From my perspective, it’s entirely realistic to think that building stronger economic cooperation between Serbia and Kosovo is an achievable goal that will quickly bring concrete results. It would build trust and lead to improved cooperation in other areas. Perhaps real reconciliation between Belgrade and Pristina is within our grasp. There is no reason to delay – Anthony Godfrey
When asked what current bilateral relations between the United States and Serbia are like, the American ambassador answers succinctly: excellent! Equally concisely, Ambassador Anthony Godfrey poses a counter-question “why not?” in response to our question as to whether an idea exists for reaching a solution for Kosovo soon? In this interview for CorD Magazine, Ambassador Godfrey says that Washington’s policy towards the region will not change, regardless of who will be elected president of the United States in November. Early July sees Americans celebrate their Independence Day, and this year the whole of Serbia was invited to the celebration – a virtual celebration during the time of the Coronavirus marking the 244th anniversary of American independence.
Ambassador Godfrey, this year’s U.S. Independence Day will be commemorated at a time when the country is confronted by great challenges. The struggle against Covid-19 is not yet over, with a large number of victims having been recorded in America. How will the 4th of July be celebrated or marked this year?
This is certainly a challenging time in terms of public health, and Covid-19 continues to pose a threat to the United States and other countries across the globe. We cannot let our guard down.
But I am also confident that we will all pull through this crisis by working together. The images of Air Serbia planes flying to Italy to deliver assistance is something I will never forget. I am also proud that my own country could provide some $2.9 million in assistance to Serbia. The stronger international networks and the better global cooperation we establish during this period should help us confront future challenges, not only diseases but maybe things like natural disasters too.
Meanwhile, we have been thinking in recent weeks about how to mark Independence Day during a period when the public health situation is still somewhat uncertain. We have decided to take a careful approach. So, on 4th July, at 11 am sharp, I’ll be hosting an online event to mark the 244th anniversary of the independence of the United States. And I am inviting every Serbian to join us in this virtual celebration on our Facebook page. (Note: The web address is https://www.facebook.com/USEmbassySerbia/live/.)
The United States has obviously faced many challenges since we won our independence from Great Britain in 1776. That includes two world wars during which our two countries were allies. And throughout our history, we have continued to adapt and grow as a country and a people. Americans also recognise that we still have problems to overcome. We are constantly trying to “create a more perfect union,” as mentioned in the U.S. Constitution.
So I would say that we do have reasons to celebrate our national day, even if we are handling this year’s event a little differently than in the past. But I do hope your readers will join us on Facebook on the 4th of July.
You have already hinted at this. The last month was marked by protests across the United States after the death of an African American George Floyd, in an incident involving the police in Minneapolis. How do you view this civil unrest?
Well, this is a time of great sadness for me, and really for all Americans. I obviously feel deep sympathy for Mr Floyd’s family for their loss, and I also recognise that this tragedy fits into a larger picture of American society.
A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I hosted a candlelight vigil for members of the Embassy community. That gave us a chance to remember Mr Floyd, to reflect on the situation of African Americans in the U.S. today, and to think about how we can move forward together as a society. “Liberty and justice for all” is a bedrock belief for Americans. Our Declaration of Independence declares that all people are created equal. We must all do more — collectively and individually, in the government, in the workplace, and in our towns and cities — to ensure that each and every one of us truly is equal. Our ideals need to become a reality for every single American – regardless of race, religion, ethnic group, or sexual orientation, and regardless of age or whether someone has a disability.
We do not try to hide or cover our shortcomings as a nation. I have been pretty open about this on social media and in engagements with journalists. Some governments attempt to control the press, to limit the flow of information, and to hide problems. They might want to create a false, new narrative to play down an emerging virus threat or to cover up corruption or environmental disasters. They might want to limit the ability of journalists to criticise government decisions. They might aim to limit people’s freedom of expression or prevent the free exercise of religion.
But this strategy can have tragic results. The truth always comes to light, and now modern technology makes it easy to share information quickly and widely. Let me say this, too: hiding information from citizens erodes trust and undermines democracy, stability and even security. It enables corruption and abuse. In fact, had the Chinese Communist Party not hidden information about the COVID outbreak when it happened, the world might be in a very different place right now.
