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H.E. Damjan Bergant, Ambassador of Slovenia to Serbia

Good Relations Despite Differences

Given the extent to which Borut Pahor would be an acceptable candidate to all – both the parties in the dialogue, and especially the EU – he could probably contribute to the resolving of open issues in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. It therefore doesn’t matter whether Pahor comes from Slovenia or elsewhere, rather what’s important is what he can do to improve life in these lands ~ Damjan Bergant

Despite serious differences of opinion regarding events in the wider region and around the world, which became evident with the opposing views expressed by Slovenia and Serbia during the vote on Kosovo’s membership in the Council of Europe and on the subsequent UN General Assembly Resolution declaring the Srebrenica massacre a genocide, Ambassador Damjan Bergant remains convinced that recent tension between Belgrade and Ljubljana shouldn’t threaten “joint action and cooperation”.

“I consider Slovenia and Serbia as countries that are bound by friendship and that both sides strive to deepen their bilateral relations,” says Ambassador Bergant. Speaking in this interview for CorD Magazine, he confirms that Slovenia will support the candidacy of its former president, Borut Pahor, to succeed Miroslav Lajčak as the EU’s mediator in the dialogue on the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

Your Excellency, Slovenia is this year commemorating the 20th anniversary of its EU accession. Have citizens’ expectations been met when it comes to membership in the Union?

— I consider the decision of Slovenia and Slovenes to join the EU as being one of the best and most important decisions for Slovenia since the establishing of the Slovenian state. After Slovenia’s EU accession, the country and its citizens gained much more than they would have done if they hadn’t become part of the Union. The free movement of people and goods is just one segment that’s important for the country’s development. Other opportunities that were created with our inclusion in the EU family are particularly important. Joining the single currency and the Schengen area undoubtedly marked the upgrading of everything. Opportunities opened up for us to utilise various EU funds that have contributed to the development of the country and to a better and higher quality of life for Slovenia’s citizens. Young people have more opportunities to study and acquire knowledge at a large number of European universities, especially through Erasmus programmes. They then return to Slovenia with that knowledge and thus strengthen the society and contribute to the country’s further development. The advantages of an open labour market have also been demonstrated in this context. EU accession also relaxed any tension formerly felt at borders with neighbouring countries.

We will see which countries will be more successful in the future, whether those in Eastern or Southeast Europe. Serbia has every chance to become a member of the EU, and that depends solely on Serbia

I can say that the areas along the border with Italy, particularly Trieste and the countryside around Trieste and Goriška, have been reinvigorated. The side of the border that you live on is no longer important, rather what matters is quality of life, progress and mutual coexistence. The life of Slovenia and Slovenians has simply become more beautiful, more affordable and more advanced. And this is precisely why Slovenia will strive to preserve the EU, regardless of the critical situation around the world and the internal and external attempts to portray the European integration project as something negative that forces countries to partially sacrifice their own independence. On the contrary, EU integration represents one of the most tangible and positive integration processes in the history of humanity, which should also be nurtured in the future. Europe has been confronted by various crises throughout history, but these have primarily been threats to peace. It endured two world wars that left great scars on the lives of people and countries, but nonetheless succeeded in constructing an integration model that represents the shared values of democracy, the rule of law and the guarantee of human rights. In this regard, both EU citizens and member states have progressed, while the culture and identity of each individual country has been incorporated into the principles of European citizenship, the wide range of so-called official EU languages and the rich cultural heritage of Europe.

After the accessions of Slovenia and Croatia, a question remains as to whether and when EU enlargement will continue. The EU has recently also been focusing on Ukraine and Moldova as candidate countries. Viewed from the perspective of Slovenia – as a country that advocates strongly in favour of enlargement – should the priority be enlargement to include one of these former Soviet republics or the Western Balkans?

— Enlargement is in the interest of the EU and its member states. It should also be in the interest of candidate countries, and their citizens in particular. It isn’t important whether that means expansion to include the countries of the so-called former Eastern Bloc or the countries of the Western Balkans. Countries that want to become part of the EU will be able to join, though on condition that they are ready to accept EU rules. This is the foundation and expansion and membership won’t be possible without it. What is meant by rules? In particular, it means strengthening and implementing the system of democracy, the rule of law and human rights. In other words, it is about adapting national legislation to the EU acquis, and especially – and even more importantly – applying the rules and laws adopted.

