’t expect it in 2018 but I think it could be
done in 2018 if Serbia decides that is what it wants. Why would it
want that? It would want that because it’s a mistake to leave it
until just before accession into the EU: then Belgrade will get
nothing for it. Just before accession, you just have to do whatever
the EU tells you to do. What could Serbia get for it now, I’m not
sure. It might get something on the Kosovo army question because
otherwise the Kosovars will go ahead and form this army whether
Serbia likes it or not.
I think Serbia is much better off settling
normalization sooner rather then later.
BUT IF SERBIA GIVES UP WHATEVER LEVERAGE IT HAS SO
SOON, SHE’LL BE LEFT WITH NOTHING ELSE AT THE END OF THE TALKS.
It doesn’t need leverage at the end of the talks.
It will have to give up everything anyway. What did Slovenia and
Croatia do at the end of the talks? They gave up everything because
that’s what you have to do to get into the EU.
YES, BUT IN THE MEANTIME YOU CAN USE KOSOVO FOR
That is what politicians naturally do, and that’s
what’s happening. I just think it’s unwise. It’d be better to get
something of it now and get rid of it as an issue at the end.
But I’m a guy who looks at it from Washington. I
don’t have to be elected. I don’t have to go explain to my
constituents in Serbia why I did this crazy thing, so I understand
the reluctance. But I think international voices should be raised to
say this reluctance is not in Serbia’s interest.
BUT TADIC DID THE SAME, DON’T YOU THINK?
Vučić has made much more progress on Kosovo from
the international perspective than Tadić ever did. Tadić promised,
promised, promised and he never delivered anything really on Kosovo.
I think it was very difficult for him because his opposition was
nationalist, whereas it’s easier for Vučić because his base is
nationalist and he has strong support. But I have to admit he he has
not been pointing in the direction of normalizing with Kosovo.
These trips to Putin and saying “we’re never going
to join sanctions on Russia”, he seems to be choosing the wrong
chair. I’m sad to see that.
YOU REALLY THINK HE’S CHOOSING THE RUSSIAN CHAIR?
I think his recent behavior and statements will be
read in Washington as suggesting that he’s choosing the Russian
He is saying Serbia can’t join sanctions against
Russia, that Serbia has always voted with Russia in international
organizations, and that Serbia’s non-alignment is immutable… I mean
it’s okay with me if you want to be non-aligned, whatever that means
in a post-Cold War world. If you want to be non-aligned be my guest,
but the notion that you can get more from aligning yourself with
Russia than from aligning yourself with the EU is an illusion. That
illusion will bring nothing in the end.
YOU SAID BEFORE THAT VUCIC BOTH PUBLICLY AND
PRIVATELY IS SAYING HE’S NOT GOING BACK, THAT HE IS GOING TO TAKE
SERBIA TO EU.
That’s right, during the last election that’s
exactly what he said. But the tune is changing a bit. The tune is
changing and I think this has to do with the global international
situation, with the aggressiveness Putin, with the supply of some
military equipment. At the same time he has refused diplomatic
status for the base in Nis. There is no EU country with a Russian
base and there never will be.
IT’S HUMANITARIAN, ISN’T IT?
You know, if relations between Moscow and
Washington were better the base in Nis would be a great place for a
joint US-Russian humanitarian centre but that’s not what it is. It’s
a military base with a thin civilian veneer. Nobody’s under any
illusions about that.
YOU WROTE THAT TODAY’S BARRIER BETWEEN SERBIA AND
AMERICAN RELATIONS ARE ON THE SERBIAN SIDE – “BELGRADE’S RESTRAINTS
ON THE PRESS, ITS FAILURE TO ESTABLISH A TRULY INDEPENDENT
JUDICIARY, ITS INCREASING INCLINATION TO NORMALIZE THOSE RESPONSIBLE
FOR WAR CRIMES, AND ITS SLOW APPROACH TO NORMALIZING RELATIONS WITH
KOSOVO”. ARE YOU SAYING YOUR FRIEND VUCIC IS STILL NOT DELIVERING ON
Yes, I’ve said that for some time. I wouldn’t say
that he never delivered anything. That would be unfair. But delivery
has been remarkable slow. My advice to my friend Vučić, as you call
him, is to talk to my friend Đukanović . Djukanovic was prime
minister, president, whatever post he occupied for decades with a
press that was mostly against him, especially at the end. There was
no newspaper or television station that really supported Đukanović
in the end, yet he was very popular and retired from official
government service in glory. You don’t have to control the press.