“Liberty and justice for all” is a bedrock belief for Americans. Our Declaration of Independence declares that all people are created equal. We must all do more — collectively and individually, in the government, in the workplace, and in our towns and cities — to ensure that each and every one of us truly is equal
This is as true in the United States as it is here in Serbia, or anywhere else in the world.
So, yes, this is a difficult time for America. Yes, it might look somewhat chaotic from afar. But democracy is not always neat and tidy. There must be a debate, sometimes even loud arguments, and some displays of passion. But those are all ingredients of progress. You have to hear everyone’s perspective. You have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. We are already seeing local governments back in the U.S. institute reforms in policing. Extremely important conversations on race and equality are now taking place throughout American society.
You know, one other silver lining is that what is happening in America is prompting other nations to look at their own legacies of racism and injustice. With that in mind, let me just say that I applaud all citizens and organisations working for greater justice and equality. Those are not just dreamy ideals. Those are basic values that we all share as human beings, spelt out in the UN Charter of Human Rights. And they are goals that all governments and all societies should strive to guarantee.
Some analyses of the situation in the U.S. also raise the question of whether the Presidential election contest will further divide American society in the months ahead. You already see what’s happening in public gatherings and riots. What do you anticipate will happen?
Most of the civic activism you see today in the U.S. has actually been quite peaceful, including the recent protests about racial justice and police reform. Violent incidents have been the exception to the rule rather than the norm. And I would argue that that’s been the case during the continuing struggle for equality throughout much of the history of the United States, particularly since the start of the Civil Rights Movement. Marches, protests, sit-ins, non-violent civil disobedience.
Those were the hallmarks of the struggle for the rights of African Americans during the time of Martin Luther King Jr. Latinos, Native Americans, women, the LGBTQI community and the disabled have all borrowed those same tools to secure their rights.
So, I condemn violence, of course, but I view the current public discourse, including the peaceful protests, as a sign that a growing number of Americans recognise the need for justice in their communities and want greater unity.
Meanwhile, I expect the Presidential and Congressional campaigns to be exciting and even raucous at times, as we head toward Election Day on 2nd November. U.S. electoral campaigns have rarely been quiet affairs throughout history. They are never boring.
But going back to what I said earlier, freedom of the media and freedom of expression generally allow Americans – both candidates and ordinary citizens – to share and receive information from different sides and hear perspectives about all aspects of the issues.
U.S. Citizens make their views clear through party primaries and general elections, as well as votes on specific issues through referendums and other ballot initiatives at the state and local levels. We have a pretty colourful electoral system. The next couple of months will remind foreign audiences of that fact.
The current U.S. administration has appointed two officials as special envoys for the region, who are both involved in promoting dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. In the event of any change at the White House after the November elections, what would be the fates of Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Palmer and Ambassador Richard Grenell?
A return to dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina is not a partisan issue, so I would expect no change at all in terms of the U.S. position. Stability and prosperity for the region are objectives strongly supported by both of the United States’ major political parties.
Confronting the truth head on, through a free media and open debate, might sometimes make some people uncomfortable, but it leads to better solutions. It also lays the foundations for good government, peace and prosperity
While I cannot comment on the elections, I can assure you that this region will continue to be important for Washington and for my team at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, no matter what happens in November. All of us will continue to support efforts to bring peace, prosperity, and a European future for the people of this region.
According to one story making the rounds, the current U.S. administration hopes to reach some kind of agreement between Belgrade and Pristina by the time of the American presidential elections. Do you think that’s realistic?
Why not? From my perspective, it’s entirely realistic to think that leaders would want to sign a durable agreement that would increase the prosperity of their citizens and bring stability to the region. Continued tension blocks the prospects of further growth and prosperity for the people of this region. All of us — Special Presidential Envoy Grenell, the White House, the whole U.S. State Department, and my Embassy team – hold a shared belief: building stronger economic cooperation between Serbia and Kosovo is an achievable goal that will quickly bring concrete results. It would build trust and lead to improved cooperation in other areas. Perhaps real reconciliation between Belgrade and Pristina is within our grasp. There is no reason to delay.
During your recent meeting with Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić, you expressed disappointment with the latest moves by Pristina, which again threatened transports of goods from central Serbia to Kosovo. The earlier lifting of import duties on Serbian goods was preceded by strong U.S. pressure. What kind of message will Washington now send?
