WASHINGTON -- Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic highlighted what he said were good personal relations with U.S. President Joe Biden amid expectations that the new U.S. administration could take a tougher stance on the rollback of democracy in the Balkan nation.
In an April 22 interview from Belgrade with the Washington-based think tank the Atlantic Council, Vucic said he was actively seeking stronger ties with the United States, but admitted there were difficulties in the bilateral relationship, especially differing views on peace talks with Kosovo.
Vucic, who has met Biden five times, described the U.S. president as "politically the best prepared man I ever talked to."
Biden has considerable Balkan experience and oversaw the region while serving as vice president from 2009 to 2017.
"He always had a good sense and he always wanted to listen to us, which was very good for [Serbia]," Vucic told the audience in English.
Vucic had expressed a preference for former President Donald Trump in the run-up to the divisive 2020 election, raising some concerns his comments could now impact his relationship with the Biden administration.
However, the Serbian leader sought to downplay talks of warm ties with the former U.S. president, saying he knows Biden "much better" than Trump and knows more people from his administration, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Vucic, who will seek reelection next year, has been accused of tightening his grip on power and clamping down on the media.
Biden has said he will make strengthening democratic institutions a key focus of his foreign policy, potentially setting the two up for a tough first call.
The two leaders have yet to speak since Biden took office on January 20.
Vucic admitted his country was "not perfect," but said his government was making progress on rule-of-law issues.
"I don't expect an easier time for Serbia because politics is not always about personal issues, but we will do our best to boost the friendship between our two countries," Vucic said.
The Serbian leader has installed a close confidant as ambassador to Washington, expanded the diplomatic mission in Chicago, and taken steps to open a mission in San Francisco as part of a larger attempt to enhance ties with the United States.
Vucic said Serbia needs U.S. support to achieve faster progress, including greater economic growth.
U.S.-Serbian relations were severely strained after the breakup of Yugoslavia three decades ago, though ties have gradually improved.
The United States led a NATO air campaign against Serbian forces in 1999 to stop a deadly crackdown on its ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo.
Washington then led an international campaign to recognize Kosovo's independence in 2008.
Serbia has yet to recognize Kosovo as an independent nation, preventing both countries from joining Western-led organizations, including the European Union and NATO.
During the April 22 talk, Vucic criticized the United States and Europe for its approach to a settlement between Belgrade and Pristina.
"They always just say 'we will just wait for Serbia to recognize Kosovo's independence.' When you ask someone what they offer, you hear nothing. No one can even guarantee you full-fledged membership status [in the EU]. No one can guarantee nothing to you when you ask them, ‘okay, what might Serbs get,'" Vucic said.
He said that, even if a Serbian politician were to cave in to Western demands, the Serbian people would not accept it.
Vucic criticized the European Union for not strongly backing a Belgrade-led plan to create an economic zone for free trade and travel throughout the Balkans.
Currently, only Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia are part of the free economic zone.
Vucic said other countries like Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina may worry that Serbia will dominate the free trade zone and garner most of the benefits.
"We need to understand their fears. We need to convince them that it’s not good for Serbia only, [but] that it’s even better for them," he said.
Vucic addressed the recent controversy that erupted following reports that Slovenian President Borut Pahor last month broached the possible "dissolution" of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The multiethnic country is governed as a Bosniak and Croat federation along with a Serb-majority entity called Republika Srpska.
Separately, a "nonpaper," supposedly by Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, had been circulating proposing that proposed "the unification of Kosovo and Albania" and "joining a larger part of the Republika Srpska territory with Serbia.”
Vucic, who previously belonged to a radical nationalist party, said his government was "not interested in creating any kind of greater Serbia."
The president said his focus was on making Serbia "great" through economic growth led by foreign direct investment.