This interview is a transcript of TV B92’s
popular head-to-head talk show discussing current
issues - Poligraf
Prime Minister broke his promise
May 3rd, 2006
Author: Jugoslav Ćosić
Guest: Miroljub Labus, outgoing
deputy Prime Minister of Serbia
Good evening. As you [the viewers] have probably
already found out, the EU has called off negotiations
over the Stabilisation and Association Agreement
with Serbia and Montenegro. The decision came after
a negative report by Hague Tribunal chief prosecutor
Carla Del Ponte on SCG co-operation with the Hague
Tribunal. EU Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn
said in Brussels today that negotiations with Serbia
and Montenegro would resume only after general Ratko
Mladic is shipped to the Hague. On the other hand,
the news of the hour in Serbia is that Deputy Prime
Minister Miroljub Labus handed in his resignation
at this post, unlike the Prime Minister, who addressed
the nation on the matter of the halted negotiations
through a press release. Labus informed the public
about his decision directly at a press conference
that was held at Serbian Government headquarters
earlier today Miroljub Labus, the outgoing Deputy
Prime Minister of the Serbian Government is our
guest at tonight’s edition of Poligraf. Mr Labus,
good evening and welcome.
Labus: Good evening.
B92: You must have taken a lot of people by surprise
today. Why did you resign?
Labus: I would like to repeat what I already said
at the press conference, which is that I announced
that I would stay in this Government in order to
finish the EU association process, to get that first
agreement signed and wedge our foot in the door
to Europe. This is a crucial aim for us, because
there is no prospect for better life here if we
stay outside the EU. We managed to keep this engine
running for a year, but now we’ve hit a brick wall.
There is another matter, however. I am the Deputy
Prime Minister of the Government and I cannot hide
in the shadow of the Prime Minister, because all
of us bear some responsibility for what has happened.
I have decided to account for my part of the responsibility.
B92: I presume your decision is irrevocable, that
there it will not be subject to negotiations or
compromise. My question is whether you will consider
returning to the Government if circumstances change
in some way?
Labus: There is not such thing as a revocable or
irrevocable resignation. A resignation is a resignation.
Hitherto, I have never given substance to the practice
of making these “irrevocable resignations” only
to withdraw the later on.
B92: Who has the Prime Minister react to the news
of your resignation?
Labus: Naturally, he perceives the situation differently
and I can understand that, just as he eventually
told me that he understood my point of view and
the fact that our views differed. It was a short
conversation, but I think we understood each other
well. The matter of credibility is important to
me. We promised something and did not deliver on
this promise, so we have to assume responsibility
B92: Mr. Labus, there seems to be a misunderstanding,
if we juxtapose what you have said at the press
conference today and the Prime Minister’s opinion.
I think it is very important that the citizens of
Serbia are clear on what the head of the Serbian
Government thinks, which is why I wanted to read
two paragraphs from a statement that, among other
things, says: “It would be best for all of Ratko
Mladic too followed the example of the other officers
and gave surrendered to the Hague. Our history has
no record of a case where the whole nation and the
state had to suffer because of one military officer“.
The next paragraph says, however: “Since the Serbian
Government has really done everything in its power,
my belief is that the best decision would have been
not to call off the negotiations.” According to
this statement, it would seem that the Prime Minister
of Serbia primarily holds Ratko Mladic and the EU
responsible for the suspension of the negotiations.
At the press conference today you said that Serbia
was not hostage to Ratko Mladic. Who is, then, in
your opinion, responsible for the suspension of
Labus: This notion that the whole country is a
hostage to one man is very popular. I do not subscribe
to this view, however. I believe that a state has
to have institutions and services and if these work
properly, then no man or woman can blackmail the
entire country or its population. Therefore, we
are not hostages of Ratko Mladic. Rather, the institutions
of the state did not do their job properly.
B92: You said today that “they looked for him in
every place expect the one where he was at”. Were
the state services in a position to arrest Ratko
Mladic in the most recent past or before that? Carla
Del Ponte said today that the Serbian Prime Minister
explicitly assured that Mladic would be in the Hague
by the end of April this year.
