Selaković for "CorD": Serbia and USA rest on the same libertarian traditions and democratic values

01. Jul 2021.
1. As one of Serbia's priorities, you pointed out the building of new partnership relations with the USA. What does this new partnership imply?

Throughout history, Serbia and the United States have had harmonious political and diplomatic relations. We were allies in both world wars, and even during the Cold War, Belgrade had a stable and reliable partnership with Washington. We had the misfortune to find ourselves as a country on the line of confrontation with the United States at a crucial historical moment for the whole world due to numerous circumstances, but this is undoubtedly an atypical situation if we look at the tradition of Serbian-American bilateral relations. This generation of politicians is obliged, primarily in the interest of Serbia, to try to find a common language and common interest with the United States again, which, if there is good will on both sides, will not be as difficult as it may seem at first glance. Our countries are based on the same libertarian traditions and democratic values and, with the exception of the issue of Kosovo and Metohija, we have no open issues with the USA that could be an insurmountable obstacle to creating a new partnership.

2. At one time, as the Secretary General of the President of Serbia, you expressed satisfaction that an agreement on economic normalization between Pristina and Belgrade was reached with the mediation of the then President of the USA, Donald Trump. However, it seems that now the Serbian administration has great expectations from the new US President Joseph Biden, whom it sees as a good connoisseur of this topic. What are your specific expectations when it comes to further resolving this issue and the support of the USA for Serbia's European integration?

The political assumption on which the Washington agreement is based is that the relations between Belgrade and Pristina can be gradually relaxed through the strengthening of business ties and the creation of a common economic interest. It is a recipe based on common sense but also on proven American political experiences. Although there were many doubts in the local and world public about how the administration of President Biden would treat the fruits of the work of the previous presidential administration, the State Department clearly said that, when it comes to the Washington agreement, there will be no change of attitude. When it comes to Serbia's European integration, Washington has provided continuous support to our path to the EU. Since the intention of the President Biden administration is for the United States to regain a more active role as a beacon of democracy at the global level, the expectations of the American administration, when it comes to reform processes in Serbia, coincide with our interests and aspirations regarding the further consolidation of democracy in Serbia. In that field, the interests of Serbia, the United States and the EU undoubtedly overlap. The only thing we expect are equal standards and a fair relationship when evaluating and valorizing the successes achieved in the reform processes, and that has not always been the case so far.

3. We recently had the opportunity to hear that German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas expressed his belief that, with the support of the new US government, a chance is being offered to find a solution to the Kosovo problem and reach a comprehensive agreement that will bring economic prosperity. What are your expectations when talking about this side of economy?

There is no doubt that frozen conflicts are not a favorable environment for dynamic economic growth and safe and predictable business operations. We have been saying for years that we are ready to create a more stimulating environment for economic recovery and progress in the region through some kind of compromise solution regarding the open issues between Belgrade and Pristina. And it is not just about an economically pragmatic approach, but also our sincere desire to permanently move the Western Balkans out of the post-conflict atmosphere and put an end to all interethnic frictions in our region in a sustainable way. In that sense, Serbia cannot be more constructive and sincere, and the only reservation we have concerns the Serbian state and its national interests, the satisfaction of which must be part of every lasting and sustainable solution in the Balkans. I deeply believe that such solutions are possible and require only a little foresight and constructiveness of our Western partners, among which the size, influence and strength of the United States certainly stand out. Both the "mini Schengen" initiative initiated by President Aleksandar Vučić and our solidarity during the COVID-19 pandemic show in which direction Serbia wants our region to develop, and I am convinced that Serbia's good will has been recognized.

4. Although we are talking about a new partnership, it is important to say that this is also the year of the jubilee, that is, the celebration of 140 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. What moments from the past would you list as the most important for strengthening friendship and cooperation with the United States in the future?

There are countless historical events that can be singled out as bright spots or peaks in Serbian-American relations, starting with the presence of American doctors in this area during the Balkan wars, Pupin's relations with President Wilson or the Operation Halyard, in which the largest number of American pilots were rescued in occupied Europe during the World War II. Today, the informal ambassadors of Serbia to the United States are our great athletes, who create a significantly different picture from the stereotypes created about Serbia and Serbs during the 1990s. And I am convinced that it will not end there, because there is so much that binds Serbia and the United States together that, only if we are extremely unreasonable, we can miss the opportunity to raise our relations to a much higher level in the coming period.

