Criminal accusations and claims of political wrongdoing appeared to be calculated to highjack a keynote address by Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić on his country’s commitment to joining the European Union.
Speaking to a packed auditorium at the London School of Economics, the Prime Minister faced allegations hollered from the stalls by woman accusing Mr Vučić of personally issuing a death threat to the controversial President of the Serbian Republican Party, Nikola Sandulović.
Mr Sandulović was sat beside her waving a CD of recordings that could allegedly prove his claims, while event moderator struggled to regain control of the event.
The ill-mannered verbal ambush by this disgruntled political opponent and his legal representative could not derail Prime Minister Vučić from his message that Serbia is committed to the EU and is taking whatever difficult steps might be necessary to achieve his goals for Serbia.
Vucic confirms reforms necessary for Serbia’s future
While the Prime Minister’s monotone manner delivered a somewhat lacklustre performance and led him to mumble into the lectern any time he diverted from his prepared speech, Mr Vučić was clear voiced when relaying his key messages of political autonomy and robust economic policies for future prosperity in Serbia.
“Of course there are always political issues but, let me tell you something: I don’t think that politics matters the way in used to,’ he said. “The economy is the biggest importance, the biggest significance for the whole Western Balkan region.”
Mr Vučić said that Serbia was making difficult but necessary reforms to sort the country’s economic deficit problems, including the recent widely criticised cuts to public wages and pensions.
“I have to confess, we do face a lot of challenges,’ said Mr Vučić. “That is why we had to pass some very important, significant reforms. We had to start with fiscal consolidation measures to reduce our budget deficit, our fiscal deficit, and also to do something with regard to our public debt trajectory.
“We have just approved in our parliament supplementary budget measures that mean we will cut public wages and pensions. Of course, this is not easy. People are not jubilant about it, you can just imagine, but we have to face it.”
Most likely for the sake of his home audience, Mr Vučić went to great lengths to reassure people that Serbia is acting on its own convictions and not at the behest of the European Union or other states.
“I will say that we are the first country in south eastern Europe that is actually taking these measures with no pressure from outside,’ he said. “Others were doing it under terrible pressure from the EU. But we are not doing it because of someone else, we are doing it because of us. We are doing it for future generations.
“As Serbia looks to reassert and redefine its identity in Europe, we of course find ourselves faced with many challenges. It is important that we have an open discussion about these challenges.
“I know that Serbia can once again become, I won’t say a regional leader, but a pillar of stability in the region.”
But while Serbia responds favourably to measures proposed by the European Union to prepare the country for a future as an EU member state, the Prime Minister was adamant about one point: Serbia will not be coming cap in hand for pay-outs.
“Serbia is dedicated to its EU path but we don’t beg anyone to receive us, to accept us, in maybe three, four or five years. We don’t need mercy. We have to do our job. We have to make a lot of changes to deserve this.
“I am not saying that because they have been offering us mercy. I am saying that because you know that the attitude of people in Serbia from time to time towards the EU was, ‘OK, when are we going to get something, or how much are we going to get?’.
“We want to change that. We want to earn our own money. We want to create the best possible place for foreign investments, we want to create a real market economy. We want to be hard working people, well known for that. That is something I want to emphasise.
“When Serbia hopefully will became an EU member state, I am absolutely certain that Serbia won’t be the poorest country of the EU. I am also certain Serbia won’t be a burden.”
Serbia’s has a rightful place in the European Union
“These are reforms needed to secure Serbia’s rightful place in the European Union,’ he said, reiterating the country’s determination to join the bloc. “These reforms and others have already made a difference. But we will not stop at economic reforms.
“My goal is that in the next few years people will be able to see more highways built, more jobs created and more prosperity for my people. In order to achieve change for the better we will have to make sacrifices. It won’t be easy. We will face many problems.
“But I have not come to London to beg for British money or someone else’s money. We are capable enough to earn our own money. That is why we need real reforms and that is why we are so dedicated to that process.
In a moment of uncharacteristic humility, Mr Vučić spoke about personal change to illustrate the requirements he has set for his country and its people.
“I am not ashamed to admit that we do our best to change ourselves,’ he said. “I am changing myself every day, learning new languages, changing my habits, doing my best, and all people from the government of Serbia are doing the same.
“Of course we are not the best but I hope that we will be successful enough that someone else might be encouraged to create better opportunities for the best possible future for Serbian people.”
Serbia promises to open doors to international investors
If he is to succeed in this aim, Serbia must make itself more accessible and accountable to international investors, which is something that is clear to Mr Vučić.
“We are doing our best to make Serbia a good place for investment,’ he said, on the first day of his visit to London to meet British Government officials and to launch Serbian Investment Day with Britain’s Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable.
Other ministers of the Serbian Government, all of who travelled economy class to London via new national airline Air Serbia, are accompanying the prime minister on this three-day trip.