“We have very good relations and they have traditionally been that way. What we need to do, both ways is improve them, by making more exchanges, more real experiences, more visits. The embassy is trying to bring some interesting Australians each year, who are rich in professional experience and want to share and explore their views with their Serbian colleagues. I would say that in my three years relations have deepened and that Australia is generally held in high regard, as a strong economy and vibrant multicultural democracy” – H.E. Julia Feeney, Ambassador of Australia to Serbia.
The trade relationship between Australia and Serbia has grown considerably since 2012, due to a number of factors. Access to the Australian market for Serbian producers is a contributing element, but a vital contributing factor is a marked increase in Australian business activity in the region, mostly focused in Serbia.
Even though the lion’s share of this investment has been in the mining and services sectors, diverse Australian enterprises have made significant inroads. As a result, total merchandise trade in 2012 was worth A$19.5 million (€13.1), while the figure in 2016 was over 150 per cent higher and amounted to nearly A$50 million.
It is significant to note that in 2010 there was zero trade in services, while by 2016 it had grown to a respectable A$73 million. It is also important to highlight that Australian investment in Serbia in 2016 amounted to A$7 million.
Looking at the figures, it is obvious that two-way trade has been on a positive trajectory for a number of years.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop made an official visit to Serbia recently, marking the first such visit in 33 years. Were you satisfied with the results of discussions in Belgrade?
– It was a very important visit for us in the Embassy, not only because it was the first Foreign Minister-level visit for a long period, but also because of the many good things that came out of it. Foreign Minister Bishop had the opportunity to meet her counterpart, Foreign Minister Dačić, but also Energy and Mining Minister Antić and newly-appointed Prime Minister Brnabić.
The visit was part of a wider tour around the region, as Australia wants to extend support to all new democracies that respect human rights, rule of law and open market rules. As Minister Bishop said, Australia supports Serbia’s membership in the EU and would not like to see Brexit as a deterring moment on that path.
Following Minister Bishop’s visit, Serbia signed an MOU with Rio Tinto regarding the Jadar project. Also, Minister Bishop was able to witness the first results of the new archaeological site in Glac. High-level official visits are always important and welcomed because in a way they put bilateral cooperation in a new perspective, a closer one.
As Serbia becomes more competitive and attractive to Australian investment, it will naturally draw a greater Australian presence on the ground, resulting in further opportunities to strengthen economic linkages
During that visit, which was dubbed ‘historic’ by Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić, it was confirmed that economic relations between Serbia and Australia, which is the world’s 13th largest economy, are not at a satisfactory level. Despite the great distance separating the two nations, do you see opportunities to strengthen economic ties?
– Bilateral trade between our two countries is presently at modest levels. There are many reasons for this, first and foremost geographical distance has some impact – even if only psychologically. While many people in this region have a great desire to visit Australia for tourism or to visit families or friends, few are in a position to think in terms of trade and investment.
Lately, we have noted an increasing Australian business and investment footprint in Serbia and bilateral trade has grown steadily over the last couple of years, chiefly on the back of trade in services and an increasing Australian mining presence. In this respect, Australian technology and expertise is already making its way to Serbia, mostly through Australian-owned SMEs that provide specialised services to Australian clients via cloud-based platforms.
Another strong indicator that new opportunities are emerging in our trade relationship is the emergence of the Melbourne-based Australian-Serbian Commerce Chamber (ASCC) in late 2016. Its Belgrade office was launched in May 2017 and I am confident that the ASCC will help encourage greater two-way trade and investment and people-to-people exchange.
As Serbia becomes more competitive and attractive to Australian investment, it will naturally draw a greater Australian presence on the ground, resulting in further opportunities to strengthen economic linkages. And with that comes a high level of expertise and experience in sustainable economic and environmental practises, social responsibility, knowledge and skills transfer.
Minister Bishop’s visit was also marked by the signing of a memorandum on the “Jadar” project between the Government of Serbia and company Rio Tinto, which will enable this multinational company of Australia origin to begin exploiting large lithium deposits near Loznica. The site in question is believed to be one of the largest in Europe. What kind of investment does this entail?
– Rio Tinto is a mining company and they are considered pioneers in the industry. The company produces materials essential to human progress, such as smartphones, cars, planes and so on. The Jadar Project is their flagship project in Serbia, based on their discovery of a unique Serbian mineral named Jadarite. If the Jadar Project receives all the requisite approvals, the company could invest substantial capital for the design and construction of the mine, including utilisation of new and innovative processing technology for the Jadarite ore.
Most importantly for Serbia, having such a reliable partner means that the project would be developed in line with the highest international health and safety, environmental and community standards, as they have demonstrated at their Australian operations.
The past summer was marked by cooperation between universities in Sydney and Sremska Mitrovica, and the Ministry of Culture. A donation from Australia enabled students from that country and from Serbia to work on a new archaeological site at the Sirmium site. Are researchers satisfied with the results obtained at the site?
– The multi-year Glac Project is an exciting Australian-Serbian investigation into an ancient Roman palace. It is situated some three kilometres to the southeast of Sremska Mitrovica in the vicinity of the River Sava. Researchers are absolutely thrilled with the initial results. They are hoping to uncover some important things, but, as you know, they can never be sure of that in advance. It happened, however, that in the first year of digging and exploration they found perfect proof that an emperor once lived there.
Another great thing that the project is bringing is close cooperation between students of Belgrade and Sydney universities. Given the size of the land and the site itself, the whole project will last more than a decade, which also means that it will include several generations of students, and that is something I am looking forward to very much. The project will also open many prospects in the fields of the economy, tourism, science and education.
