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H.E. Damjan Bergant, Ambassador Of Slovenia To Serbia

We’re Only Opponents In Sport

I can confirm that Serbia and the Western Balkans remain high on the list of the Republic of Slovenia’s interests and that the level of interest coming from Slovenia will be the same or even higher ~ Damjan Bergant

Slovenian Ambassador Damjan Bergant is convinced that the EU is the future of Serbia. Membership in the same EU family would additionally strengthen existing economic cooperation between Serbia and Slovenia, which currently stands at around two billion euros. Speaking in this interview for CorD Magazine, the Slovenian ambassador directs attention towards the importance of strengthening the domestic economy and local cooperation, particularly in agriculture and food production, which are becoming increasingly important in the context of global shocks.

Your Excellency, Slovenia is in the process of gaining a new government, which should be confirmed during June. Can we expect it to show the same level of interest in Serbia and the rest of the Western Balkans?

– We had regular parliamentary elections in late April and the results appear to show that a new government could be formed very quickly, so you’re right when you say that Slovenia will most probably have a new executive by the beginning of June. When it comes to Serbia and the Western Balkans, everything remains within the same framework, because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Slovenia is bound by the Declaration on Foreign Policy of the Republic of Slovenia, which was adopted by the National Assembly of Slovenia in 2015. I personally don’t expect any proposal of changes to come, so I can confirm that Serbia and the Western Balkans remain high on the list of interests of the Republic of Slovenia and that the level of interest coming from Slovenia will be the same or even higher.

The recent meeting between the presidents of Slovenia and Serbia included discussion of the two countries’ “sincere friendship”. Have you considered what influenced relations between the two countries, following the collapse of Yugoslavia, now reaching such a high level?

– Serbs and Slovenes are nations that are traditionally closely connected. It’s true that there’ve been different interests historically, but that doesn’t mean that our peoples weren’t connected. I was born in Maribor, so I remember the stories of families from Styria being exiled to Serbia during World War II. Those Slovenes were well received by the Serbs, as recounted by older people. On the other hand, my job is to visit different parts of Serbia and Slovenian societies around Serbia and that helps me to discover very interesting things about the links between Slovenes and Serbs. The most recent interesting thing that I came across, and didn’t previously know existed, is the cemetery in Vrdnik, in the foothills of Fruška Gora, where 90% of the names and surnames on the gravestones are Slovenian. That’s the burial site of the miners and their families who came from Slovenia to work there and who lived and died in the area.

On the basis of experiences from Slovenia, I can emphasise that the development of small and medium-sized enterprises, more than anything, leads to the achieving of lasting stable conditions for the successful and sustainable economy of a small country based on exports and greater competitiveness, which in turn create unlimited opportunities for strengthening business ties

Slovenia and Serbia have excellent cooperation in the fields of politics, the economy and cultural cooperation. There are contacts that exist at different levels and in different activities. We are opponents, but only in sporting contests. We still want to develop our friendly relations further and for Serbia to join the EU as soon as possible. Serbia’s association with the EU, and its respect for European values, provides excellent foundations to additionally build upon the existing good relations between our two countries.

And, as you noted recently, businesspeople from Slovenia consider that conditions for cooperation “have never been better”. What are the new directions or areas for strengthening business ties: energy, the environment or something else?

Serbia is increasingly advancing in all areas of society, and that’s especially so with the economy, where conditions for doing business are unquestionably improving with the development of infrastructure, the digitalisation of the operations of state institutions, an excellent tax policy, the opening up of the economy with the great support of foreign capital and thus the strengthening of competitiveness, the rapid industrialisation of the economy that’s also vigorously developing the SME sector, suppliers, though gradual investments in development and innovation, which creates additional value for the employee and results in stronger and more specific exports.

On the basis of experiences from Slovenia, I can emphasise that the development of SMEs, more than anything, leads to lasting stable conditions for the successful and sustainable economy of a small country based on exports and greater competitiveness, which in turn create unlimited opportunities for strengthening business ties. Of course, due to current world events and the achieving of the sustainable development goals, the development of sustainable energy sources and ecology, and major investments in them, has become a trend around the world and, more importantly, in our common EU region. We are glad that Serbia has bold and ambitious plans on that front. And not to forget about local food production, adequate logistical systems and the development of digital services and solutions. The world is changing rapidly from a global story to a regional and local one, and there are plenty of suitable new directions for strengthening business ties.

You’ve said that you’d like to see more Serbian enterprises arriving in Slovenia? What do you consider as being an obstacle to that process?

– Of course, our investments in Serbia have a value of around 1.5 billion euros, while Serbian investments in Slovenia are worth about three times less. This would naturally balance and strengthen cooperation. I don’t see any obstacles; Slovenia is open and ready to help Serbian investors on their path to expanding operations, and I would like for Serbia to join the EU family as soon as possible, for us to play by the same rules, overcome administrative obstacles and thus improve cooperation.

You said in one interview that it’s not a question of whether Serbia will join the EU, but when. It seems that the citizens of Serbia aren’t so convinced that this will happen, as shown by one recent public opinion poll. On what do you base your optimism?