Labus: They looked for Mladic in many places, but
I stand behind my claim that, not only did they
not look for him where he actually was hiding, but
they didn’t even come close to this location. I
appreciate the work of our services and I am aware
that they are very competent in their field of activity,
but I think some one else has to answer why these
services did not perform their duty. What I wanted
to do is to establish a National Security Council
and have a whole institution control these services,
not just one man. The EU persistently recommended
this as well. Twice they emphasised in their annual
reports that we needed an institution that existed
in all other European countries, that we need civilian
control over the secret services, but unfortunately
we did not follow their advice.
B92: Why did we not, Mr. Labus? Was there a lack
of political will? EU Commissioner Olli Rehn also
said today that one of the biggest problems was
the manner in which the intelligence and security
services of the state function. He said they had
to be dissolved, that they were obviously the problem
and that they failed to perform their duties. Whether
they did not want to or they were not able to do
their job is the question a lay before you at this
Labus: What I keep asking myself is why the National
Security Council was not set up. I can understand
that the position of the Prime Minister would have
changed under these new circumstances, but I cannot
understand why the President of Serbia [Boris Tadic]
did not join the council, because we would then
have had collective control over the services that
are now controlled by different people, because
the military and civil services are not under joint
command at present.
B92: The Prime Minister said not so long ago: “If
you like, I am the person that is most responsible
for the outcome of the negotiations for Mladic’s
extradition to the Hague.” There is another interesting
detail in this statement, which says that the citizens
of Serbia should know that the Government had done
absolutely everything in their power to see Ratko
Mladic off the Hague, but it did not say that the
Government did everything to arrest Mladic and extradite
him to the Hague. Is this detail of any relevance
Labus: Well, it will give more grounds for speculation
over whether there have been negotiations for Mladic’s
surrender or not, whether the Government truly did
everything in its power or not. It is really a simple
matter to me. There was one deadline that we gave
to all the people and generals to voluntarily surrender.
As a government, we supported this action logistically,
politically and financially. After this deadline
the services were supposed to finish this job.
B92: Does this gesture of yours, your decision
to resign, imply that you would support and ask
for the resignations of those people who are running
the secret services, the police, Interior Minister
Dragan Jocic, head of the Security-Intelligence
Agency (BIA) Rade Bulatovic, the heads of the army
secret services and so on? Do these people have
a responsibility to say: „Alright, we failed to
do our job, to protect the national interest, the
tasks assigned to us by the state and the Government,
so now it is our duty to leave?
Labus: I must say that the Deputy Prime Minister
has significant capacities, but not all, especially
not those you have listed in your question. My idea
was to equip the National Security Council with
these capacities and then make it possible for this
institution to perform all of these actions that
you just mentioned.
B92: Do you think that, aside from yourself and
the people we just mentioned, the Prime Minister
and someone else in the Government should resign?
Should this moment be a turning point in the political
life of Serbia, in your opinion?
Labus: I never called on the Prime Minister to
resign, this is a matter of his own concern and,
as I said earlier, I am not going to hide behind
his promise. Naturally, I invited the Government
ministers from G17 Plus [Labus’s party] to resign,
and this is something we shall debate and decide
upon on May 13th.
B92: Did you talk to Finance Minister Dinkic and
the other ministers in the Government during the
Labus: Yes, I did.
B92: What are their opinions? How did they react?
Labus: Well, they are not all in the country, so
we scheduled a meeting of the [G17 Plus] Presidency,
followed y a meeting of the Main Board on May 13th
and after that the Board will make a decision. My
proposition is simple. I think that every one of
our members who serve as ministers in the Government
should resign, but since we are a responsible political
party, we should give support to the Cabinet as
a minority in Parliament until the end of the Kosovo
status negotiations, because they are also of crucial
importance. After that we are going to have elections,
so the people will decide to whom they will hand
the responsibility of governing the country.
