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Comment 19 Jul 16

Vucic Reaps Benefits From Guantanamo ‘Favour’

By accepting two Guantanamo detainees, Serbia has obtained a license from the US to continue his ‘balancing’ act with Russia and continue as usual on the domestic front.

Milan Misic
Prime Minister-designate Aleksandar Vucic with US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. Photo: Beta

It was a press conference to sum up the results of the Belgrade stopover of Victoria Nuland ‘s annual Balkan “inspection tour”. The usual phrases about bilateral cooperation and reminders about Serbia’s obligations were all that was expected.

Instead, both the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs and Serbia’s Prime Minister-designate pulled out “the Guantanamo surprise”.

Two Guantánamo inmates, one Yemeni and one Tajik national, were being transferred to Serbia, it was disclosed, to be “integrated into Serbian society”.

Aleksandar Vucic explained that, by admitting them, Serbia was acting in a spirit of good cooperation with the United States.

Other countries - Germany was mentioned in that context - had done the same, so it was “natural” for Serbia “to do that” as well, he said.

Furthermore, Serbia was acting as “a good partner” of the US. “We are partners in many peace operations throughout the world and Serbia will keep acting in such a manner,” Vucic noted.

Praise for Serbia’s “generous gesture” followed. President Barack Obama’s administration was grateful to Serbia for taking in the two former inmates, Nuland said.

“The United States appreciates the generous assistance of Serbia as the United States continues its efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility” was the message brought from US Secretary of State, John Kerry.

“This is a big human gesture”, US ambassador to Serbia Kyle Scott added.

The Pentagon used its standard template for thanking the recipient country: its statement announcing the transfer to Serbia differed to the one related to Italy for accepting a detainee by just one word: the name of the country.

What was missing in the flood of political justification and explanations was the legal aspect.

Although Vucic referred to the constitution, no legal procedure or rule was mentioned, and it appears that no Serbian institution was involved.

So, it was purely the Prime Minister-designate’s decision, and its rationale was perhaps best explained by one of his closest associates in for now “technical” government, the Labour, Social and Veteran Affairs Minister, Aleksandar Vulin.

It was “favour to the world’s greatest power, and that’s called a policy of balancing,” Vulin observed.

Just a month ago there were undisputable signs that Serbia’s diplomatic “balancing” act was facing its first crisis.

The US ambassador, along with his UK colleague, was accused by a daily paper close to Vucic of instigating chaos in Serbia and even of intending overthrow the Prime Minister.

Vucic abruptly canceled plans to visit the US with the inaugural Air Serbia flight to New York - while recently meeting Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

The impression now is that, by accepting the ex-Guantanamo inmates, Serbia is undertaking a pure act of political pragmatism.

The Obama administration is in a hurry to vacate the infamous military prison, and, facing obstacles in that regard from Congress, is willing to generously reward any country that helps out.

So, Vucic jumped onto this bandwagon and then quickly reaped the benefits. It was clear from his press conference with Nuland that bilateral relations with the US, and Serbian policy, including its closeness to Moscow, were all milk and honey.

Even the standard fare on the bilateral menu: the absence of progress in solving the long-standing case of the Bytyqi brothers’ - murder of three US citizens of Kosovo-Albanian origin in Serbia police custody, shortly after the end of the war in Kosovo - was noticeably absent.

Does that mean Vucic also obtained a license from the US to carry on with his “balancing” with Russia and change nothing on the domestic front?

One could say this is the case. For all his domestic sins – the poor state of the rule of law, the tight control of the media, disregard for the opposition and so on – Vucic is seen as the only politician in Serbia who can deliver.

And there is a plenty to be delivered. For a start, he is the main guarantor of domestic and, hence, regional stability. Then, the difficult process of establishing Serbia’s relations with Kosovo [“Pristina” in official Serbian parlance] remains unfinished business.

Vucic obviously assured Washington that Serbia’s appearance of closeness to Moscow is just a factor of domestic politics.

How big the factor is it really, is yet to be seen: he keeps on delaying the formation of the new government whose composition is expected to show the real level of Russian influence in Serbia.

Meanwhile, a reminder that Vucic’s license to carry on as usual could be a temporary one, came from European Parliament Rapporteur for Serbia David McAllister, a German MEP, but also with UK citizenship.

While he was in Belgrade (where on July 13 met PM-designate Vucic) he declared that Serbia needs to make more effort to align its foreign and security policy to that of the EU, including policy on Russia.

For now, Vucic has room for maneuver, however. His term is secure at least until 2020, and speculation abounds that he could obtain even longer by changing his title and moving to the office of President of Serbia next year.

True or not, his “favour to the greatest power” has already boosted his position.


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