Looking forward, Serbia today has an important choice to make. Does it follow its path towards full European integration and realize its full economic, political, and social potential? Or does it continue to chart a different path than its neighbors, a path that attempts to strike a “balance” but which, in reality, pins Serbia’s security and economic hopes largely on the East? I do not want Serbia left behind and I am confident many Serbians do not want that. Neither for themselves nor for their children ~ Christopher Hill
Id characterize the moment right now as quite important – notes U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill in his first interview for CorD Magazine. “U.S. relations with Serbia go back a long way, and our relations through much of our history have been positive and productive. I know all too well the legacy of the 1990s; and while we cannot forget history, it is important to focus on the future”.
Your Excellency, it’s been said that you’ve returned to Serbia for a fourth time. As someone who’s spent more than four decades monitoring relations between the U.S. and the former Yugoslavia/Serbia, how would you characterize those relations today?
It’s true that I keep coming back to Belgrade. I was first here as a young boy, when my father was posted as the Political Chief in the early 1960s. Then I was here as a first tour officer in the 1980s. I was in the region in the 1990s as our Chargé in Tirana, a member of the U.S. Dayton team, and Ambassador in Skopje. And now, after a long career in diplomacy and academia, I could not be happier to have found an opportunity to come back to Belgrade as the U.S. Ambassador. I have a lot of experience in this region, but I focused my first few months here on listening, learning, and getting to know today’s Serbia.
I’d characterize the moment right now as quite important. U.S. relations with Serbia go back a long way, and our relations through much of our history have been positive and productive. I know all too well the legacy of the 1990s; and while we cannot forget history, it is important to focus on the future. Looking forward, Serbia today has an important choice to make. Does it follow its path towards full European integration and realize its full economic, political, and social potential? Or does it continue to chart a different path than its neighbors, a path that attempts to strike a “balance” but which, in reality, pins Serbia’s security and economic hopes largely on the East? I do not want Serbia left behind and I am confident many Serbians do not want that. Neither for themselves nor for their children. I think I’ve been clear about where I see Serbia headed, and it’s my hope to do all that I can to help move Serbia towards the West and full European integration. I want to see a prosperous and secure Serbia that offers opportunity to all its citizens.
Your arrival has generated great interest in Serbia and around the region. A section of the public and the media present you as a diplomat who’s been brought out of retirement to resolve everything that your predecessors failed to resolve. What tops your agenda?
One lesson I’ve learned is that you need to understand the playing field and the current conditions before you can make a contribution to solving problems. That’s why I have been focused on getting to know today’s Serbia and trying to better understand how the United States can help Serbia achieve its full potential. I wish I had some magic dust to solve all the challenges in Serbia, the Balkans, and elsewhere, but that’s not how diplomacy works. I do think we can make consequential progress on tough issues, step by step. And that’s where I hope to start.
Speaking on the eve of celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the founding of the American Chamber of Commerce in Serbia, AmCham Serbia, you agreed with the assessment that Serbia is becoming a “key investment zone” in Europe. Where do you see potential for further growth?
Serbia has changed so much in the last 20 years! One of the most positive and promising transformations I have seen is the country’s growth as a center of technology and innovation. The government has made high-technology development and digitalization a major focus, and it’s clear that those efforts are bearing fruit. Some of the most successful American and international companies doing business in Serbia today are in high-technology fields, including digital services (NCR, Oracle), electronic gaming (Take Two Interactive, Epic Games), and pharmaceuticals (Hemofarm). Oracle and NVIDIA are helping to develop Serbia’s State Data Center to support Serbia’s new e-government services—and it’s important that these companies can provide data security and privacy to EU standards.
Some of the most successful American and international companies doing business in Serbia today are in high-tech nology fields, including digital services (NCR, Oracle), electronic gaming (Take Two Interactive, Epic Games), and pharmaceuticals (Hemofarm)
We are also proud to welcome one of our largest agricultural companies, Archer- Daniels-Midland, to the Serbian market as it plans to develop products for export to the wider European market.
Looking ahead, the other sector that begs for new investment is clean and renewable energy. I cannot stress enough the importance of attracting new investment for environmental reasons and for Serbia’s long-term energy security. Tomorrow’s high-tech economy cannot be powered by yesterday’s coal-fired power plants. Serbia must develop large-scale wind and solar power, and it must expand its energy storage capacity to enable these new renewable power sources. U.S. firms are world leaders in clean energy technology, and I hope to see more collaboration and cooperation in this sector.
The foundations of AmCham are represented by American business values, which include competitiveness, transparency, and free enterprise. However, when business is discussed in today’s context of the war in Ukraine, America adds security, or unquestionable political alliance, to that list of values – as described recently by U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen. Does Serbia satisfy all the necessary conditions to strengthen business cooperation?
American businesses embrace the values of competitiveness, transparency, and free enterprise because, over the course of our nation’s nearly 250-year history, adhering to those values has produced the world’s most prosperous economy. Around the world, the economies that provide fair opportunities to all citizens are the ones that are not distorted by corruption or excessive political influence. Those are the economies where people stay (or move to) to make their living and raise their families.
It might sound simple, but people and businesses choose with their feet.