– I’m convinced that Serbia has no other alternative and that the EU is the best possible path for Serbia. President Vučić says that those investing the most in Serbia are from Western countries, led by the EU. This enriches Serbia and enables the country’s advancement and development. Why are people from Serbia seeking jobs in the West? Why do they drive Western cars? Why do young people from Serbia want to study in the West?

If the 27 member states have a common position, those wanting to become part of that group must accept the same position, otherwise they can’t be in that group. That’s completely clear. Serbia is a sovereign country and it should decide on its own political will and desire

It’s all because Serbia is a country in Europe and is naturally bound to the EU. When it comes to public opinion and the current results of how the EU is perceived, this is actually a single moment in a long story. Public opinion can flip very quickly, provided society offer the right impetus. My optimism is also drawn from experiences during our presidency, when we succeeded in initiating the negotiation process. The successful opening of the 4th cluster of chapters indicates that EU membership is an achievable goal for Serbia, and one that depends primarily on its progress in the negotiation process.

Do you consider Serbia’s stance that it cannot join economic sanctions imposed on Russia as complicating the country’s European integration process?

– I think that, at this moment, it doesn’t ease the process. When we reach the point of a new assessment of Serbia and its status as an EU membership candidate, it will certainly impact on the evaluation. We’re talking about the issue of sanctions against Russia, but we’re essentially referring to the harmonising of the country’s foreign policy with that of the EU – meaning it’s not just about sanctions against the Russian Federation. If the 27 member states have a common position, those wanting to become part of that group must accept the same position, otherwise they can’t be in that group. That’s completely clear. Serbia is a sovereign country and it should decide on its own political will and desire.

For what reason does the EU insist that a country that’s just an EU membership candidate, and not a member state, fully harmonise its foreign policy with that of the Union?

– The essential factor is that candidate countries should share the values that are common to the EU family. That’s especially so in the foreign policy domain, if there have been gross violations of the basic principles that are advocated by the civilised world.

These are the rules that everyone should have gone through following the introduction of the EU’s common foreign and security policy. It’s certainly in the interests of everyone for each candidate country to show that it is at the level of the group prior to gaining full membership in the EU, and not for it to first become a member and only then decide whether or not it will do this or that.

Are you concerned over claims that the crisis in Ukraine could destabilise the Western Balkans?

– Unfortunately, the Western Balkan region hasn’t yet achieved a state of long-term stability. The crisis in Ukraine certainly could have a negative impact on stability. However, I’m an optimist by nature and think that the political leaders in the Western Balkans are sufficiently experienced, that they have a clear understanding that conflicts and wars don’t help and, on the contrary, cause damage that takes decades to repair. As the countries of the Western Balkans have recently, unfortunately, experienced the horrors of war, that should be a guarantee of peace. And that’s why every country should fight for itself to ensure that extremist and nationalist ideas don’t prevail.

What kind of stance does Slovenia have regarding Republika Srpska? The public here has become convinced that Slovenia isn’t on the side of those EU members advocating the policy of sanctioning Republika Srpska officials, primarily Milorad Dodik?

– It wouldn’t be appropriate for me, as ambassador to Serbia, to comment on the situation in B-H. Bosnia-Herzegovina is a sovereign country on basis of the Dayton Peace Agreement, and Republika Srpska is part of that country.

In the short term, there are no alternatives to Russian energy, which can be seen in current energy prices. But all of that only pushes those of us in the EU towards the faster transformation of energy, in order for us to be able to achieve the sustainable development goals that have been set, as well as greater energy independence, ahead of schedule

Slovenia, like other EU countries, is facing gas and oil supply problems, which impacts on electricity and petrol prices. Former Prime Minister Janša mentioned Algeria as Slovenia’s new supplier of natural gas. Do reliable and ample alternatives to Russian energy exist?

– Slovenia is a small country and we buy energy on the spot market. Of course, our economy also had long-term stable cooperation with Russia’s Gazprom prior to the crisis, and we also sourced gas from elsewhere. Oil too. In the short term, there are no alternatives to Russian energy, which can be seen in current energy prices. But all of that only pushes those of us in the EU towards the faster transformation of energy, in order for us to be able to achieve the sustainable development goals that have been set, as well as greater energy independence, ahead of schedule. This all costs a lot and is painful not only for the economy, but also for individuals, though they’re also adapting at light speed and investing in personal power plants on their roofs and in changing their habits. It’s difficult for the economy to do that overnight.

COOPERATION

Slovenia and Serbia have excellent cooperation in the fields of politics, the economy and cultural cooperation. There are contacts that exist at different levels and in different activities

EU MEMBERSHIP

The successful opening of the 4th cluster of chapters indicates that EU membership is an achievable goal for Serbia, and one that depends primarily on its progress in the negotiation process

INVESTMENTS

Our investments in Serbia have a value of around 1.5 billion euros, while Serbian investments in Slovenia are worth about three times less. This would naturally balance and strengthen cooperation

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