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INFO   :::  Home - In Focus > In Focus - PAGE 1 > This interview is too long

 

This interview is too long

Daniel Serwer

December 28, 2017

 

 

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 HOTTEST SPOTS?

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 strengthening it.

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 Internet.

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 Koreans.

 

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 States?

 

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 lying.

 

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 things.

 

DO YOU THINK WE’RE GOING TO WITNESS TRUMP’S SECOND ANNIVERSARY?

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 successful.

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 about it.

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 CROATIA?

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 SERBIA-KOSOVO DIALOGUE?

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 DOMESTIC PURPOSES.

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 chair.

 

WHAT ELSE?

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 THESE ISSUES?

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 that too.

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 CRIME.

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 INVESTIGATED.

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 ON THAT

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.

 

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