Once an aggressive nationalist, today Serbia’s prime minister Aleksandar Vucic is pro-Europe and economy-oriented. The national-conservative politician just returned from opening an important bridge between Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In outdoor boots and slightly rushed after the hour and a half hour drive back to Belgrade, Mr. Vucic took time this week to talk with Handelsblatt about the refugee crisis that has seen increased tensions between Belgrade and its neighbors in the Balkans, as well as his admiration for Angela Merkel and plans to get the Serbian economy moving.
Handelsblatt: Mr. Prime Minister, Serbia is the central country on the Balkan route of migrants to Europe. Will the refugee crisis affect your nation’s economic recovery?
Aleksandar Vucic: The recovery is continuing. Next month the European Union will announce that Serbia’s GDP will rise 0.7 percent this year. That’s an improvement from the previous estimates. I see no negative influence on our economy from the refugees.
But the situation with refugees crossing Serbia from east to west is not simple.
We are not nervous about dealing with refugees, as you might see in other countries in the region. Because of that, twice as many refugees come into our country as, for example, into Hungary and Croatia. Today, we have 12,500 refugees in Serbia.
Now refugees are traveling through Croatia because of the border fence built throughout Hungary.
Regardless of whether Croatia erects a fence along the border to Serbia, my government will not build fences along our national borders, including along those with Bulgaria and Macedonia.
Are you disappointed in some countries?
I have met many politicians who want to cash in on the refugee crisis and pretend to be very European. But when it is about their own security or their comfortable situation, they quickly changed their position.
What do you expect from the European Union and Germany?
I admire Germany and the Scandinavian countries. However, I hate the position of some actors in our region. They cry and complain every day, because so many refugees come to the West via their countries. The refugees only come for two or four days. In Croatia, it is not even one day. In Macedonia, it is not even eight hours.
In Germany it is different. There, the refugees come to stay.
Exactly. For Germany and Scandinavia, the refugees are without doubt a problem. They need support, not us.
To ask again: What do you expect from the E.U.?
We understand what great problems Germany or Sweden are currently battling. Now we are waiting for an overall and comprehensive resolution from the E.U. I say loud and clear that we will not avoid our obligations over a solution to the refugee problem. We will do our best. We want to support and help, and thereby show that we are part of Europe.
Do you see a danger of growing panic in southern Europe through the border policies of Croatia or even Hungary?
Even though nationalists are causing panic, we will care for the migrants. We are the only country on the Balkan route that has never fired tear gas on refugees.
Will the stream of refugees let up over the winter?
The number of migrants will, because of weather conditions, temporarily decrease – for example on the sea route to Greece. But for war refugees, Europe remains the goal to be able to lead a better life. That is very understandable. Chancellor Merkel is under pressure.
Do you fear that Germany could close its borders to refugees?
Everyone is looking to Germany. Reinforced through globalization, Germany leads Europe today, together with Austria. If the border were closed it would signal that Germany would like to be rid of all of us. I cannot imagine that. Angela Merkel is really the leading personality in Europe. We are all waiting for her suggestions on a resolution. I am on Ms. Merkel’s side. Germany and the chancellor gave Eastern Europe and also my country very much. We have a majority of German investors, who today employ 30,000 people in Serbia. That would not have happened without the generous support of the German government. We will not forget that.
What are your priorities?
My goal is to get the economy moving with reforms. For example, we have to privatize more state companies. We want to push our deficit under 3 percent. At the same time we are expanding the transportation infrastructure. Through the end of the year, we will sign contracts for a whole row of new building projects. My goal is GDP growth of more than 2 percent in the coming year.
How can Serbia become more attractive for foreign investors?
We have already positively changed many things. For example, we have made labor laws more flexible in the past year. We also introduced a new privatization law and simplified the permit process for building projects. But I am not yet satisfied. We must work much more on getting rid of bureaucracy.
But that is not your only problem. Legal certainty is a big issue.
The reforms in the justice system will be a central component of our talks with the European Commission next spring. More legal security is very important for us. Another area is tax consolidation. Our state deficit is now under control. So I’m confident: Serbia is on a good track.
And what about the ubiquitous corruption? Do oligarchs still rule Serbia?
Oligarchs used to rule not only the economy, but also the lives of the people. Today, they no longer control that. They only lead successful companies. They have no more influence on banks to get unsecured loans. I am proud of the fact that we have reached a zero tolerance for corruption. Our problem, however, is that justice and prosecution authorities are not yet efficient enough. A legal proceeding can take up to 20 years, and that is simply deadly. After two decades, there is no justice anymore.
This interview was conducted by Hans-Peter Siebenhaar, Handelsblatt’s Vienna correspondent. To contact him: email@example.com