The Ambassador of Russia to Serbia Alexander Botsan Kharchenko is perceived as a diplomat who is fine with discussing any and all important topics. He proved that to be true in an exclusive interview for Kurir in which, touching on some of the key issues, he openly said the following: that Kosovo is not a state; that Russia was not behind the recent protests in Belgrade; that the West was spreading anti-Russian sentiment and working openly to reduce the Russian influence in the Balkans; that there is a chance that the Russian coronavirus vaccine will be manufactured in Serbia; that the military cooperation between the two states and the delivery of weapons to the Serbian military will continue in the future, although the Serbian authorities receive complaints about this from the US; that the European Union will survive despite the radical views that it will not outlive the crisis that it is currently in.
At the same time, in addition to demonstrating yet again that he is well-versed in the Balkan affairs, Botsan Kharchenko showed in the interview that he speaks excellent Serbian.
wo topics are unavoidable in this conversation with you. The first is the coronavirus vaccine, of course, which Russia was the first to register in the world. How safe is it
The registration itself indicates that it is safe. Gintsburg, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and head of the Gamaleya Institute team, which has made this global achievement with the participation of the experts from the Russian Ministry of Defence, has said that what follows is phase 3 of clinical testing. Tens of thousands of people will be included. The main issues here are effectiveness and safety, and the earlier phases have shown that the Russian vaccine Sputnik V is effective and safe. More antibodies are produced, giving the organism a high and lasting immunity for a period of two years. It works in a beneficial way. There are, of course, other side effects, as is often the case, including a fever a day or two after administration. But, I repeat, it has been shown that the vaccine works. It is important to start the mass production of the vaccine as soon as possible once phase 3 of clinical testing is complete, which is expected in about a month. Medical doctors and staff, university lecturers, etc. will be given priority in vaccination. To be more precise, all those working in areas with an increased risk of infection.
We have also seen that the West treats the registration of the Russian coronavirus vaccine with suspicion and distrust.
I cannot say that we were not surprised at the West’s response to the vaccine registration. This response is inexplicable. There is anti-Russian sentiment there, of course, as well as competition, which is unfair. There are also attempts at politicizing as well as political activities there … Of course Russia was the first to register the vaccine. Well, Russia was the first to go to space. A Russian was the first man in space, and that achievement can now be compared with the vaccine.
When could Serbia obtain this vaccine?
It is currently impossible to answer that question. As far as selling the vaccine and cooperation in its manufacturing are concerned, over 20 countries have shown interest. For us, meeting the needs for the vaccine in Russia is priority. But at the same time, we are ready for active and expeditious cooperation in vaccine production outside of Russia.
Does this mean that it could be produced in Serbia as well?
Very soon we will have a meeting with the representatives of the Serbian Government, and there we will present our views and what is necessary for this. The Serbian institutions can get in touch with the Russian Direct Investment Fund as a leading institution in this sort of work, and based on that we will know when or if it would be possible. It is a matter for expert discussion. To be sure, such a cooperation around a global issue would fit in well with the level and comprehensiveness of our cooperation.
In your opinion, how has Serbia tackled the fight against the coronavirus?
Serbia has responded well to the crisis. It has made good as a result of the steps taken by the President and the Government. Moreover, Serbia had the knowledge and capacity to learn about the economy, so its decline in the production is less than expected. I would like to point out here the assessment of our team of military experts, who have been here and provided assistance. The team members said that the Serbian medical professionals’ abilities are high-level, and that Serbia has thankfully preserved the ability and capacity to have a lightning response in difficult circumstances. Naturally, no country – including the richest ones – had it easy. Now there are hints of a new virus wave. We have to be prepared. The world needs as much inter-state cooperation as possible, without politicization.
The second unavoidable topic is the accusations against Russia in relation to the violent protests in Belgrade in early July. Some media and parts of the non-governmental sector have accused Russia that it was behind these protests, claiming further that Russia intends to control the Balkans. What do you think is the background to such claims? And is Russia really behind the protests?
The background to that is perfectly clear. It is a case of anti-Russian sentiment and a desire to oust Russia from the region. There is an intention to put pressure on both Russia and Serbia to abort cooperation. Some European countries have stated that the EU considers the Western Balkans as a region of its global priority, while the US has gone on record saying that Serbia must reduce the cooperation with Russia as much as possible, primarily in the so-called sensitive domains. They have now decided to fabricate this empty story without a shred of evidence. This is what you call fake, no question about it. Their intention was to create a bad image of Russia here, as Russia has never been among the organizers of such riots, anywhere in the world. We do not interfere with the internal affairs of any country. All we want is bilateral collaboration. The accusers are the ones who interfere.
What is your view on the fact that the West is increasingly bothered by the presence and influence of Russia in the Balkans? Is Russia in the grip of a fight over influence in the Balkans with the US and the EU?
