My primary goal is to further deepen this relationship. I will work towards increasing the number of high-level contacts, regularly conducting political consultations and supporting our bilateral cooperation programme, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year ~ Urs Schmid
The new Ambassador of Switzerland to Serbia arrived in our country after having served a four-year term in Kazakhstan. Although the COVID-19 Pandemic limited the possibilities of him immediately familiarising himself with Serbia and the capital city, Ambassador Schmid nonetheless says that “Belgrade absolutely lives up to its reputation as the ‘Metropolis of the Balkans’”.
In his first interview for CorD Magazine, Ambassador Schmid says that his wish, apart from improving political relations, is to also to deepen economic relations, which would spark new Swiss investments in Serbia. He adds that he will continue the tradition of supporting culture through the new project “Culture for Democracy”, which will be orientated towards the alternative culture scene beyond Belgrade.
Your Excellency, what are your first impressions of Serbia and Belgrade?
I am grateful to my government for entrusting me with the responsibility of representing Switzerland in Serbia. When I arrived here during one of the COVID-19 peaks, in winter 2020, the pandemic put limits on my desire to discover the country and its people.
In the meantime, the pandemic situation has improved significantly, also thanks to the rapid and well-organised vaccination campaign in Serbia. I am therefore pleased to now have the opportunity to get to know the city and the country better, through visits and direct interaction with the people. So far, my impression is that Belgrade absolutely lives up to its reputation as the “Metropolis of the Balkans”.
The size and diversity of the city, the liveliness and the intense construction activity are impressive. It is a city on the move. Also pleasant is the friendliness and courteousness of the people, which makes it easier to settle in this city. I am very much looking forward to getting to know Belgrade and Serbia in all their facets over the next few years.
What did you define as the priorities of your tenure in Serbia?
Let me start by saying that Serbia and Switzerland have longstanding and excellent bilateral relations and they share many similarities. My primary goal is to further deepen this relationship. I will work towards increasing the number of high-level contacts, regularly conducting political consultations and supporting our bilateral cooperation programme, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. With this long-standing commitment, Switzerland aims to assist Serbia on its reform path, particularly also in the field of fostering democracy and strengthening the rule of law. On the economic level, I would like to contribute to the intensification of the economic ties between our two countries by promoting Swiss investments in Serbia. Finally, I would like to further engage the large Serbian diaspora in Switzerland and foster human exchanges between Switzerland and Serbia, since they constitute the backbone of our bilateral relations.
The recently launched Raising Stars programme is an important component of this cooperation and provides pre-seed funding for more than 100 start-up companies
Swiss state assistance to Serbia is directed towards the building of an efficient and transparent public administration. How would you assess the current state of affairs in that area?
Promoting good governance is indeed a well-established priority in Switzerland’s cooperation with Serbia. Our support has a strong focus on the local level, where Switzerland has rich experience due to its own decentralised way of functioning. We work together with the Ministry of Public Administration and Local Self-Government and the Standing Conference of Towns and Municipalities to improve policymaking and law making for all cities and municipalities in Serbia. Moreover, we have many other projects working directly with local governments in various thematic areas, such as citizens’ participation and decisionmaking, public finance management, administration, taxation, social inclusion, gender equality, energy efficiency and others. Through our projects and programmes, directly supporting cities and municipalities, we cover more than two-thirds of the entire country.
Despite Switzerland not being an EU member state, how much attention do you pay to the reports of EU experts highlighting the insufficient power of Serbia’s institutions, the lack of transparency in the work of the government and shortcomings in the fight against corruption?
The overall goal of the current cooperation strategy with Serbia is to contribute to efficient and effective democratic institutions and processes, as well as inclusive and sustainable growth, by supporting Serbia’s reforms on its path to European integration for the benefit of all citizens. Swiss cooperation is complementary and coordinated with the programmes supported by the EU and other donors. We consider the EU progress reports as a valuable source of information for context monitoring and programme development, along with other reports of international and local organisations.
Does Switzerland intend to continue its project to digitalise local governments in Serbia, which has proven useful during the COVID-19 Pandemic?
The COVID-19 Pandemic has accelerated the use of digital technologies. Digitalisation offers many opportunities for the Serbian administration to become more efficient and widely accessible to citizens. While we are witnessing progress in digitalisation, the protection of personal data and continued access to information and services for groups without digital literacy deserve special attention. Bearing in mind both opportunities and challenges, Switzerland will continue to promote digitalisation as a means of achieving quicker and better development results.
Besides e-parliaments, Switzerland has supported the introduction of e-services at the local level, particularly in the area of social inclusion and upgrades of local websites to provide more transparent and user-friendly information.
The introduction of the Unified Tax System is facilitating the payment of property taxes for legal entities and natural persons, which contributes to more stable local budgets during times of the pandemic. In the coming period, our support will primarily consist of expertise in shaping digitalisation processes, while paying attention to ensure that digital tools include proper governance standards allowing for accessible and inclusive information and service provision.
