Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic says Belgrade must resolve the disputes between Kosovo and Serbia, but not due to pressure from the European Union.
Vucic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service in an exclusive interview that relations between Belgrade and Pristina must be normalized "because that is our life...we have to live next to each other."
"If [we cannot act] as best friends, [we must act] as someone who knows we must live and work together successfully in order for all of us to be successful," he said.
He said Serbia was preparing for "difficult talks" scheduled to open in Brussels on January 27 and that neighborly relations were in the interests of both ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo.
Pristina declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and has since been recognized by 111 countries. Belgrade has rejected the statehood proclamation and continues to refer to Kosovo as "Kosovo and Metohija," its official name when it was an autonomous Serbian republic.
An EU-brokered agreement in 2013 would allow ethnic Serbs in Kosovo to have their own police force and courts, but the agreement has not been ratified by either of the countries' parliaments.
Vucic, 45, is head of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and was approved as prime minister in 2014. The SNS is in a fragile ruling coalition with the Socialist Party of Serbia.
He said normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo will be the "hardest thing to achieve" but will leave both sides simultaneously "displeased" and "deep down…content."
Vucic said he "despises" those who take populist positions on the Kosovo issue to appeal to Serbian nationalists and that he had told ethnic Serbs in Kosovo about difficult policies that Belgrade has adopted.
He added that while he had "lived through the booing, attacks, and political disappointments," he believes everything his government has done was in Serbia's best interests and that "we will continue our dialogue with the [Kosovar] Albanians."
Economic Interests A Priority
Vucic summarized his goals in the upcoming negotiations in Brussels as establishing security and safety in Kosovo, guaranteeing "economic progress," and resolving all existing problems between the Serbian and Kosovar governments.
He suggested the talks between Kosovar and Serbian officials, to be moderated by the EU, could take months to reach "some new agreement" and that the whole normalization process could take three or four years.
The EU says a full normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina is necessary before Serbia can join the bloc.
Vucic told RFE/RL that he wanted to open a new topic at the Brussels talks that would result in "a faster flow of people, goods, and capital" between Kosovo and Serbia.
"I do not want us to have blockades, confirmations, papers [that] we issue at the administrative line, as we call it, or the border, as Albanians are calling it," he said.
Vucic said Serbia's flagship airline, Air Serbia, needed ethnic Albanian passengers to fly from Belgrade in order for the carrier to establish its first regional transatlantic flight to New York City, noting that "even Greece does not offer a transatlantic flight."
He added that Air Serbia hopes to tap into the large "colony of Albanians in New York" and that the two countries must "harmonize our economic interests."
Ties To Russia
Vucic rejected charges that Serbia is constantly trying to balance relations between Russia and the West.
He said that while Belgrade had "traditionally good" relations with Moscow and always seeks to improve them, accession to the EU is a top priority and strategic goal of the Serbian government.
Vucic suggested Serbia was not concerned about continuing to receive its natural gas from a pipeline that goes through Ukraine and would like the EU to explain to Belgrade the negative and positive reasons for either realizing or rejecting the Nord Stream and South Steam pipelines from Russia that bypass Ukraine.
The South Stream, which would have passed through Serbia and led to sizable financial profits for Belgrade, was canceled by Russia in 2014 after EU officials made it clear it would not gain the bloc's approval.
Germany -- which exerts great influence within the EU -- favors the completion of the Nord Stream project, which is currently a topic of heated debate in Brussels.
Written by Pete Baumgartner based on translations by Darija Fajkovic and Deana Kjuka