The past three years have seen the strengthening of bilateral ties through such high-level exchanges that last took place only 30 years prior. This high level of exchanges, coming after a long gap, is already having a positive impact on our bilateral ties. This will result in more exchanges and closer interaction in the coming years – Subrata Bhattacharjee

The first decade of the 21st century was marked by the intensification of bilateral cooperation between India and Serbia – as two countries that were enduringly connected through their common commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement nearly 60 years ago. In this CorD Magazine interview, Indian Ambassador H.E. Mr. Subrata Bhattacharjee says that the potential exists for strong ties and understanding at the political level to be transmitted to the business community and strengthening economic cooperation between the two countries. He adds that, following Indian investments in Serbia, conditions have been met for exports of Serbian products to the Indian market, where Serbian apples should soon arrive! 

Your Excellency, your 2018 arrival in Serbia coincided with two major anniversaries – 70 years of diplomatic relations between India and Serbia, and the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi. What would you say about your experiences in Serbia to date?

The deep-rooted ties from the days of Non-Aligned Movement still form the foundation of our close bilateral ties. The leaders of this country have traditionally shown great understanding of India’s global perspective. I have also found Serbians very warm and friendly towards India. Serbians take spontaneous interest in Indian history and culture. My personal interaction with Serbians was always pleasant. I am certainly enjoying my stay here.

We are witnessing the intensification of cooperation between India and Serbia at the highest level. What are your priorities for the period ahead?

The past three years have seen the strengthening of bilateral ties through such high-level exchanges that only previously took place 30 years ago. When then Serbian Prime Minister (now President) Vučić visited India in 2017, this was the first visit at the level of Head of State/ Government from Serbia to India after 30 years.

The past three years have seen the strengthening of bilateral ties through such high level exchanges that only previously took place 30 years ago. When then Serbian Prime Minister (now President) Vučić visited India in 2017, this was the first visit at the level of Head of State/Government from Serbia to India after 30 years

The same can be said about the visit of the Vice President of India to Serbia in 2018. First Deputy Prime Minister & Foreign Minister Dačić also visited India in 2018, and that too came after a gap of 10 years. The visit of the Indian Minister of External Affairs to Serbia in November 2019 was also a landmark development, as the first visit at the level of a foreign minister from India after more than 30 years. In 2019, we also had the good fortune to see the visit of the Indian Speaker of the Parliament after more than 30 years. In short, these high-level exchanges, coming after a long gap, are already having a positive impact on our bilateral ties. This will result in more exchanges and closer interaction in the coming years.

India’s foreign minister reiterated while in Serbia recently that India will not change its position regarding non-recognition of Kosovo’s unilaterally declared independence. Do you believe that Kosovo can, with the help of countries that recognise its independence, become a member of the UN – which is among the key objectives of the government in Pristina?

As the External Affairs Minister of India stated very clearly, India supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia. Based on this principled belief, India has not recognised the Unilateral Declaration of Independence of Kosovo. India supports a peaceful resolution of the issue through negotiations and dialogue. We are aware that Serbia has taken part in talks aimed at resolving this issue in the past few years. I believe that this will shape the future solution to the problem.

What can you say about the importance of cooperation agreements in the defence sector, which were signed by the two countries in November 2019?

Yugoslavia was a major defence exporter to many countries, including India. Serbia has the niche capabilities that make it attractive for Indian companies. The Defence Cooperation Agreement signed during the visit of the External Affairs Minister of India in November 2019 will certainly strengthen bilateral cooperation in the defence sector. A number of Indian companies have visited Serbia for discussions on ties. Serbian companies are also regularly attending Indian fairs, like DEFEXPO. The Defence Cooperation Agreement will provide a stronger platform for streamlining these cooperation initiatives.

Economic cooperation between Serbia and India lags far behind compared to the high level of understanding at the political level. Do you see ways to better connect the businesspeople of India and Serbia and, if so, in what areas?

It is true that, despite some growth in economic ties, economic cooperation between India and Serbia has been far below its true potential. Bilateral trade has been slightly over US$200 million, but there is greater scope to increase it further. Fortunately, the recent exchange of visits has provided a boost to the mutual awareness of potential among the business communities of the two countries. For Serbian producers of agricultural products, India can be a large and attractive market. New opportunities opened up with the signing of the Agreement of Cooperation in Plant Health and Plant Quarantine in 2018, during the visit of the Vice President of India to Serbia. Serbian apple growers have taken due note of it.

With the visit of a technical team from India to Serbia, decks have now been cleared to launch the export of Serbian apples to India. There are many such Serbian agricultural products that can similarly find a market in India. Serbia participated in World Food India 2017, a major economic promotion event in India on the food and food processing sector. With India being a major foreign investor, India’s private sector has already ventured into Serbia. Indian companies are engaged in diverse manufacturing activities in Serbia – tractor production, food processing, IT parks, aluminium panels etc.