B92: This will be a unique situation for the Government,
because under these circumstances it will retain
legitimacy with the support of 50 deputies from
two parties that are not part of the Cabinet.
Labus: Why unique? It is already a minority cabinet
and it will remain so, only to a greater extent.
B92: Yes, but it is now supported by 20 deputies
from the Socialist Party of Serbia. If G17 Plus
leaves the Cabinet, we are going to have executive
power supported by another 30 deputies from a party
that does not participate in sharing this power.
Labus: A minority government is just that, it doesn’t
matter how much external support in parliament it
B92: Do you personally think that such a government
has enough credibility to resolve the difficult
challenges that lie ahead for society?
Labus: It is for them to ponder what they should
do. Whatever they do in the interest of the country
and in favour of European integration and reforms,
G17 Plus will support it in Parliament.
B92: Mr. Labus, do you think it possible that G
17 Plus might not share your sentiments and decline
to follow your example? Might the Main Board decide
that G17 Plus should stay put in the Cabinet?
Labus: This would a contradictory action and message
they would be sending to the public. I think the
Main Board will make a principled decision, just
as I have.
B92: So, there is reason to believe that the other
ministers from G17 Plus will resign from their posts,
but that the remaining G17 Plus deputies in Parliament
will continue to support the Government?
Labus: Yes, I believe there is.
B92: At what stage are the negotiations between
Serbia and Montenegro and EU? What does Serbia stand
to lose in the immediate future with the calling
off of the negotiations? When was the Stabilisation
and Association Agreement supposed to be signed?
Labus: We are very close to the finish line with
the Agreement. My estimate that we could have the
Agreement signed in July was not just wishful thinking
and our efforts in Brussels have brought us even
closer to this goal. Mr Reinhard Priebe [Director
for Western Balkans in EC DG Enlargement] was always
sceptical and kept saying that we would break an
Olympic record if we finished the negotiations in
9 months. At our last meeting he said it was possible
and that if we had maintained the negotiations at
the pace they were lead up to now, we could have
brought them to a close in nine months. What will
happen if the negotiations are left open? Well,
the whole process will grind to a halt and it can
resume only after, as Olli Rehn put it, there is
a dramatic about-turn in co-operation with the Hague
Tribunal, and this can only happen if General Ratko
Mladic is arrested. What have we lost...?
B92: Pardon me for making a digression. I would
like you to hold that though for a minute. What
has been postponed? Let’s stick to this question,
because the SSA is a contract that is binding for
both parties, SCG and the EU. So, by signing the
Agreement, we would have access to certain European
funds, if I am not mistaken. Now I am asking you
about what is this that is being postponed and that
we would otherwise get from the EU by signing the
Labus: Of course there are the funds, but there
is a lot more to this than money, there are principles
at stake. The EU currently leads a policy of conditioning
towards us. They are saying: “You have to do this
before we can let you in.” Once we sign the Agreement
we become equal partners. We are then furnished
with certain rights and obligations, but so is the
other party in the agreement, which puts us half-way
through the door to the EU. Many options become
open at that point, not just this one dimension
of access to funds and money. Many other things
happen, there is more trust, less risk, better trade
and commerce, more investments, a smoother path
to removing the visa regime and lots of other improvements.
B92: What are the consequences of postponing the
negotiations, in the widest possible sense, on Serbia
and Montenegro’s quest to join the EU?
Labus: The first consequence is that we have lost
credibility, part of the reputation we had managed
to build before this had happened, and this may
be the most painful effect at the moment. I am not
sure how much this is felt here in Serbia, but once
you cross the border and hear other people’s thoughts
are and what they say to us, it becomes a very important
matter. You can accomplish a lot with a good reputation
and very little without one. And the latest events
are serious blow to our reputation, especially since
someone from the Government, in this case Prime
Minister Vojislav Koštunica, made a promise to EU
Commissioner Rehn and then failed to keep it. This
is a matter of trust now and I think we will need
a lot of time to regain it.
