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H.E. Damjan Bergant, Ambassador Of Slovenia To Serbia

European Identity Above Nationality

Slovenia is ready to assist Serbia on all issues related to the European integration process, says Slovenian Ambassador H.E. Damjan Bergant in this interview for CorD Magazine

Responding to the increasingly prevalent question of whether recognition of Kosovo’s independence represents a precondition for Serbia’s EU accession, he presents the view that it is essential “for Serbia to normalise relations with Kosovo”. In this context, Belgrade must endeavour to be as cooperative as possible and to act in good faith in order for the normalisation agreement to be implemented under the shortest possible timeframe. Understanding the idea of the EU means understanding that the individual is at the centre, and not the nation, says the ambassador, explaining his contention that “the worst enemy of the EU is nationalism”, which he also recognises in Serbia, where “individuals are currently inclined more towards nationalism than the European perspective”.

Your Excellency, given that you arrived in Serbia almost three years ago, it could be said that you are approaching the culmination of your mandate. How would you rate relations between Slovenia and Serbia from your personal perspective?

– Slovenia and Serbia cooperate well and have excellent relations. This doesn’t mean we can’t further strengthen our cooperation, which is actually our task, and one that I think we are performing well. We want Serbia to advance on its path to EU accession, which means Serbia diligently doing its homework and resolving all issues that currently represent obstacles to its EU accession. That would further deepen our bilateral cooperation. There should be no need to repeat that Slovenia is always ready to help Serbia on issues related to the EU.

You stated at the beginning of your mandate in Belgrade that you would also dedicate yourself to supporting Slovenes who live in Serbia. How would you rate their position?

– Slovenes in Serbia are generally very well organised. These are Serbian people with Slovenian roots, some of whom have Slovenian citizenship and work in individual companies. These associations are important because they secure the preservation of identity and promote the Slovenian culture and language. The embassy is in constant contact with all such associations and offers them assistance.

There are also many Slovenians living in Serbia, most of whom work here as businesspeople. We are also a great pillar of support to them and offer to help them when required. In short, the Embassy strives to perform its tasks to the best of its abilities. I hope that is also seen and appreciated by Slovenians.

Does the space exist to improve the position of Serbs in Slovenia, who still haven’t been granted the status of a national minority that they desire?

– It is also necessary in this instance to clearly distinguish between two categories. One represents Slovenians with Serbian roots, while the other relates to Serbian nationals working in Slovenia. Regardless of status, Slovenia provides for the protection of the rights and freedoms of all individuals, in accordance with the Constitution and laws. Everyone can use their own language and practice their own culture. Young people with Serbian roots have the opportunity to learn the Serbian language in Slovenia, while at the same time they all represent a valued part of Slovenian society. According to the Slovenian Constitution, there are two autochthonous national communities in the country: Italian and Hungarian, who also have their own representatives in the Parliament.

When Serbia is one day in the EU, and its neighbouring countries are also there, all Serbs will live under one flag – the European flag – and in a democratic environment based on the rule of law and respect for individual human rights

Apart from that, there is also a Roma community that is represented at the local level. All other nations and nationalities have, as noted, rights that are harmonised with international conventions. Serbs reside throughout the entire country of Slovenia and are not confined to a specific geographical area, as is the case with representatives of the Italian and Hungarian communities, who were already living in those areas before the creation of the independent Slovenia. In Slovenia, we don’t differentiate between Serbs who live and work in Slovenia and Serbs who live and work in other EU member states. For example, there are many more Serbs living in Germany or Austria, and no questions or demands are being made of these countries regarding the recognition of the Serbian minority.

Slovenia is among Serbia’s most important economic partners. The existing group of 1,500 Slovenian companies was recently joined by another one, with the acquisition of the Serbian glassworks in Paraćin. You’ve said that Slovenian business interests are currently directed towards construction. What are they interested in the most?

– That’s right, the legendary Paraćin glassworks – after many years of tribulations for that very important company; the only factory producing glass packaging in the wider region, and a factory with huge potential – has been taken over by international company Global Glass, which also owns Staklarna Hrastnik [glass manufacturer based in Hrastnik, Slovenia]. This holding company has serious customers and an ambitious business agenda, so it is planning major investments in the Paraćin glassworks, which could become the main engine of the holding company. We are very glad that Slovenian management and Slovenian knowledge and experience can once again elevate the Paraćin glassworks to the position it once held and which its workers deserve.

Alongside that investment, which is a de jure Swiss investment, albeit with Slovenian knowhow and management, there is also great interest in projects in the area of ecology and green energy – primarily in terms of the announced major and important projects to build waste processing and recycling centres, sewage systems, wastewater treatment plants and renewable energy sources, in which the Slovenian economy once again has a wealth of experience and knowhow, as well as capital to invest. We find it regrettable that this area is developing slowly, because these projects were announced three years ago, but plans were disrupted by economic cycles, the pandemic and other priorities. We hope that the Serbian market will recognise the added value of Slovenian companies that can be of great importance for the realisation of the noted projects, and that they will receive an opportunity to prove themselves.