In the coming period, our support will primarily consist of expertise in shaping digitalisation processes, while paying attention to ensure that digital tools include proper governance standards allowing for accessible and inclusive information and service provision
Speaking about the pandemic, how has Switzerland – as a country where vaccination is not generally mandatory – accepted the advice that vaccination against this novel coronavirus be made compulsory?
In Switzerland, we generally attach great importance to the respect of individual liberties. This also explains the high level of trust that exists between citizens and the government. However, in any society, the enjoyment of individual liberties also requires a high degree of personal responsibility, i.e., a responsible behaviour by every individual. So far, it seems that most citizens are following the government’s recommendation and are seeking vaccination against COVID-19. Not least, this is also seen as an act of solidarity to protect others, vulnerable groups, from severe courses of the disease. In addition, the government, together with the scientific community, is doing a lot of work to explain the benefits of vaccination. In an open dialogue between government and the people, it should be possible to convince people of the usefulness of a COVID-19 vaccination.
Switzerland supported the establishment and development of Science Technology Park Belgrade (NTP Beograd), while you are now providing additional funding to support the creation of an NTP network around Serbia. It has been announced that you will help with the establishment and development of as many as 100 start-up companies in Serbia. What is behind this great assistance?
Innovation is a key driver for boosting competitiveness and economic development. I am therefore very pleased to note that the Government of Serbia has declared innovation a strategic priority, to which Switzerland is contributing through several projects. One of the “flagships” is our support to Science Technology Park Belgrade, which proved to be very successful and is now being replicated in Niš and Čačak. The goal of this support is to increase the competitiveness of Serbia’s high-tech industry, thus contributing to increased revenues, exports and job creation.
The recently launched Raising Stars programme is an important component of this cooperation and provides pre-seed funding for more than 100 start-up companies. With this new financial scheme, Switzerland is contributing to bridging a critical gap that start-up companies at an early stage of development typically face, i.e., bringing an initial business idea to a level of maturity that’s attractive for investment. I am confident that this support will further contribute to strengthening the Serbian innovation eco-system.
Your predecessors in the position of Swiss ambassador to Serbia also supported the country’s art scene, particularly creative young people just starting out in their careers. Do you intend to continue that practise?
Culture expresses the meaning that people attach to their own existence and development. As a source of identity and dignity, and as a generator of social capital, culture fosters self-confidence in individuals, and cohesiveness and resilience in groups.
Against this backdrop, Switzerland has a long tradition of supporting culture and art in Serbia. It is my strong intention not only to honour this tradition, but to take our engagement to the next level. I am very pleased to announce that Switzerland is currently preparing a new programme, entitled “Culture for Democracy”, which will support the cultural and artistic scene in Serbia in a longer-term perspective.
This project is expected to go beyond the sole production of art and culture, towards valuing exchange and learning processes for exploring the social dimension of art. The “Culture for Democracy” programme will have a specific focus on the independent culture scene outside of Belgrade. I am looking forward to continuing our legacy of supporting creative people, including the youth, in Serbia.
Culture expresses the meaning that people attach to their own existence and development. As a source of identity and dignity, and as a generator of social capital, culture fosters self-confidence in individuals, and cohesiveness and resilience in groups
You stated in another interview that an open society can be recognised due to the fact that controversial and engaged discussions are led on many issues. Do you have the impression that such discussions are lacking in Serbia?
In a democracy, it is important that opinions be openly exchanged, even on controversial topics. Only in such a way can different aspects be considered and a public opinion formed. In the best case, the encounter of arguments leads to a better mutual understanding and to solutions supported by a majority.
The willingness to listen to each other and to treat each other with respect are indispensable prerequisites for any constructive, democratic discourse. Every country, and I include both Switzerland and Serbia, must work constantly to ensure that these conditions are met, precisely because we need broad societal consensus in order to find solutions to major challenges, such as economic recovery from the COVID-19 Pandemic or climate change.
Switzerland is known as a country in which decisions on many issues are made directly by citizens through referenda. If Switzerland was Serbia, do you believe citizens would be asked if they want a Rio Tinto mine to be opened in their neighbourhood?
It is difficult to compare two political systems, based on a different historical development and a differently structured state. The Swiss political system is characterised by direct democracy, as you mention, but also by federalism and subsidiarity, i.e., the insight that decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level. This bottom-up approach is typically Swiss. Our system thus offers citizens a large degree of political participation and co-determination.
This requires that citizens actively monitor developments and get politically involved. For politicians, this means that they must take into account the sensitivities of the population at an early stage, because they will need the support of voters either to avoid a referendum or to get any project through a required referendum. That is the reason why, in Switzerland, all important stakeholders in political processes are involved from the outset, because a referendum – and a possible rejection of a proposal at the ballot box – requires a lot of time and resources. It is therefore better to listen to and involve people’s concerns and sensitivities already during the initial development of a project.
Our support has a strong focus on the local level, where Switzerland has rich experience due to its own decentralised way of functioning
In any society, the enjoyment of individual liberties also requires a high degree of personal responsibility, i.e., a responsible behaviour by every individual
In a democracy, it is important that opinions be openly exchanged, even on controversial topics. Only in such a way can different aspects be considered and a public opinion formed