Many U.S. corporate executives see Serbia as a country with great potential for future growth, where a visionary company can seize an advantage by being a “first-mover” in a promising market

The United States wants to see an economically strong Serbia that is anchored in European institutions and capable of improving the quality of life in Serbia, contributing to the prosperity and stability of the region, says Baron Lobstein new economic attache at the U.S. Embassy.

You are one among the many US diplomats who came to Serbia with very good Serbian already. Was it hard to learn a new language, although we know you already speak Russian?

– Learning new languages is one of the real privileges of working with the American diplomatic service. During my 17-year Foreign Service career, I have had the opportunity to speak Russian, Chinese, German, French, and Uzbek on the job. Learning Serbian over the past year has been somewhat easier than Chinese, for example, but especially enjoyable because of our teachers at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington.

We have wonderful teachers from Serbia who love their country and love sharing their culture with us. In class, we spoke only Serbian for six hours every day for ten months. We read the poems of Vuk Karadžić as well as the daily Serbian-language news. We listened to the songs of Toma Zdravković and had Serbian meals together. The experience was a great joy.

You have served in the Economic Section at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and as Economic Chief on the State Department’s Russia Desk, fostering strong economic ties with both countries. What would be your most valuable and useful experience for Serbia?

– The most powerful lesson of my prior diplomatic experience is that we cannot treat any single country in isolation from others. Each country, large or small, is part of a global community, and even in cases where we have strong disagreements with other countries on some issues, we can still make progress in other areas for mutual benefit.

During my time in Moscow, for example, we made a choice to work together to advance Russia’s efforts to join the World Trade Organization, to protect our shared Arctic environment, and to contain the spread of infectious diseases, even though we differed in major ways on other issues.

In Beijing, we organized an intensive series of talks aimed at resolving long-standing differences on economic and trade policy, because both our governments understood that a better U.S.-China trade relationship would materially improve millions of lives not only in our countries but around the world.

These are vital lessons for my work in Belgrade. Serbia faces significant challenges in its effort to join the European Union. This goal is also important to the United States because an economically strong Serbia that is anchored in European institutions can improve its people’s living standards and contribute to stability and prosperity throughout the region. We want Serbia to succeed economically, because it is good for Serbia, and it is also good for America.

Building an effective Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program is essential for today’s business success, and foreign companies, including members of AmCham Serbia, are putting a strong emphasis on CSR. How can the embassy and AmCham contribute to bringing this know-how to Serbia?

As a person who covered U.S.-China trade, intellectual property rights, information technology, and other related issues, how do you see the impact of current developments in other countries that deal with China? In information technology, for instance?

– In my years working in U.S. economic diplomacy, the United States has worked around the world to promote high standards of fairness and transparency in a rules-based community of nations and institutions. We supported China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 because we believed it was important for China to be a part of a global system of rules and fair trade, with established principles and procedures for dispute settlement. Our current concerns with China’s trade practices focus largely on its unequal treatment of the U.S. and other foreign companies in its own market.

But because China’s market is so large, its industrial policies, particularly in the area of information technology, have the potential to affect the entire world. The modern economy is increasingly based on products of intellectual effort and electronic storage and the exchange of information. We are concerned not only that China has disadvantaged American and other foreign technology companies within China, but also that Chinese firms have unfairly used technologies developed by American firms as the basis for their own products. Some people claim that the United States wants to “contain” China’s rise. This is not our aim. We want China to develop its economy, but we want it to do so fairly.

How do security questions shape the way economies advance in “Industry 4.0,” and what should smaller countries like Serbia keep in mind when building e-government services and digital business solutions?

– The entire complex of emerging technologies that are defining the coming industrial age – smart manufacturing, smart cities, the Internet of Things, cloud computing, and the 5G networks that will enable these technologies – introduce a whole universe of new security issues, which affect all economies. Both the government and the private sector in the United States have faced serious problems with the security of data and networks, including the theft of personal information.

Cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure like power plants and financial networks have become a serious threat that could even affect the global economy. Countries like Serbia that seek to introduce new e-government services, advanced manufacturing, and other digital business solutions must also deal with these threats, just as larger countries do. But they often must do so with more limited resources. This makes it all the more critical for such countries to cooperate closely with international partners on sharing best practices in cybersecurity, and to commit to using only the most secure equipment in building new digital infrastructure.

In comparison to Russia and China, Serbia is quite a small economy. What interest can U.S. companies have here, beyond those which are already operating in the country?

– U.S. companies are always looking for opportunities to expand into new markets, to find new sources of talent, and to save money. Just since arriving in Serbia a month ago, I have talked to representatives of American firms that appreciate what Serbia has to offer. You have talented, well-educated workers, and a government that is eager to attract new investment, in a country where the cost of living is still relatively inexpensive.

In Serbia, many corporate executives see a country where there is great potential for future growth, where a visionary company can seize an advantage by being a “first-mover” in a promising market. We are eager to introduce American companies to Serbia.

We want Serbia to succeed economically, because it is good for Serbia, and it is also good for America

Serbia is recognized as a country with a promising start-up community, looking to build ties with Silicon Valley and become a true start-up nation. Would you assist in fostering these relations?

– Our embassy is always looking for opportunities to build new connections between Serbian and U.S. partners that can help benefit both countries. Only a few days ago, I had the pleasure of attending the annual celebration of Serbia’s National Alliance for Local Economic Development (NALED), which was founded 13 years ago with assistance from the U.S. government and our embassy. Since then, it has fostered a series of important economic reforms that have improved Serbia’s business climate.

Together with efforts by Minister Mihajlovic and her team, NALED has helped Serbia to rise to 43rd on the World Bank’s “Doing Business” index of the easiest countries to open and operate a business. The easier it is to do business here, the more people will choose to start businesses in Serbia, and the more small and medium-sized firms will create job opportunities that give young, talented Serbians a reason to stay and live in Serbia.

Our embassy has several programs that can take advantage of this trend and help promising Serbian entrepreneurs to build connections with their American counterparts. We look for promising leaders in both government and the private sector for exchange visits to the United States, such as our International Visitor Leadership Program, which allows them to observe and discuss entrepreneurship, public administration, intellectual property rights, and other key economic issues with American partners. Whenever possible, we also try to bring expert speakers and other visitors to Serbia to meet and interact with Serbian professionals.

Building an effective Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program is essential for today’s business success, and foreign companies, including members of AmCham Serbia, are putting a strong emphasis on CSR. How can the embassy and AmCham contribute to bringing this know-how to Serbia?

– This is an excellent suggestion, and I plan to expand on progress already made by the embassy in this arena. For the past ten years, “Our Belgrade” has been working to develop a culture of corporate volunteering and philanthropy in Serbia.

This effort was launched by the Responsible Business Forum and Smart Kolektiv, with support from USAID. Already, more than 30 companies and 3,500 employees have participated in these efforts. Another great initiative began this past April when USAID launched a $2 million “Framework for Giving” project with the Ana and Vlade Divac Foundation, as well as the Serbian Chamber of Commerce and other partners, to promote philanthropy in Serbia and modernize the nation’s laws governing this important arena.

Smart enterprises focus on corporate social responsibility not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because they know that in today’s world, attracting and retaining the best workers requires these efforts.