B92: There are voices from circles close to the
Prime Minister who claim that Koštunica never promised
anything. With this in mind, I wanted to ask what
you had discussed with Commissioner Olli Rehn yesterday.
He said, albeit more discretely that Carla Del Ponte
at her press conference, that there was a certain
kind of a promise, an assurance, that Mladic would
be in the Hague by the end of the month. What is
the truth here?
Labus: I would have to be Sherlock Holmes to tell
you what the truth is here. It is true that Prime
Minister Koštunica claims he did not make a promise
and it is also true that Commissioner Olli Rehn
said in public and in private that he did receive
such as promise. Exactly a month ago, the same kind
of press release was being prepared for the public,
but the Carla Del Ponte came and surprised Commissioner
Rehn by turning the tables, who in turn couldn’t
believe what had happened and phoned the Prime Minister.
B92: You are referring to this statement by the
Labus: Olli Rehn obviously believed that he had
received assurances that Mladic would be in the
Hague by April 30th, not that there will be some
progress in the operation to get him there. Rehn
persistently refers to a fact that has to lie on
the table, the question of whether Mladic is or
is not in the Hague, period.
B92: In other words, you have no doubts that both
Olli Rehn and Carla Del Ponte feel that they have
been double-crossed by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav
Labus: Well, to be sincere, we often might not be
aware how we should talk to people. Even if you
don’t give assurances in public, you should tell
the public that you didn’t make any promises. If
the other side says you did, however, and someone
keeps silent, it doesn’t matter if he actually never
did give these assurances.
B92: Mr. Labus, do you think the halted negotiations
could have a serious impact on our Euro-Atlantic
integration processes, namely approaching the NATO
Alliance and the financial aid we get from the US,
but also on the political support and credibility
you mentioned earlier?
Labus: Yes and no, I should say. I know that Mladic
is the condition for the Partnership for Peace.
Regardless of this termination, once that condition
is met, we will have the Partnership for Peace.
In the meantime, we have been able to convince people
in NATO to start helping our military system, because
it is definitely good, professional, and needs help
to get back on its feet. I would also like to see
these programs continue, and I assume that they
will because it is in both our interests, but this
gives a very bad picture. For example, a friend
of mine from Belgium returned from Brussels yesterday
and called me saying, “Yes, I saw, you signed something,
but these people on television said – the EU has
imposed sanctions on Serbia.” These are not sanctions,
but journalists and regular people think that Serbia
is under sanctions once again. If someone thinks
that some kind of sanctions exist again, then they
will not be doing business in Serbia. Therefore,
the consequences are quite big.
B92: Mr. Labus, as far as I know, after handing
in your resignation, you spoke today with the European
Commissioner for EU Enlargement, Olli Rehn. If it
is not a secret, what did you talk about?
Labus: I spoke with him just a little while ago
and almost got here late. Olli Rehn had a number
of meetings today and he did a lot of travelling,
so he called me about ten minutes before this show
began. It was very important to me to be able to
thank him personally. He has been very favourable
towards us and helped us a lot. I want to say on
the other hand, regardless of my position tomorrow,
whether it will be a political position or not,
I will continue to work on getting our nation closer
to the EU. On his part, he said that it was a great
pleasure working with us, that he is sorry that
things happened this way because the potential of
our nation is much greater, but he simply did not
have any other choice. He repeated again that a
European future lies ahead for Serbia and that it
must take its destiny into its own hands once again.
B92: Just to explain to our viewers first. At this
moment we are talking about a revocation which Mr.
Olli Rehn was responsible for, in the name of the
EU. Therefore, since he made the decision, he can
change it as well. We are not dealing with a suspension
which all the EU ministers would have to vote for
again, rather there is a fairly simple procedure
for returning to the discussions if General Mladic
is brought to The Hague.
Labus: But it is not easy for Olli Rehn, he was
met with very hard criticism the last time he made
such a decision as well, and he has assumed a risk.
The next time he makes a decision, and he told me
this clearly yesterday, it will be based on fact
and fact only, and we all know what the fact is.