Rio Tinto is a mining company and they are considered pioneers in the industry. The company produces materials essential to human progress, such as smartphones, cars, planes and so on. The Jadar Project is their flagship project in Serbia, based on their discovery of a unique Serbian mineral named Jadarite
We are thankful to the Ministry of Culture and the City of Sremska Mitrovica for all their support and the warm welcome they provided the Australian team. I shouldn’t forget to mention the fabulous work of the Institute of Archaeology in Serbia, which is an essential partner for the University of Sydney.
Given how distant Australia and Serbia are from one another geographically, how come Sydney University is interested in Sremska Mitrovica?
– This cooperation all started thanks to the cooperation between Serbian professor Stefan Pop-Lazic and Australian professor Richard Miles and their scientific hunger. The two of them established contact and started dreaming about this fantastic project. In archaeological circles, Serbia is well known for its wealth in history and cultural heritage.
Australia, on the other hand, is very committed to cultural heritage preservations and Sydney University is renowned for investing in its students and providing them with practical opportunities to learn more. It is an excellent symbiosis that I’m sure will continue to be very fruitful.
Young people from Serbia, on the other hand, consider Australia a possible destination to relocate to in search of further education or a better life. What kind of policy does your government have regarding immigrants? Do you still encourage their arrival?
– Yes, we welcome migrants from all walks of life and from all countries. Australia’s Migration Programme encourages people from any country to apply to migrate to Australia. The Migration Programme is set annually, with total places available for 2017-18 capped at 190,000. People can apply for permanent visas based on skills, family grounds or as special eligibility or for temporary visas, whether as visitors, students or for a range of specialised purposes.
In previous years Australia has assisted in the work of organisations dealing with human rights and gender equality in Serbia. Are you satisfied with the work of the Commissioner for Equality, for example, and do you think the work of independent regulatory bodies is given sufficient weight?
– The Embassy has had close cooperation with the Commissioner for Equality since the institution was established. Australia considers the important role all of these independent institutions as a key and essential element of any democracy. We are trying to support, as much as possible, all organisations dealing with human rights and human rights education. The Australian Commissioner for Human Rights from Australia’s National Human Rights Commission visited Serbia in May and was amazed by the dedication of the people he met from both the NGO sector and the relevant institutions.
During your time in Serbia, you have drawn attention to Olive King, an Australian who was a volunteer in World War I and a driver of the Serbian Sanitarian on the Thessaloniki front. How did the public react to that exhibition?
– The story of Olive King is a really special one. She was one of several courageous Australian volunteers. Her story is as much about the long and deep links between our two people as it is about selfless people who devote their lives to helping others. That story was well received in Serbia, as the Serbians recognise and respect the assistance that was received. We regularly receive calls to organise the exhibition in different Serbian towns, which we do with much pleasure.
So far, the exhibition has been presented in Belgrade, Niš, Kotor… We have recently been asked to bring it to Šabac. It is a valuable and positive way to pay tribute to all the victims of WWI by emphasising a story of human kindness and courage. That’s because, as you may know, Olive King not only helped during WWI but also returned after the war to provide Serbia with ambulance vehicles and financial support for feeding canteens.
We have been doing a lot in the culture field in terms of allowing Serbians to better familiarise themselves with the Australian cultural scene. Let me just add that we will be part of the Ethnological Film Festival, organised by the Ethnographic Museum from 10th-14th October, while at the same time we will organise another exhibition, this time of indigenous art, to support the festival. I hope your audience will enjoy themselves.
Returning to the present, from an Australian perspective, how do you see current tensions on the world stage – on the Korean Peninsula, the Arabian Peninsula and in the Middle East?
– It is true that we are living in unpredictable times. While Australia is quite isolated, physically, from these tensions, we consider it even more important now than ever for there to be meaningful international dialogue. The United Nations plays an essential role in this, as does effective diplomacy, but all forums where there is meaningful dialogue that enhances global understanding can be helpful.
However, Australia is not isolated from threats of terrorism. Since September 2014, when our national terrorism threat was raised, 74 people have been charged as a result of 31 counter-terrorism operations in Australia. Close cooperation between intelligence and law enforcement agencies has led to a series of targeted disruptions and other activities to contain threats.
Australia is one of the most successful and harmonious multicultural societies in the world – which is our best defence against terrorism and hatred. Our ‘Aussie’ identity is defined by an overriding commitment to our nation and its democratic values – not by race, religion or ethnic background
My Government is committed to maintaining a harmonious society, as a necessary precondition to keeping Australia and its communities safe. Australia is one of the most successful and harmonious multicultural societies in the world – which is our best defence against terrorism and hatred. Our ‘Aussie’ identity is defined by an overriding commitment to our nation and its democratic values – not by race, religion or ethnic background.
Given that you are the accredited ambassador to three of the region’s countries – Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia – how would you evaluate the political situation in the Western Balkans; and how would you interpret analyses identifying the region as a potential new conflict hotspot?
– I strongly believe, as does my Government, that all open issues should be dealt with bilaterally. We can see the new Government of Macedonia demonstrating a will to do precisely that. The most that politicians can and should do for their people is to act responsibly and rationally, setting aside emotions, which is the only way to find effective compromises to resolve bilateral irritants.
The people of the Western Balkans deserve leaders who direct national development through the growth and support of democratic principles, strong independent institutions and respect for rule of law. Australia is fully supportive of the Balkans’ path towards the EU and we are hoping the politicians will do everything in their power to achieve that goal as soon as possible, for the benefit of all their citizens.