The press is the press. Let it do its damn thing. Trump should learn
On the judiciary I think the problem is really
with judges and prosecutors. They are not used to independence. Part
of the problem with the media is also self censorship. The judges
and prosecutors need a whole new ethic, a whole new world view. And
they need to bring charges against people who are responsible for
the murder of the Bytyqi brothers.
YOU MENTIONED VUČIĆ AND ĐUKANOVIĆ IN THE SAME
SENTENCE AND BOTH OF THEM HAVE ALLEGED CONNECTIONS TO ORGANIZED
Let me put it this way. At least ten years ago,
the Italian authorities at a high-level told me that if Đukanović
ever left office and appeared in Italy he would be arrested, tried
and convicted. He left office, he went to Italy, he testified and he
was not accused, tried or convicted. He did the right thing and the
Italians did not deliver what they said they would deliver.
I’m not defending Đukanović, I only know that the
Italians thought they didn’t have a case against him even though
they were the ones who made the strongest claims.
As far as I’m concerned independent courts and
prosecutors should act against anybody who is subject to their
jurisdiction. That is what I think should happen in Serbia.
I don’t know who’s guilty and who’s innocent. I
just know that an awful lot of people are complaining about
corruption. I’m sympathetic with those who say more should be done.
VUCIC IS NOW IN POWER LONGER THEN HIS PREDECESSORS
WERE. THERE ARE CASES FROM THE START OF HIS MANDATE THAT ARE
CONNECTED TO HIS CLOSEST ASSOCIATES. THOSE CASES ARE STILL NOT
That’s for the Serbian prosecutors to pursue. If
they don’t and the Serbian people feel they are being cheated, they
need to vote accordingly.
DO YOU THINK IT’S POSSIBLE WITH THE CURRENT
SITUATION WITH PRESS FREEDOMS FOR PEOPLE TO MAKE AN INFORMED VOTE?
Milosevic called early elections because he was so
sure he was going to win and he lost. People forget that he didn’t
fall to street demonstrations, he fell to an election, an early
election that he himself called. Everything is possible.
YOU’VE MET VUČIĆ SEVERAL TIMES. DO YOU HAVE
FEELING HE’S NOT THE AUTHORITARIAN DICTATOR AND THAT HE WILL DELIVER
I don’t know if he’ll deliver. I know he knows
what I think because we’ve discussed it.
WHAT DID HE SAY?
I don’t feel entirely free to say what he says.
These conversations are assumed to be private. My impression is that
president of Serbia is a difficult role. You’re still in transition.
It’s not a consolidated democracy. I always tell my students when we
are studying countries in transition that one thing they must be
very careful about is never to take on corruption or organized crime
and lose. If they take these guys on they have to have the capacity
to win. That’s difficult to assemble. It is like a military attack.
You have to concentrate your forces and attack with all the means
necessary to win.
BUT WHAT IF YOUR CLOSEST FRIENDS ARE MEMBERS OF
ORGANIZED CRIME AND ARE CORRUPTING YOU?
Then I have no sympathy for you. I expect
politicians to be clean. When they’re not they disappoint me.
DO YOU REALLY THINK THAT POLITICIANS IN BALKANS
INCLUDING SERBIA ARE CLEAN?
Without going into them one by one the answer is
no, I don’t think that. I think there’s ample evidence that they are
not. But they’re in power because of votes and I have to respect
that. I don’t get to choose who’s in power.