B92: While responding to a question at the beginning
of the show about why you have resigned, said that
you wanted to take responsibility for your obligations.
What I want to ask you is; do you believe that you,
personally, and G17 Plus have made too many compromises,
because there were not many examples of you supporting
notions differed from the position and views of
the Government? Although your party publicly stated
on a few occasions that it opposes a certain plan,
your parliamentary party members eventually voted
for the plan anyway. Do you believe that you have
made too many compromises?
Labus: Well, from this perspective today, I must
say that I did hold back things that in different
circumstances I probably would not have held back,
because it is very important for me and for us to
move closer to the EU and to have that Stabilisation
and Association Agreement signed. While the chance
to make this happen existed, I was ready to hold
back things that under different circumstances I
would not have, but I am not in that situation any
B92: Let me turn you back for a moment to the perception
of Europe and the World, because this story was
seen across the planet today and was one of the
top stories of the day in all global media outlets.
Mr. Jeljko Kacin had very interesting remaks today
when he said that Serbia has shut itself into isolation
and has backed away from the EU and into its past.
Is this the perception of Europe and the World?
Labus: It is for many people around the world,
but the question is whether this is true or not
and whether it will happen or not. I would like
for it not to happen and for us to not shut fall
into isolation, but people around the world think
that we are distancing ourselves and are losing
an opportunity that is there for the taking. I also
had a few days of discussions with various diplomats
from around the world who said the same thing and
expressed their concern over the nation shutting
itself away from the world. I would hope that this
is not a sign that we are isolating ourselves from
B92: But you cannot confirm whether this is or
is not such a sign?
Labus: I cannot provide such guarantees.
B92: Wait a minute. You are the Deputy Prime Minister
of the Government.
B92: You were, right. You co-operated with Prime
Minister Koštunica since the inception of this Government,
more than two years. You know him quite well and
you know the mind frame of the leading officials
in his party.
Are the differences so drastic? Is this some sort
of isolation and sacrifice of one part or the whole
of Serbia’s future for the sake of some convictions
and beliefs that the Prime Ministers and the people
that surround him have?
Labus: Well, there is this conviction that the
World is being unfair to us and asking more of us
than it should. This belief exists in the minds
of a certain number of people, not just within the
Government, but others as well. These people simply
don’t seem to grasp that the World is asking for
nothing more than what exists in other European
countries. After all, we can always stay out of
the European process, but this would have tragic
effects on us.
B92: That’s fine, but I was asking about the Prime
Labus: I think you would do best to ask him that
question. I am neither his advocate nor his detractor
B92: Yes, but we can’t seem to get an opportunity
to ask him anything?
Labus: Well, that does seem to be a problem. I
hope he will decide to give a press conference some
day and that you will get that opportunity.
B92: Do you think this could be one of those moments
when the Prime Minister could stop communicating
with the citizens of Serbia through press releases
and address them in person, to give us an opportunity
to ask him a question or two and present his answers
to the citizens?
Labus: Look, I did what I felt I had to do and my
belief is that I made an ethical decision. Your
second question is tied to my future relations with
the Prime Minister and I don’t want to burn any
bridges, but what he did is something that I absolutely
do not approve of.
B92: Mr. Labus, permit me to turn
our discussion back to May 13th and the G17 Plus
Main Board meeting scheduled for this date. You
believe that the Main Board will accept your proposal
to have all the minister in the Cabinet that belong
to your party withdraw, but also have the deputies
of your parties in Parliament, which are crucial
for providing majority support to the Government
in the legislature, support the Cabinet until the
issue of Kosovo find a solution?
Labus: Yes, I believe it will.
B92: What are your plans for the
immediate future, now that you are no longer the
Deputy Prime Minister?
Labus: Most importantly, I would
like my students to know that they should prepare
well for the exam date, since the exam will cover
the whole book.
B92: That’ all?
Labus: Naturally, I plan to remain
active in G17 Plus and have us continue a principled
B92: Thank you for the time you
have dedicated to the viewers of TV B92.