We were happy to see that Pristina dropped its insistence on reciprocity measures that would have seriously impacted trade and economic development on both sides. The United States wants to see all barriers to dialogue removed and all trade policies refocused on what is best for the people of this region. That approach has the greatest potential to create jobs, increase incomes and prevent further brain drains. This is our longstanding position.
How do you view current relations between Serbia and Montenegro?
Serbia and Montenegro have so much in common, and they have so much to gain from cooperation and friendly relations. We believe the people and governments of both countries understand this and can work through any challenges. We are concerned, however, by the heated rhetoric and growing tensions. Some media and politicians in Serbia appear to be fanning the flames of controversy and promoting outrage in a cynical attempt simply to sell newspapers.
What is happening in America is prompting other nations to look at their own legacies of racism and injustice. With that in mind, let me just say that I applaud all citizens and organisations working for greater justice and equality. Those are not just dreamy ideals
Religious freedom is a fundamental value, which the United States supports, and we believe this issue should be addressed through open and honest discussions. People need to ignore the noise of the tabloids and populists and instead simply listen to each other.
In the lead up to the June elections in Serbia, you had contacts with political leaders of all stripes, whom you encouraged to participate in the elections. Some of them had claimed that current conditions would not allow for free and fair elections. Why were you opposed to the idea of boycotting the elections? What would you say now about the electoral process, given that a portion of the opposition and citizens of Serbia did decide to boycott the elections?
We definitely acknowledge the legitimate concerns of the opposition about the lack of access to media and other shortcomings in the electoral process.
That being said, the people deserve a say in who their representatives are and, to be frank, we did not see a boycott of the elections as an effective alternative to elections in giving people a voice.
We believe that a boycott actually limits the opposition’s effectiveness in advocating for change on behalf of those it seeks to represent.
At any rate, our shared goal remains to make Serbia a stronger democracy.
We look forward to ODIHR’s final report on the elections, but I would predict that it will find that there is still room for improvement. For one thing, the media environment did not give the various parties an equal opportunity to convey their vision for Serbia’s future. As the EU and many others have said, Serbia still has work to do with regard to its electoral system.
Going forward, the U.S. Embassy and other missions in Belgrade will work with individuals and groups – including those who did and didn’t boycott the election – to promote freedom of the media, strengthen civil society, hold the government accountable to the citizens and make this a more democratic country.
You often talk about the importance of a free press in democracies. What is your assessment of the media environment in Serbia today?
Like others, the United States is deeply concerned about the state of the media in Serbia. This country continues to receive negative assessments in this area from reputable international groups – from Reporters Without Borders, Freedom House, the OSCE, the European Union and others. Tabloids continue to distort and dissemble, lazily running unsubstantiated, sensationalist stories created by outside entities with shadowy agendas. At the same time, diverse political voices and viewpoints unpopular with the powers that be have little or no access to most outlets. A free and independent media is the best medicine to improve the health of Serbia’s democratic future.
It’s entirely realistic to think that leaders would want to sign a durable agreement that would increase the prosperity of their citizens and bring stability to the region. Continued tension blocks the prospects of further growth and prosperity for the people of this region
Are you satisfied with the progress on the Morava Corridor, construction of which will be carried out by an American-Turkish consortium?
I am glad that work has started on the highway, and that it is continuing at a decent pace. I hope that other American companies will have the opportunity to participate in building more of Serbia’s transportation and technology infrastructure in the coming years. These networks are vital to growing Serbia’s economy, and the construction projects themselves provide important jobs. That’s a big help in fighting the brain drain problem.
Has the downturn in the global economy, caused by the struggle against Covid-19, impacted interest in investing in Serbia among potential U.S. investors?
Covid-19 has unfortunately affected businesses around the world, but Serbia actually seems to be in a better economic position than many other countries, because of its prudent fiscal management and stable monetary policy in recent years. Covid-19 will eventually pass, and economies around the world will recover. When that time comes, I trust that American investors will continue to see Serbia as a welcoming environment for new investment.
During the virtual 4th of July celebrations that you are hosting, I am sure we will see both the U.S. and Serbian flags flying alongside each other. How would you assess bilateral relations at present?
Excellent, and getting better every day.
Hiding information from citizens erodes trust and undermines democracy, stability and even security. It enables corruption and abuse
Democracy is not always neat and tidy. There must be debate, sometimes even loud arguments, and some displays of passion. But those are all ingredients of progress
A return to dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina is not a partisan issue, so I would expect no change at all in terms of the U.S. position