Our strategy really does not contain tasks aimed at fighting or getting into a conflict. Of course, there is economic competition, as it is the market that we are talking about, or rather the market-based economy. We are open to it, but without politicization. So, we wish to cooperate with all the countries in the Balkans which are willing. Serbia and Russia have the highest level of cooperation in all areas, while respecting mutual interests. What lies at the foundation is the regular and rich dialogue between the presidents of Russia and Serbia. We do not care if someone is bothered by this at all, and whether this suits anyone or not. The most important thing is that the cooperation suits the aspirations of the two nations.
And is Russia unhappy with the close collaboration between Serbia and the West? To what extent is the process of European integrations an obstacle to an even better relationship between our country and Russia?
No, it is not an obstacle. It is a well-known fact that Serbia is aiming at EU membership, which implies a fairly close and active cooperation ahead of the membership and, especially, after the accession to the EU. Absent the politicization and attempts at ousting Russia from the area, it is possible to find multiple points of communication and collaboration between Russia and the EU in the Western Balkans region. Collaboration is not to be a problem if accompanied by good will and a constructive approach of the EU. Russia is always ready for a dialogue with the EU. Regardless of the difficulties that the EU is facing now, it is our biggest partner – economically, politically, etc. It is in our interest for the EU to develop, have strength, and take a stance.
What is your take on the current situation in the EU? Seen from the outside, is the Union in a sort of a crisis?
The crisis is everywhere now, due to the pandemic. The economic consequences are hard, and we will overcome them more easily with international cooperation. The EU survived the 2008 economic crisis, the 2015 migrant crisis, as well as Brexit. There are always radical views that the EU will not survive, but my view on this is the moderate one - that the Union will survive and develop. It is important to draw a lesson and the right conclusion - that the current state of the relationship with Russia is troubling primarily for Europe itself.
Serbia and Russia have a good military collaboration too. We have obtained MiG-29’s and purchased the Pantsir system. The two countries have joint military exercises. What else can be expected in that area?
This week, Serbia is participating in the International Army Games in Russia, and the Chief of the General Staff of the Serbian Armed Forces, General Milan Mojsilović, is expected to attend the opening ceremony. At the same time, a very prestigious military technology forum will be held in Moscow, with over 20 countries participating. In addition to what you mention in your question, the Mi-35M attack helicopters have been delivered, as well as the Mi-17V-5 multipurpose helicopters. We are also planning the delivery of armoured patrol cars and T-72 tanks as part of the military technology aid, which is important. For us, this is a very important area of cooperation, as our starting point is that increasing the army’s combat readiness by equipping it is one of the strategic plans of the President and the Government.
However, the West objects to Serbia procuring weapons from Russia. There was even talk of the possibility of the US imposing sanctions on our country because of this.
I don’t know what the US objections are based on, as there are no international obstacles to this form of cooperation between Serbia and Russia. Serbia is an independent sovereign state. A strong, well-equipped military is one of the pillars of a country’s sovereignty.
Let’s move on to the issue of Kosovo. The Brussels Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina has recently resumed, mediated by the EU. However, there have been speculations regarding whether other states could be included in this process, e.g. Russia, China, and the US. We see, however, that the active involvement of the US has been on the increase in resolving the Kosovo question. Would Russia accept an active involvement in the dialogue?
Deciding on Russia’s role and mode of involvement, we have said on multiple occasions that, first and foremost, we take account of Belgrade’s position. The dialogue must be honourable and must acknowledge the fully elaborated interests of Belgrade and the Kosovo Serbs, as well as their safety. The mediation should be balanced, without pursuing Pristina’s superfluous ambitions. The dialogue has no alternative, of course. The talks previously supported by the United Nations General Assembly have resumed under the auspices of the EU, which gives them a sound international legitimacy. This is important as the Kosovo question is on the UN Security Council agenda. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia is an essential participant in the resolution of the Kosovo question. Let the dialogue develop and yield results, it may be too soon now to make an assessment. Having said that, Serbia has entered the talks with a fairly clear, sound, and internationally valid position, emphasizing above all the necessity of resolving the key issues for the lives of the Kosovo people. I would like to stress the necessity, in our opinion, of implementing what has been agreed on in the initial stages of the Brussels Dialogue, i.e. the formation of the Association of the Serbian Municipalities (ASM). That is key, as the agreement was concluded, supported, and signed, and yet there were no steps taken, or progress made, on the ground, as far the implementation of Pristina’s obligations goes. It is also necessary to pay attention to other open issues, such as the return of the displaced persons. The return of the displaced has been all-but non-existent.
What would Russia consider as a sustainable solution for the Kosovo question?