5. Unlike in some earlier times, in today’s highly globalized world, Beijing is becoming an important actor regarding foreign policy, but also economic development, which we are witnessing in Serbia as well. How much do the relations between the great powers complicate the conducting of a diplomatic policy in small countries?

Serbia pursues an open and transparent polyvalent foreign policy, which is based on the principles of military neutrality and political independence of our country. We have no hidden agendas and no desire to interfere as a small country in the geopolitical disagreements of world and regional powers. We believe that it is possible to persist with such a policy if we continue to successfully prove our credibility by working consistently to create a stable region and remove economic barriers, which ultimately aims at political relaxation of relations in the Western Balkans. It is difficult for small countries and nations to find space for development and progress without joining the blocs in turbulent times, and such is the geopolitical era in which we live, but Serbia continues to seek its place under the sun by leading a responsible and well-intentioned regional policy, but also by jealously guarding its state-building traditions and its hard-won freedom and independence.

6. From democratic changes until today, in the 20 years of its activity, USAID has encouraged numerous processes in Serbia, from strengthening the rule of law to incentives for strengthening the market and promoting innovation. How important was this support for modern Serbia?

After a number of years spent in an atmosphere of sanctions and a kind of isolation, Serbia at one point was completely unprepared during the transition period. I do not think that Serbia was a successful example of transition during the first decade of this millennium, but the reasons for that are numerous and now is not the time for me to talk about them. However, in many areas, such as judicial reform or the establishment of a market economy, the foreign know-how has been valuable and irreplaceable, although that period of our history, if I have to give a general retrospective assessment, was largely a missed opportunity. No matter how good the intentions of American and all other foreign experts, agencies, non-governmental organizations, the fact is that the economic relations between Serbia and the United States are far below our capabilities today, and it is necessary to invest new strength and energy and start some perhaps more efficient mechanisms to strengthen these relations. I will remind you that the trade exchange with the USA in 2020 amounted to 811.5 million dollars, and that in the first four months of this year it was 285.4 million, which, you will agree, is symbolic considering the possibilities that are offered.

7. In accordance with the Washington agreement, another American agency, the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), was to contribute to opening the door to US investment in the Western Balkans region. Was that plan placed ad acta with the arrival of the Biden administration, as the media speculated, and what are the repercussions when we talk about the expected American investments, primarily in the field of infrastructure?

The United States are permanently interested in Serbia and the Western Balkans. We certainly have high expectations from economic cooperation with the United States, but it would not be appropriate for me to talk about the details of these plans or the dynamics of their implementation. The very fact that the DFC formalized its presence in Belgrade by opening a regional office is a very important step, and I sincerely hope that we are facing a period of continuous development of Serbian-American relations, including economic ones. It is evident that there is a huge untapped potential in economic cooperation between Serbia and the USA, and it is estimated that areas such as energy, infrastructure and new technologies are particularly suitable for the development of cooperation. We believe that it would be very important to conclude an agreement on avoiding double taxation with the United States as soon as possible, as well as to extend Serbia's preferential status in trade with the USA.

8. This year marks the 20th anniversary of AmCham, an association of American investors that operates very successfully in Serbia and has created a large number of jobs over the years. How important are these business ties for strengthening good diplomatic relations?

In addition to creating a significant number of jobs in Serbia, American investors are responsible for, it seems to me, a much more important change. Namely, they brought a new type of work ethic and well-organized systems to Serbia that encourage competitiveness in the workplace. These are mostly companies that employ young and highly qualified people. Some of them, precisely because they got the opportunity to work in American companies in which they have predictable career development, stayed to build their professional future in Serbia. Such relations and cooperation between countries, which is reflected in investment activity, are a key segment of political and diplomatic warming of relations, because in that way the US perception of Serbia and Serbs changes, but also the perception of a critically important population group in Serbia towards the USA, which is very important for our relations after years of crisis. That is why we owe gratitude to business associations such as AmCham, but we also have the obligation to continue to improve the business environment so that Serbian-American relations in the field of economy continue to flourish.