Considering that Serbia is a member of the EU Customs Union and has FTAs with Russia and many other countries, there is great potential to attract further investment from India. Indians have a natural advantage in sectors such as IT, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology etc., which can easily find a place on the Serbian market.

With greater awareness on both sides and unbounded opportunities, I expect economic ties to strengthen.

Could you say something about the experience in Serbia to date of Indian tractor and farm equipment company TAFE, which acquired Serbia’s IMT?

Agriculture plays a major role in the Serbian economy. This provides a great opportunity for Indian manufacturers to supply agricultural machinery to Serbia. Serbians also acknowledge India as a supplier of quality agricultural machinery at affordable prices. Indian company TAFE, which had a long association with Serbia, rightly sensed the need and acquired a leading Serbian tractor brand and its factory for manufacturing TAFE tractors in Serbia under the IMT brand name. The company’s business plan is progressing well. In fact, two other leading Indian tractor companies – namely Mahindra and Sonalika – also have their own assembly lines in Serbia with Serbian partners.

Indian companies are engaged in diverse manufacturing activities in Serbia – tractor production, food processing, IT parks, aluminium panels etc. Considering that Serbia is a member of the EU Customs Union and has FTAs with Russia and many other countries, there is great potential to attract further investment from India

There are similar opportunities for various other types of agricultural machinery. It was with this in mind that the Engineering Export Promotion Council brought a group of 20 Indian companies to the International Agriculture Fair in Novi Sad in May 2019. There will also be similar participation in this year’s fair. Thus, I can say that the success of TAFE on the Serbian market also motivates other Indian companies to venture into Serbia.

The Tourism Organisation of Serbia has had its first presentation in India. Do you believe it would be possible to increase the number of Indian tourists opting to visit Serbia?

Indian tourists are the new globetrotters. With growing prosperity and the increasing size of India’s affluent class, Indians are now travelling abroad more and more for leisure and recreation. With its beautiful landscape, rich culture and appealing cuisine, Serbian tourism spots could be a new source of attraction for Indian tourists travelling abroad. In order to facilitate greater people-to-people interaction, India introduced an online visa facility for Serbians in 2016. Serbia reciprocated in 2017, by granting visa exemptions to Indians for short visits to Serbia.

This has played a great role in attracting Indian tourists to Serbia. More than 25,000 Indians have travelled to Serbia since the end of 2017 by taking advantage of the visa-free entry facilities. The typical Indian tourist prefers a package tour to adventure tourism. I feel that Serbian tour companies should concentrate on offering package tours and group tourism to Indians in order to attract them to Serbia in larger numbers. Serbian Prime Minister Brnabić announced the possibility of introducing direct flights connecting New Delhi and Belgrade. Could this idea be implemented in 2020?

Aviation connectivity can be a serious limiting factor for promoting large scale tourism. There are currently various options for travelling to Serbia from India through various cities in Europe and the Middle East. A direct flight can naturally be a great option for Indian tourists coming to Serbia. An Air Service Agreement was signed between India and Serbia in 2018, during the visit of the Vice President of India to Serbia. This can facilitate the commencement of direct aviation connections. Once that happens, more Indian tourists will certainly be attracted to Serbia.

Famous Indian producer Sajid Nadiadwala was in Serbia recently to shoot the third instalment of the popular Baaghi films. Does the film industry represent the fastest growing area of cooperation between our two countries?

Bollywood produces the largest number of films worldwide. Moreover, India has a thriving film industry in many regional languages, like Tamil, Telugu, Bengali etc. Even in the 1970s and ’80s, Indian film producers occasionally travelled abroad to shoot some scenes. This tendency grew further in the last decade of the previous millennium, while a number of Indian films were shot in Europe during the past 10 years or so.

I am happy to say that Serbia is a new option on the radar of Indian film producers. Over the past few years, four or five regional films from India were shot in Serbia. During my time here, I have seen the screening of ‘Soorma’, which had a number of scenes shot in Serbia. ‘Uri- The Surgical Strike’, the first Bollywood blockbuster of 2019, was primarily shot in Serbia.

I also had the opportunity to watch shootings of a few other Indian films in Serbia. ‘Baaghi-3’, one of the big film productions from India, had a film shooting schedule in Serbia. Overall, this is another welcome development and can cement stronger economic ties. This is because the shooting of Indian films in Serbia not only generates revenue for Serbia but also popularises Serbia as a tourist spot among Indian tourists. This will, in turn, attract more Indian tourists to Serbia.