March 26, 2018, is a day Marko Đurić, Serbia’s new ambassador to the United States, will never forget.
On that Monday, Đurić—at the time chief negotiator for Serbia’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija—was meeting with local Serbs in the town of North Mitrovica when he was violently detained for having crossed into Kosovar territory illegally.
A rather shocking video of the incident, which has been shared on YouTube more than 370,000 times, speaks for itself.
“Authorities were duly notified that I was coming. So was the EU,” Đurić said in a recent phone interview, insisting that Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and his Kosovar counterpart, Hashim Thaçi, specifically discussed the upcoming negotiations over a dinner in Brussels three days before the confrontation took place.
“Nevertheless,” he said, “they sent 250 heavily armed special unit members accompanied by 17 armored vehicles, basically stormed the roundtable venue and brutally beat up the democratically elected president of the Serbian community. They arrested and kidnapped me, brought me to Prishtinë and paraded me on the main streets while filming with cellphones. It was quite traumatic. They put a knife to my throat.”
Vučić condemned the incident, as did the European Broadcasting Union and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), though Kosovo’s then-deputy prime minister, Enver Hoxhaj, justified Đurić’s arrest on the grounds that his “unauthorized presence” in Kosovo had breached EU agreements between the two sides.
Looking back three years later, Đurić (pronounced DJOO-rich) said he never wanted to put himself in the spotlight—and that he prefers to bear the ordeal with dignity.
“But it is unprecedented to treat an envoy like this,” he complained. “Since the time of the ancient Persians, envoys have been treated with respect. They violated something that has been sacrosanct for millennia.”
Even so, said the 37-year-old ambassador, “I don’t possess a single grain of hatred or resentment toward the Albanians or any nation. Of course, I do not forget and do not appreciate those political leaders who, by doing such a thing, did a disservice not only to myself but to their own cause.”
Đurić aims to ‘increase trust’ between Washington, Belgrade
Đurić’s great-grand uncle is Nikola Pašić, who served as prime minister of both Serbia and Yugoslavia in the early 20th century. Đurić arrived in Washington last December with his wife and three daughters, presenting his credentials as ambassador in a Jan. 18 virtual ceremony.
Born and raised in Belgrade when it was still the capital of Yugoslavia, he also lived for a time in Israel; his maternal grandmother was interned in Auschwitz during World War II and was one of the few members of her family to survive the Holocaust.
“During the 140 years of diplomatic relations between Serbia and the United States, we’ve been allies in both world wars,” Đurić said. “Serbia lost one-third of its population in World War I fighting against the Axis powers. During World War II, we also fought side-by-side against the Nazis. And the first uprising in occupied Europe against the Nazis happened in Serbia.”
Đurić is vice-president of the Serbian Progressive Party, which has 750,000 members—making it Europe’s largest political party by membership. At present, it holds 157 seats in the National Assembly, while the ruling coalition (of which it forms a part) occupies 188 of 250 seats.
As ambassador, says Đurić, one of his priorities is to deepen Serbia’s ties with the United States and “increase the level of trust” between Washington and Belgrade.
“We would love to see a US president visit Serbia,” he said, noting that the last president to set foot in Belgrade was Jimmy Carter in 1980, shortly after the state funeral of Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito. Đurić has met three presidents already: Donald Trump last September, Barack Obama in 2013, when the ambassador was serving as Vučić’s foreign policy advisor, and Joe Biden when he was vice president in 2013, and again in 2016 when he visited Belgrade.
From an economic point of view, Serbia—with a population of 6.9 million—has fared well despite the difficulties caused by Europe’s coronavirus crisis. Unemployment has fallen from 26% to 8% in the past seven years, while foreign debt is down from 79% of GDP to 56%—though that’s still not enough to satisfy the requirements of European Union membership.
“For the last three years in a row, we have had more foreign direct investment than all the surrounding countries combined. This is the result of serious incentives we offer, and a generally favorable investment climate,” Đurić said, naming Germany and Italy as Serbia’s top sources of FDI. “We would love the US to be one of the pillars of Serbia’s future economic growth, and we believe this could also create a more fertile ground for political relations to flourish.”
To that end, Đurić wants to make the Serbian Embassy in Washington “an entry point for businesses on both sides,” and to see the elimination of all artificial barriers and borders that prevent the free flow of goods, services and capital throughout the Balkans.
“It’s extremely frustrating to have people waiting for hours at border crossings every 80 to 100 kilometers,” he said. “We want to create a regional Balkan mini-Schengen Zone that would replicate what was done in Western Europe.”
A permanent solution to the Kosovo question?
But economic progress is unlikely to happen until resolution of the political impasse between Serbia and Kosovo, a once-autonomous province that unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008. As of mid-April, 117 countries have recognized Kosovo as a sovereign nation, including the United States; the latest to do so was Israel, on Feb. 1.
“We were very disappointed with this decision,” Đurić said. “Historically, Serbia and Israel have always been on the same side. This is a huge emotional and political wound for us.”
On March 22, Kosovo’s parliament named Albin Kurti prime minister, more than a month after the country’s snap elections. Đurić said that’s going to make progress even more unlikely.
“I expect it will be difficult to work with the new government because Kurti, immediately upon his election, said that dialogue with Serbia will not be among his priority. I think this is a big mistake, because Kosovo needs a solution to this conflict even more than we do. We have a growing economy, while in Kosovo the unemployment rate is 30%. Unfortunately, this new government has set their red lines at an impossibly high level. They just want to have it all.”
In our interview, Đurić dismissed suggestions that Kosovo will eventually prevail and win the backing of countries that have still withheld diplomatic recognition—a list that includes China, Cyprus, Greece, India, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Spain and Ukraine.
“For Serbs, Kosovo is the cradle of our identity. It is the place where our medieval kings and saints are buried. It is also a place where very resilient Serbian communities still survive as a minority. Serbs consider Kosovo part of our territory,” he said. “At the same time, Serbia is very much aware of the realities we face. We are open for discussion on a compromise to resolve the Kosovo issue and bring lasting peace and stability to the region.”
Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., Đurić urges a “just solution” in which both sides will come out equally satisfied.”
“We want to do this in a way that won’t leave wounds on both sides, at least partly satisfying our mutual ambitions,” he said. “This will definitely not be an easy task. But we need to start talking. It’s better to talk a thousand days than be in conflict for one single day.”