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news 19 Jul 17

Congresswoman's Protest Casts Shadow over Vucic US Visit

On the eve of the Serbian President's US visit, a congresswoman wrote to Vice President Mike Pence, urging him not to meet Aleksandar Vucic, citing Belgrade’s ties to Russia and Iran among other matters.

BIRN team
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. Photo: Beta/Darko Vojinovic

Eddie Bernice Johnson, a member of the US Congress, urged Vice-President Mike Pence not to meet Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vucic, citing Belgrade's relations with Russia and Iran, its failure to resolve the murder of the Bytyqi brothers and the alleged business dealings of Vucic’s brother, Andrej.

In a letter obtained by BIRN, the Democratic Congresswomen noted Serbia's relations with Moscow, including military ties and agreements on gas projects, Andrej Vucic's business dealings, Serbia’s relations with Iran and the lack of progress in prosecution of those responsible for the killings of gthree US citizens in 1999, known as the Bytyqi case.

Johnson’s office confirmed to BIRN that the letter is authentic.

The Vucic-Pence meeting went ahead as planned on July 17, however, after which the White House issued a statement that did not mention any of the issues raised by Johnson.

Instead, the statement said the two discussed Serbia’s EU integration and reforms, relations with Kosovo, funds for people displaced during the wars of the Nineties as well as Pence’s upcoming visit to Montenegro.

However, after meeting Pence, Vucic told the media that the two did talk about Serbia’s relations with Russia as well.

The White House Press Office and Serbian President Office did not respond to queries from BIRN about Johnson’s letter and the issues it raised by the time of publication.

Johnson, co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Bosnia, said Serbian links to Russia in the military, business and energy fields had undermined regional stability in the Balkans, while “further backsliding on democratic values and Euro-Atlantic integration have occurred".

One issue was Serbia's military cooperation with Russia, both through military exercises and purchases of Russian military equipment. Another was the Russian humanitarian centre in southern city of Nis and Russia’s demands for the staff there to have diplomatic status.

Another issue raised in the letter is the business ties between President Vucic's brother, Andrej, and Moscow tycoons. Johnson noted reports that allege that “Andrej Vucic, and four of his close friends, Nikola Petrovic [former head of state company Elektromreze Srbije], Zvonko Veselinovic [controversial Kosovo Serb businessman], Slavisa Kokeza [businessman and ex president of Football Association of Serbia] and Nenad Kovac [businessman] continue to consolidate all infrastructure and public work projects.”

“Their relationship with Alexander Mikhailovich Babakov [a member of the Russian Duma from President Putin’s United Russia Party] also deserves scrutiny,” the letter wrote.

In 2015, five US congressmen, including Johnson, alleged that a small group of people led by Andrej Vucic and his close friends had “consolidated their influence and interest in energy, telecommunications, infrastructure and all major businesses in Serbia”. Both Vucic and his brother dismissed the allegations.

Johnson also listed closer relations between Serbia and Iran and the establishment of an Iranian Business Centre for the Balkans as problematic.

She also criticised the lack of progress in resolving the murders of the three Bytyqi brothers, US citizens of Albanian origin, who fought alongside the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA during the 1999 war in Kosovo and were later killed at a police training centre in Serbia.

Another Congressman, Lee Zeldin, also raised the issue of the murder of the Bytyqi brothers on July 12.

"It is absolutely reprehensible that, despite many promises by Serbian officials to resolve the case, no individual has ever been found guilty of this horrible crime, nor of any other crimes associated with the deaths of these innocent Americans," Zeldin told the US Congress.

"It is the responsibility of the Serbian government to resolve this case, and my resolution notes that progress into this investigation should remain a significant factor which determines the further development of US-Serbian relations. Their inaction on finding and prosecuting those responsible is an insult not only to the memory of the Bytyqi brothers and their family, but to every American," he added.

Vucic was making his first official visit to the US on July 16-17 in his capacity as Serbia’s head of state. Besides Pence, he has met several US congressmen and members of the business community.

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