This generation of politicians is obliged, first and foremost in the interests of Serbia, to attempt to once again find a common language and common interest with the United States, and that won’t be as tough as it may seem at first glance, provided good will exists on both sides.
Serbian Foreign Affairs Minister Nikola Selaković attracted great media and public attention when he highlighted the building of new partnership relations with the U.S. as one of Serbia’s priorities. In a year when we are commemorating the 140th anniversary of the establishing of bilateral relations, as well as 20 years since both the start of USAID’s work in Serbia and the establishment of AmCham in the country, our interlocutor provides his views on cooperation to date and proposals for different approaches in the future. “We can only miss out on the opportunity to elevate our relations to a much higher level in the coming period if we are extremely unreasonable,” says Selaković.
“Serbia and the United States have had harmonious political and diplomatic relations throughout their entire history. We had the misfortune as a state, due to numerous circumstances, of finding ourselves in conflict with the United States at what was a critical historical juncture for the entire world, but this was undoubtedly an uncharacteristic situation if we look at the tradition of bilateral relations between Serbia and America,” says Selaković. “This generation of politicians is obliged, first and foremost in the interests of Serbia, to attempt to once again find a common language and common interest with the United States, and that won’t be as tough as it may seem at first glance, provided good will exists on both sides. Our countries have foundations based on the same libertarian traditions and democratic values, and, with the exception of the Kosovo issue, we don’t have outstanding issues with the United States that could represent an insurmountable obstacle in the creating of a new partnership.”
Speaking in your then capacity as Secretary General of the Office of the President of Serbia, you expressed satisfaction that an agreement on economic normalization between Priština and Belgrade had been reached thanks to the mediation of then U.S. President Donald Trump. However, it now seems that the Serbian administration has high expectations when it comes to new U.S. President Joseph Biden.
The political postulate that forms the basis of the Washington agreement is that relations between Belgrade and Priština can be eased gradually through the strengthening of business ties and the creation of common economic interests.
This is a recipe that’s based on common sense, but also on tried and tested American political experiences. Despite many doubts among the local public and around the world regarding the attitude of President Biden’s administration towards the fruits of the work of the preceding administration, the State Department has clearly said that there won’t be a change of attitude when it comes to the Washington Agreement. When it comes to Serbia’s European integration, Washington has provided continuous support on our path to the EU. Given that the Biden administration intends to restore the United States’ active role as a beacon of democracy at the global level, the U.S. administration’s expectations regarding reform processes in Serbia coincide with our own interests and aspirations when it comes to the further consolidation of democracy in Serbia.
When it comes to European integration, Serbia, the U.S. and the EU undoubtedly have overlapping interests. The only things we expect are equal measures and fair relations when it comes to evaluating and appraising the successes achieved in reform processes, and to date that hasn’t always been the case
We recently had the opportunity to hear German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas express his belief that, with the support of the new U.S. government, an opportunity is being offered to find a solution to the Kosovo issue, and to reach a comprehensive agreement that will also bring economic prosperity. What are your expectations when it comes to this economic side?
There is no doubt whatsoever that frozen conflicts don’t represent a favorable environment for dynamic economic growth and doing business securely and predictably. We have been saying for many years that we were ready—through some kind of compromise solution to outstanding issues between Belgrade and Priština—to create a more stimulating environment for the economic recovery and advancement of the region. And this isn’t only about taking an economically pragmatic approach, but also about our genuine desire to permanently shift the Western Balkans out of a post-conflict atmosphere and to bring an end to all interethnic friction in our region, in a sustainable way. In that sense, Serbia couldn’t be more constructive and sincere, while the only reservation we have relates to Serbia’s state and national interests, which must be satisfied as part of every enduring and sustainable solution in the Balkans. I am deeply convinced that such solutions are possible and only require a little foresight and constructiveness from our Western partners, among which the U.S. certainly stands out in terms of size, influence and might.
Even though we’re talking about a new partnership, it is important to mention that this year also marks the 140th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our two countries. Which historical occasions would you cite as being the most important to the future strengthening of friendship and cooperation with the U.S.?
There are countless historical events that could be singled out as highlights or peaks in Serbian-American relations, starting with the presence of American doctors in these lands during the Balkan wars, through Pupin’s relations with President Wilson, to Operation Halyard, which resulted in the rescuing of the largest number of American pilots in occupied Europe during World War II. Today, Serbia’s informal ambassadors to the United States are our great athletes, who help to shape an image that differs greatly from the stereotypes about Serbia and Serbs that emerged during the 1990s.
