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This interview is a transcript of TV B92’s popular head-to-head talk show discussing current issues - Poligraf

The Prime Minister broke his promise
May 3rd, 2006

Author: Jugoslav Ćosić
Guest: Miroljub Labus, outgoing deputy Prime Minister of Serbia

B92: 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 for this.

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 the negotiations?

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 point.

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 to you?

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 day?

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 has.

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 agreement.

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 EU?

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 Koštunica?

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 longer.

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 the world.

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.

Labus: Was.

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 Minister.

Labus: I think you would do best to ask him that question. I am neither his advocate nor his detractor today.

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 policy together.

B92: Thank you for the time you have dedicated to the viewers of TV B92.

 


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