This is even more difficult than making rules. Likewise, there must also be a desire and inclination to really want EU membership among political structures, both those in government and the opposition, and especially among the citizenry indirectly. That desire must be expressed by public opinion. Convincing citizens that the EU doesn’t want enlargement and is to blame for nothing having been done on the part of the Union isn’t helpful for future membership. Any undue criticism of the EU by the political leaders of individual countries is unwarranted. Of course, the context of the European story changes and depends on the development of events, challenges and needs. The context of the process changes as a consequence, along with the recommendations and criteria. But if a country wants to become part of the EU family, it must conduct itself and live in accordance with EU values and rules. And those values and rules are primarily determined within the framework of the EU. No one should be forced to do something against their will.

In short, it is necessary to play with cards face up and to have a clear vision that must be clearly defended and presented. This is the only possible pathway to the goal. We will see which countries will be more successful in the future, whether those in Eastern or Southeast Europe. Serbia has every chance to become a member of the EU, and that depends solely on Serbia.

Relations between Slovenia and Serbia have been plagued by tension in the previous period. Serbian President Vučić dubbed the conduct of Slovenia’s UN representative towards Serbia as “abhorrent”. How would you comment on our bilateral relations?

— I believe that the words you mentioned cannot contribute anything positive to the development of good relations between our two countries. President Vučić realised that and apologised immediately, especially given that Slovenia – as a member of the UN Security Council – had nothing to do with the composition of the delegations attending the session and that it related to the UNMIK annual report. It also gave a balanced statement at the meeting. Slovenia performed its task correctly, which is why it is all the more surprising that the president said what he did.

Slovenia desires good relations with Serbia and I think our relations are good regardless of everything. We have some differing views on what’s happening in the wider region or what’s happening around the world globally, but that shouldn’t and doesn’t jeopardise our joint activities and cooperation. I consider Slovenia and Serbia as countries that are bound by friendship and that are both striving to deepen their bilateral relations.

At the time when the new Government of Serbia was just being constituted, I already received a request from the Cabinet of the Prime Minister of Slovenia to convey to Prime Minister Vučević an invitation to visit Slovenia as soon as the Government of Serbia is formed and to express Slovenia’s readiness to organise the next joint session of our two governments to be held in Slovenia by the end of this year. I forwarded this message to the prime minister informally when I had an opportunity to speak with him at the recent opening of the Krivača Wind Farm. We agreed on a formal meeting at which we will finalise the details. I presume that we will soon hold a formal conversation on this topic. In our informal conversation, Prime Minister Vučević emphasised that he would be happy to come to Slovenia and that the Government strongly welcomes the proposal for a joint session. He reminded me that the last meeting of this kind was organised in Novi Sad in 2019, when he was still the mayor of Novi Sad. In short, I want good relations and am convinced that we can do a lot on both sides by the end of this year to ensure the continuation of existing good relations between our two countries.

As ambassador of a country that is the sponsor of the UN General Assembly resolution on genocide in Srebrenica while at the same time being a great advocate for dialogue in the region, how do you view the fact that the text of the resolution was agreed upon without regional consultation and without the knowledge of both Belgrade and Banja Luka?

— It is difficult for me to comment on an issue about which I’m not specifically aware, or that I’m only aware of via the media. I believe that coordination in New York is necessary for the adoption of documents like UN General Assembly resolutions. Serbia is a UN member and had an opportunity to participate in the process of creating the resolution from the beginning, and later in the stage of revising the text. This is also indicated to a considerable extent by Serbia’s activities in New York, which were covered in detail by the Serbian media. Republika Srpska is part of Bosnia and Herzegovina and, as such, was included in the process of creating and adopting this resolution.

EU integration represents one of the most tangible and positive integration processes in the history of humanity, which should also be nurtured in the future

When it comes to the contents of the resolution on genocide that was adopted by the UN General Assembly, Slovenia considers the purpose of this resolution as facilitating reconciliation and empathy and building trust within Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is the point at which our views differ from those of Serbia. The genocide in Srebrenica has been acknowledged by two international courts, and they are the International Criminal Court and the International Tribunal for War Crimes in the former Yugoslavia. The purpose of this resolution was not – as has been highlighted in Serbia in particular – to accuse any nation of having committed genocide in any way, rather the precise opposite. Of course, I would have been happier personally if the resolution had been adopted by consensus and if Serbia had participated in the process of adopting it in a different way. Whatever the case, efforts must be exerted to ensure that this resolution really contributes to its goal and isn’t used for negative purposes that would lead to aggravating the situation in this region. Serbia in particular can contribute a lot to that.

How important for Slovenia is former President Borut Pahor’s candidacy to become the EU’s new mediator in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, thus replacing Miroslav Lajčak?

— President Pahor is a great aficionado when it comes to events in the Western Balkans. It was un der his leadership that the so-called Brdo-Brijuni Process bore fruit and contributed a lot of useful elements to the region. This is among the rare forums that has included, and still includes, all the leaders of Southeast European countries. Given the extent to which Borut Pahor would be an acceptable candidate to all – both the parties in the dialogue, and especially the EU – he could probably contribute to the resolving of open issues in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina.