Unlike some bygone times, it is Beijing in particular that is becoming an important player in foreign policy, but also in economic development, in today’s highly globalized world. And that is something we’re also witnessing in Serbia. When it comes to small countries, to what extent are relations between the major powers formed by the leading of diplomatic policies?
Serbia leads an open and transparent multivalent foreign policy based on the principles of our country’s military neutrality and political independence. We have no hidden agendas and no desire, as a small country, to interfere in the geopolitical disagreements of world and regional powers. We consider it possible to persevere with such a policy provided we continue successfully proving our credibility by working consistently on the creation of a stable region and the removal of economic obstacles, which has the end goal of facilitating political relations in the Western Balkans. It is tough for small countries and nations in turbulent times—and we are living in just such a geopolitical era—to find the space to develop and advance without joining blocs, but Serbia continues to seek its own place under the sun by pursuing a regional policy that’s responsible and well-intentioned in every sense, but also by jealously protecting its state-building traditions and its hard-won freedom and independence.
Since the democratic changes of 2000 to this day, USAID has encouraged numerous processes during the 20 years of its activity in Serbia, from strengthening the rule of law, to providing incentives to strengthen the market and promote innovation. How important has this support been to the modern Serbia?
After a number of years spent under an atmosphere of sanctions and isolation, Serbia found itself entering a transition period completely unprepared. I don’t think Serbia was a successful example of transition during the first decade of this millennium, but there are numerous reasons for that, and now is not the time for me to get into them. However, in many areas—such as judicial reform or the establishing of a market economy— foreign knowhow was invaluable and irreplaceable, even though that period of our history, if I must provide a general retrospective rating, was a missed opportunity to a large extent.
Regardless of how good the intentions of American and other foreign experts, agencies and NGOs were, the fact remains that today’s economic relations between Serbia and the U.S. are far below our possibilities, and it is necessary to invest new strength and energy, and to initiate some mechanisms to strengthen those relations that are perhaps more efficient. I will only remind your readers that the value of the trade exchange with the U.S. amounted to 811.5 million dollars in 2020, while in the first four months of this year it totaled 285.4 million, which I’m sure you’ll agree is only symbolic when considering the possibilities on offer.
We believe it would be very important to reach agreement with the U.S. on the avoidance of double taxation as soon as possible, and for Serbia’s preferential trade status with the U.S. to be extended
In accordance with the Washington Agreement, another U.S. agency, the Development Finance Corporation (DFC), should contribute to opening the door to U.S. investment in the Western Balkan region. Is it true, as media have speculated, that the arrival of the Biden administration has led to that plan being shelved; and, if so, what would be the repercussions when it comes to expected American investments, primarily in infrastructure?
The United States has a permanent interest in Serbia and the Western Balkans. We certainly have high expectations when it comes to economic cooperation with the United States, but it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to discuss the details of these plans or the dynamics of their implementation. The very fact that DFC formalized its presence in Belgrade with the opening a regional office is a very important step, and it is my sincere hope that we are on the threshold of a period of the continuous development of Serbian-American relations, including economic relations. It is evident that huge untapped potential exists in economic cooperation between Serbia and the U.S., and it is estimated that areas like energy, infrastructure and new technologies are particularly favorable for the development of cooperation.
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the forming of Am- Cham in Serbia, as an association of American investors that operate very successfully in the country and have created a great many jobs over the years. How important are these business links when it comes to consolidating good diplomatic relations?
Apart from creating a significant number of jobs in Serbia, it seems to me that American investors also deserve the credit for one much more important change. Specifically, they brought to Serbia a new type of work ethic and well-organized systems that encourage competitiveness in the workplace. This mostly relates to companies that employ young, highly-qualified people. And some of those people opted to remain in Serbia and forge their professional future here thanks precisely to them gaining the opportunity to work for American companies, where they have predictable career development pathways. This type of relationship and cooperation between countries, which is reflected in investment activity, represents a key segment of the political and diplomatic warming of relations, because that changes the way Americans perceive Serbia and Serbs, but also the way a critically important group of the Serbian population perceives the U.S., which is extremely important following years of crisis in our relations. That’s why we owe a debt of gratitude to business associations like AmCham, but also why we are obliged to continue improving the business environment, to ensure that economic relations between Serbia and America continue to flourish.
Today’s economic relations between Serbia and the U.S. are far below our possibilities, and it is necessary to invest new strength and energy, and to initiate some more efficient mechanisms to strengthen those relations.
The “Mini Schengen” initiative that was launched by President Vučić, as well as our solidarity during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, testify to the direction in which Serbia wants our region to develop.
The type of relationship and cooperation between our countries that is reflected in investment activity represents a key segment of the political and diplomatic warming of relations.