Companies will make their own decisions about where to invest. But we now increasingly see that companies make those decisions based on the moral values of their customers and directors. Many Western companies decided to leave Russia after its brutal, unprovoked attack on Ukraine, because their customers and directors demanded it. Many companies may also think twice about investing in countries that have not taken a clear stand against Russia’s aggression. Ultimately, risk and instability are bad for business, so companies will look to find places to invest where they don’t have to worry about geopolitical uncertainty.
You’ve stated that you’ll “listen more than speak” during your time in Belgrade this time around. However, you stood out at the very beginning of your term with your messages to the authorities in Serbia, with which you directly announced your government’s expectations of Belgrade, mostly in the domain of geopolitics. Are you not ready to accept the policy of military neutrality that’s insisted on by officials in Serbia?
The United States fully respects Serbia’s military neutrality. We are quite pleased that Serbia maintains close military cooperation with the U.S. and is actively involved in the Partnership for Peace with NATO. This cooperation and partnership benefits both Serbia and the United States, as well as NATO. We would like to strengthen it.
How Serbia defends itself, how it arms itself, is up to Serbia. These are the most basic and fundamental questions for government. It seems to me that the most effective and efficient path towards security, particularly for a small or medium-sized country, would be to find some friends and to focus on collective defense. Likewise, I’m no expert in military equipment purchases, but I think a pretty basic approach would be to buy equipment that is reliable and that works with those countries with which you cooperate on global operations. Serbia’s key partners are Euro-Atlantic.
President Vučić and other Serbian leaders have repeatedly underscored that, politically, Serbia is not neutral and that it has chosen its path towards European integration. My government stands ready to partner with Serbia to help it achieve this strategic goal.
You’ve said that you support the Open Balkan regional project. Why do you think that this project in particular – as opposed to, say, CEFTA, which was established as part of the region’s European integration process – has the potential to entice additional investment from the U.S.?
We support any and all regional economic cooperation initiatives that will help Serbia and its Western Balkan neighbors come closer to their goal of EU accession, as long as those initiatives remain open to all neighbors. We have made clear at every opportunity that we support the EU institutions and processes that are working towards that goal, because we believe regional economic integration will bring concrete benefits to Serbia and all the people of this region. I attended the Open Balkan summit in Ohrid on June 8, and I spoke with EU commissioners and deputy commissioners, and representatives of European institutions, who felt the same way. A single Western Balkan market—with swift and smooth border crossings and harmonized trade practices and procedures—will be far more attractive to American investors than a slow moving, fragmented collection of small markets.
The United States International Development Finance Corporation, DFC, was expected to have a more active presence in Serbia. What can you say about the DFC’s current activities?
DFC has been working for a year and a half now, with the Ministry of Finance, to create a new loan portfolio guarantee program that will work through commercial banks in Serbia to support small and medium-sized businesses. Many smaller companies have been hurt by the Covid-19 pandemic, and now by the upheaval caused by Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and wider global economic disturbances.
The Washington Agreement was a good framework, but we are operating in 2022, and I’m not sure how durable that framework is today. Kosovo and Serbia are neighboring countries with many mutual concerns
This program will reduce the risk and the cost of bank loans to these smaller companies, and we hope it will help them survive and even thrive in the coming years. DFC has recently completed preparations to launch that loan guarantee program in cooperation with Banca Intesa, and more banks will be participating in the coming months. I would like to see DFC become more active in Serbia.
The DFC’s stronger presence was linked to the so-called Washington Agreement between Belgrade and Pristina, which was forged under the patronage of the cabinet of former President Trump. How do you view that agreement today; is it still considered valid?
The Washington Agreement was a good framework, but we are operating in 2022, and I’m not sure how durable that framework is today. Kosovo and Serbia are neighboring countries with many mutual concerns. Neighbors must talk. The best framework for that dialogue continues to be the EU-facilitated Dialogue. We support this 100%. I note that we have seen much better cooperation recently on energy, and I’m hopeful this is the start of something more.
Your arrival in Belgrade was followed in Kosovo and accompanied by the comment that you’re arriving “in the right place, at the right time.” Given Washington’s position that Serbia should recognize Kosovo independence, do you have much wiggle room in your diplomatic activities?
I just returned from my first trip back to the United States, and I think I can say that Washington is, as always, very willing to work with those who are willing to work with us and to seek lasting solutions.
You were a member of the U.S. delegation that made preparations for the signing of the Dayton Accords, but today some people suggest that this peace agreement has lost its relevance and is only hindering the proper functioning of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Can the Dayton Accords be amended without running the risk of deepening the existing crisis in that country?
I’m the U.S. Ambassador to Serbia, so I’ll kindly repeat what my colleague at the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, Michael Murphy, said just a few months ago when he too arrived as the new U.S. Ambassador: “BiH requires functional, efficient, and accountable state-level institutions in which all leaders participate in good faith. It also requires functional, efficient, and accountable entities that are focused on building a democratic and prosperous future for their residents. Right now, BiH has neither. With this in mind, I will make it a priority to support the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords, the subsequent state-level reforms that your elected officials supported and agreed to, and most importantly, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” It is my hope that President Vučić and Serbia will continue to also work towards these goals.
I think I’ve been clear about where I see Serbia headed, and it’s my hope to do all that I can to help move Serbia towards the West and full European integration
The United States fully respects Serbia’s military neutrality. We are quite pleased that Serbia maintains close military cooperation with the U.S.
Neighbors must talk. The best framework for that dialogue continues to be the EU-facilitated Dialogue. We support this 100%
Photo: Courtesy of University of Denver