It therefore doesn’t matter whether Pahor comes from Slovenia or elsewhere, rather what’s important is what he can do to improve life in these lands. That’s why Slovenia intends to support the candidacy of President Pahor to succeed Miroslav Lajčak. If his candidacy proves successful, we will be happy and will give him our full support, just as we would support anyone else appointed to this position.

Slovenia and Slovenian companies invested significantly in the Serbian economy in the previous period and topped the list of foreign investors. If our impression isn’t mistaken and that position has now been occupied by others, which areas would you highlight as the best example of our economic cooperation?

— Slovenia remains among the countries whose companies invest in Serbia. Slovenian businesses invested approximately 161 million euros in Serbia over the previous year, according to which Slovenia ranks 7th among all foreign investors and 3rd among investors from EU countries. Of course, as a country of just two million inhabitants, it is difficult to compare us with large countries. However, if we view investments in relation to the investor countries’ GDP, Slovenia still ranks top. There is actually a large investment of Slovenian capital or a Slovenian company in Serbia almost every year. We ranked top in terms of investments in 2020, with NLB’s acquisition of Komercijalna Banka.

Then, two years ago, the Hrastnik glass factory bought the Paračin glass factory, again marking an investment of several hundred million euros. We saw the opening of the wind farm in Krivača this month, which is half owned – alongside the MK Group – by Slovenia’s Alfi Renewables investment fund. And this once again marks an investment of almost one hundred million euros of Slovenian capital. In short, Slovenia is and will remain an important investor in Serbia. When it comes to future bilateral economic cooperation, we can expect intensive cooperation, but also new investments in the fields of renewables and energy efficiency, ecology, tourism, biotechnology and industry.

The end of your term in Serbia is fast approaching. What do you consider as your successes and which objectives haven’t you managed to fulfil?

My term isn’t over yet. I still remain in Serbia. It is correct that 1st June marks the completion of my four-year mandate in Serbia, but I’m staying in Belgrade for now.

We’ve succeeded in implementing plenty of concrete projects over the course of my term. We had three visits at the level of national president, while our minister of foreign affairs also visited Serbia. We realised ample ministerial visits in various fields. We’ve taken some concrete steps in the area of ​​succession. The most important thing is that we managed to reach an agreement on the return to Slovenia of the original film Kekec, as well as 12 other feature films that are on permanent nitrate film. We unveiled two monuments in Belgrade to two deserving Slovenes: Edvard Rusjan and Jernej Kopitar. We organised a large number of cultural events featuring various Slovenian artists. I personally established excellent contacts with interlocutors at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Serbia, but also at other ministries and the National Assembly. Whatever we want to do is always possible and feasible. In short, I think there have been so many successes that it’s difficult to list them all.

I’m personally pretty disappointed by the fact that, during my term, Serbia has practically remained at a standstill when it comes to the issue of EU accession. When I arrived in 2020, I was quite enthusiastic that Serbia’s progress towards the EU would be visible after four years, and I had hoped that it would only be a matter of time, after my departure from Belgrade, before Serbia actually became a full member of the EU. I see things differently today. There have been many promises and wishes, but little action that would propel Serbia towards the EU. The EU has been active in this area – at least at the level of the EU delegation and member states in Belgrade – but that wasn’t enough to convince Serbian citizens that the EU is the right alternative for the country. The whole story became even worse when the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine, because Serbia didn’t impose sanctions like all of the EU. Some progress has been made in the area of ​​judicial reform, but unfortunately not enough to be able to talk about Serbia’s serious intention to join the EU. The greatest progress has been achieved in the area of the economy, with an emphasis on competitiveness and growth. The economy itself is the social area in which citizens feel the strongest positive influence of the EU, which is why I look forward optimistically to the implementation of projects within the Growth Plan, which plans to allocate almost three billion euros of European funds for Serbia. Serbia still has a lot of work ahead of it and I really hope it will do that work, for the sake of its citizens in particular, who deserve to be in the EU and to have the opportunity to live in a society and country that’s developing faster. It’s always better to be a part of something than to fight alone. Demagoguery, populism and nationalism are enemies of development, and one needs to be aware of that.

SREBRENICA

I would have been happier personally if the resolution had been adopted by consensus and if Serbia had participated in the process of adopting it in a different way

ENLARGEMENT

Convincing citizens that the EU doesn’t want enlargement and is to blame for nothing having been done on the part of the Union isn’t helpful for future membership

INVESTMENTS

Slovenian businesses invested approximately 161 million euros in Serbia over the previous year, according to which Slovenia ranks 7th among all foreign investors