How far have talks progressed on the announced joint modernisation of the Belgrade-Ljubljana railway?

– From our side, as far as I know, there are no obstacles to the development of rail traffic. However, I’m not acquainted with the situation in Serbia and Croatia.

Are you satisfied with the level of cooperation achieved in the areas of education and culture?

– I am extremely satisfied with what the two countries are doing in the field of culture. I’m happy that so many exchanges exist between artists and it delights me every time we are informed, for example, about the performances and concerts of Slovenian artists in Serbia. If they ask for help, we will happily help them as much as we can. In any case, it is necessary to continue cooperation on the cultural front at the same tempo.

You stated recently that the road from Belgrade to Brussels could go via Ljubljana. Referring to a possible partnership on the road to Europe, you added “but only on condition that they cooperate equally and without envy”. Could you elaborate a little on what you meant?

– Slovenia has supported Serbia on its path to EU accession from the very outset and intends to continue doing so. As I said, the question, of course, is how much Slovenian help Serbia will want. It is not proper or decent for Slovenia to impose aid. At the same time, Slovenia, as an EU member state, can always be a great advocate for Serbia in Brussels. Being well acquainted with Serbia and the other countries of the Western Balkans, Slovenia can contribute a lot to discussions in Brussels, in a positive sense. And my statement that the road from Serbia to Brussels could lead via Ljubljana was also made in that context. When it comes to the second part of your question, I can say that relationships between states are the same as relationships between people. They require a transparent, two-way approach. If we want to do business in such a way, there is no room to open issues that could harm relations.

You are among the diplomats who often say that Serbia will be a future part of the EU. How do you interpret the waning enthusiasm for that process among Serbian citizens?

– Serbian citizens generally aren’t familiar with what the EU actually offers or how Serbia’s EU membership would impact on them and Serbian society. They mostly have a mistaken idea that, by becoming an EU member, Serbia will have to give up certain things that mark Serbian statehood and transfer certain elements and sovereignty elsewhere.

It is essential for Serbia to normalise relations with Kosovo. In this context, it must endeavour to be as cooperative as possible and to act in good faith in order for the normalisation agreement to also be implemented under the shortest possible timeframe. Of course, not everything depends on Serbia

They actually still haven’t realised that being an EU citizen is an upgraded annex to being a Serbian citizen and that, as a result of Serbian becoming an EU member state, Serbian society, like every individual, will only gain and won’t lose anything. When citizens grasp and understand this, support for EU membership will also increase. However, in order for that to happen it is necessary to launch a joint campaign by the EU and especially the authorities in Serbia. Unfortunately, in my opinion, others aren’t doing enough on this topic, while there are even individuals who often do the opposite. Statements claiming that the EU doesn’t want Serbia as a member are untrue and deceptive.

This July will mark 10 years since the launch of the Brdo-Brioni regional initiative, which was intended to strengthen ties in the Western Balkans and fortify the European perspective of the region. How do you see the reach of that initiative?

– That initiative has certainly helped, and continues to help, on cooperation between countries in this domain. It is good that Slovenia was the initiator of this initiative, as it is very familiar with the region and has a reputation in certain countries. Whatever the case, Slovenian President Nataša Pirc Musar wants to continue with the initiative and hopes that she will receive the support of all countries participating in this initiative. This isn’t a duplication of other similar initiatives, but rather something that can only help in terms of addressing unresolved issues in the region and can serve to assist in advancing the European integration aspirations of the countries of this region.

You assessed that “the biggest enemy of the EU is nationalism, and I’m afraid that individuals in Serbia are currently inclined more towards nationalism than the European perspective”. Where do you see that nationalism in Serbia?

– That is particularly so in the statements of individuals who directly or indirectly speak about the notion of all Serbs being within one country and the like. There is no place for such ideas in modern times. This also isn’t the European way of thinking, where belonging to Europe is considered as being above national belonging. The individual is the central point of protection, not the nation. The revival of the idea of changing borders on the basis of nationalism leads to collapse and further conflicts and wars. That’s why it is absolutely essential that we all fight together to achieve European standards. When Serbia is one day in the EU, and its neighbouring countries are also there, all Serbs will live under one flag – the European flag – and in a democratic environment based on the rule of law and respect for individual human rights.

Will Serbia have to accept Kosovo’s independence if it wants to accelerate the EU accession process?

– It is essential for Serbia to normalise relations with Kosovo. In this context, it must endeavour to be as cooperative as possible and to act in good faith in order for the normalisation agreement to also be implemented under the shortest possible timeframe. Of course, not everything depends on Serbia.

HOMEWORK

We want Serbia to advance on its path to EU accession, which means Serbia diligently doing its homework and resolving all issues that currently represent obstacles to its EU accession

RELATIONSHIPS

I can say that relationships between states are the same as relationships between people. They require a transparent, two-way approach

EU

Serbian citizens still haven’t realised that being an EU citizen is an upgraded annex to being a Serbian citizen and that, as a result of Serbian becoming an EU member state, Serbian society, like every individual, will only gain and won’t lose anything

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