Tensions ran high between German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić at a press conference Friday evening where the two leaders disagreed not only over sanctions against Russia but also over the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state.
Scholz, who had come to Serbia’s capital Belgrade during a two-day tour across the Western Balkans, Greece and Bulgaria, told the audience that Serbia, as an EU membership candidate, must apply sanctions that the bloc has imposed against Russia over its war in Ukraine — something that the Balkan country has so far refused to do.
“It is our expectation … that these sanctions will also be supported by all those who [see] themselves as EU accession candidates,” Scholz told reporters. Later in the press conference, he added that Serbia should take a sanctions decision as soon as possible, arguing that “this is something that is best done not when [the war] is over, but when it still matters.”
Vučić, however, pushed back by making a controversial comparison between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and NATO’s military mission against Serbia in 1999. “What is the difference if someone attacks Serbia without a decision of the United Nations Security Council, or if someone undertakes aggression against Ukraine without a decision of the United Nations Security Council? Please just explain to me the difference,” he said.
It was a remarkable statement by the Serbian leader. Even though NATO did attack Serbia in 1999 without a U.N. Security Council resolution — Russia and China had imposed their vetos — it did so to protect Albanians in Kosovo amid fears of a potential genocide, which is very different from Russia’s war of conquest against Ukraine.
Vučić also sought to justify his country’s reluctance to sanction Russia by referring to Moscow’s loyalty toward Serbia in the Security Council and the centuries-long close ties between the two countries, as well as Belgrade’s reliance on Russian energy imports. “Serbia’s position is very complicated,” he said.
Yet while the differences between Scholz and Vučić on the issue of Russia sanctions had been somewhat predictable, another issue saw an even more heated exchange between the two politicians.
Earlier on Friday, Scholz had said during a visit to Kosovo’s capital Pristina that both Kosovo and Serbia could only become EU members if they recognized each other as independent states — a controversial demand for Serbia, which claims sovereignty over Kosovo.
Asked about Scholz’s remarks, Vučić unleashed on the German chancellor.
“So that you can understand that: We do not respond to pressure in this way, that someone threatens us and then you have to do something,” the Serbian president said. “What was said regarding mutual recognition is also a surprise for us,” he added. “We have so far not heard that from anyone in Europe.”
Yet Scholz replied that “our view on the Kosovo issue is not new,” and argued that it was “obvious” that countries that want to join the EU must recognize each other.
The heated exchange between both leaders was remarkable considering that Scholz is considered an ally for Western Balkan countries in their quest to become EU members. Other EU countries like France have been more reluctant about granting the Western Balkans a membership perspective.
Seemingly realizing this, Vučić sought to add some friendlier words: “We have full confidence in the words of Chancellor Scholz when it comes to the fact that he really puts a high priority on the accession of the Western Balkan states,” he said.
“I know that Chancellor Scholz is very serious about this. We can actually learn something and the atmosphere can improve,” Vučić added.