For us, the only possible sustainable solution is one that is in Belgrade’s interest based on the UN Security Council Resolution 1244, i.e. a solution that is supported by the UN Security Council. What a possible solution might look like, no one knows at the moment. The result can just be made out in successive and just dialogue sessions. We are against imposed decisions. The position that Pristina has taken – ‘only the recognition of independence, and the rest does not concern us’ – will not result in any kind of progress. Such an approach must be changed. Pristina must take a constructive position.
How does Kosovo strike you today, 12 years after the unilateral declaration of independence?
Russia does not recognize Kosovo, as the declaration of independence was unilateral, after force had been used, and was not in line with the international law and the UN Security Council Resolution 1244. The talks were interrupted. As a result, Kosovo is a quasi-state, and does not perform its functions. What is left is a territory with many problems, a black hole, the source of terrorism and crime. The administration of the temporary institutions is not functional or efficient.
Lastly, do you know the date of the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Belgrade, planned for this fall?
It is too early to discuss that now. There is such a plan, and we believe that the situation at large will allow the visit to take place. We are preparing for it.
Will marking the completion of the construction of the Church of Saint Sava in Vračar be at the heart of the visit?
Certainly, it is one of the key points. Russia has provided considerable assistance in the construction of this majestic shrine. It is an important event, and it is hard to find the right words to describe the importance of the completion of this church for the Serbian Orthodox Church. The President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić himself underlined its importance, having visited the church a few days ago with the Serbian Patriarch Irinej. Furthermore, at a time when there are so many dangerous challenges to the Orthodox faith in the world, the opening of the Church of Saint Sava will be a sound, strong, and significant message for maintaining and increasing the unity of the Orthodox faith in the world. In addition, I expect that the visit will feature events that will demonstrate our common, serious, and resolute stance against historical revisionism. Let me just call attention to the fact that this year the 75th anniversary of our joint victory in the Second World War will be marked. The topics surrounding the economic cooperation between Serbia and Russia will naturally be imperative.
Staying with matters related to the church, I trust that you have been following the events in Montenegro resulting from the adoption of the controversial Law on Freedom of Religion, which the authorities there use to get at the property of the Serbian Church in that state. What is your view on this situation?
The situation is very serious. It is a case of administrative meddling in church affairs aimed at divesting the Serbian Orthodox Church of its property and making the property available to the unrecognized Montenegrin Orthodox Church. All of this constitutes a violation of the Orthodox Church canon. It is also a strike against, and an attempt to destroy, the unity of the Serbian Orthodox Church. There are some resemblances with the situation in Ukraine.
On the new Serbian government
‘WE ARE NOT ROOTING FOR THE SPS.’
Some analysts claim that Russia would like to see the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) in the new government, and that it has been putting pressure and campaigning along these lines. What do you say to that?
The answer is short and clear – it is a lie. A fabrication.
We are not privileging anyone; we hold that this is Serbia’s internal matter. We will cooperate with the government formed based on the internal decisions of the state, i.e. of its institutions. And it is clear that the government will protect the Serbian interests rather than external ones. This is what is most important for the development of the cooperation with our country.
‘SERBS, DO NOT WORRY OVER GAS.’
The Turkish Stream is an incredibly important question for the region. Should Serbia be concerned over gas?
No. There should be no concern over stopping the delivery of gas, as there is no reason for it. Both Serbia and Russia are concerned with improving and expanding the cooperation in the area of energy and gas. We have stable and constant gas deliveries. Last year, over 2.1 billion cubic meters of gas were delivered to Serbia. The transit through Ukraine continues, and we are hoping that a new gas pipeline will be finished soon.
Responding to speculations
‘THE NIŠ CENTRE IS NOT INVOLVED IN ESPIONAGE.’
What is happening with the Russian Humanitarian Centre in Niš? Accusations have been levied that the Centre is involved in other things, for example espionage?
The accusations are false and baseless. They are part of the anti-Russian politics. All of this is the West’s interpretation of the activities at the Centre, which no one has provided any evidence for. All we have heard are assumptions and fabrications. I would like to call attention to the fact that the Centre has an open-door policy, as we have pointed out to the foreign embassies.
A presentation of the Centre’s operation was organized at one point, and only a handful of people showed up. The Centre is important not only for Serbia, but also for the entire region. It provides assistance in emergencies and prepares firefighters and rescuers. It has helped to the best of its abilities during the pandemic as well.
Could it soon acquire diplomatic status, as has been announced on multiple occasions?
The new contract has been prepared, and I believe that one day it will be signed. The contract envisages immunities and privileges. This is international practice. The western partners request such a status in similar circumstances, and yet they are accusing us. The Centre remains humanitarian, it will not be turned into something else, but the immunity will provide additional possibilities. However, the Centre is developing even without the contract, intensifying its activities and enhancing what is has to offer.
Kurir.rs/Boban Karović/ Photo: Marina Lopičić