I want to believe that the misunderstanding over respirators is the last between our countries during this difficult time. I would like to emphasise the excellent cooperation we’ve had with the relevant institutions in Serbia, from the introduction of the state of emergency until today, when it comes to transporting our citizens, their passing through Serbia, treatments and other needs that our citizens have had – Tarzan Milošević
The new ambassador of Montenegro arrived in Serbia at the end of October last year, setting himself the aim of improving relations between Belgrade and Podgorica.
Your Excellency, Montenegro, like the rest of Europe, is battling against the Coronavirus. Can you speak about the current situation with this issue, in relation to the expectations of experts?
Unfortunately, the entire world is struggling with the Coronavirus, and this fact itself confirms to us the old saying that “Disease does not choose”. Examples from history, on the other hand, show us that such pandemics or epidemics recur periodically and have taken many lives. What is characteristic of our age is that, despite science having advanced, the emergence of new pathogens previously unknown to the professional public around the world has accelerated the need to develop international cooperation in the field of science and technology, all in order to preserve as many human lives as possible and preserve the economy.
In this regard, although some countries have to date suffered large numbers of casualties, both in Europe and around in the world, the situation in Montenegro – in relation to the threat that we have faced and still face – is satisfactory, which is a result of the timely and adequate response of our Government in regard to the development of events.
As a reminder, Montenegro has been closely monitoring the situation since the outbreak of the epidemic in the People’s Republic of China and acting responsibly and expertly in response. Perhaps I could reiterate the conclusions of our leading epidemiologists that we have endeavoured to be one step ahead of the virus – to the extent that this is possible. Being a step ahead of the virus meant that the Government had taken some more stringent measures with the aim of protecting the life and health of each individual in Montenegro, even before the first patient was confirmed positive for the Coronavirus.
What I would single out as being important is the fact that the vast majority of Montenegrin citizens have accepted and praised the measures taken by the relevant authorities of Montenegro, while – on the other hand – the citizens themselves have taken a very mature and responsible approach to this problem, and as a result, the mortality rate is among the smallest in the Region, with a very small number of patients and a high percentage of Montenegrin citizens who’ve recovered, and finally the start of easing previously adopted measures, at the suggestion of experts.
Economists agree that the effects of the several-month halt to the economy will impact on national economies. According to the analysis of the IMF, all Western Balkan countries will see negative GDP growth in 2020. What will be the greatest challenges in Montenegro?
The Coronavirus pandemic, which has been causing headaches to health authorities across the globe over recent months, taking thousands of lives, will undoubtedly have a major impact on the global economy. Although, there was no hint of what the magnitude of the crisis would be when the epidemic broke out in China in late 2019, in many countries today they are already talking about millions of jobs having been lost. Both in the world press, but also increasingly in the domestic media, the numbers of infected and deceased have in recent days been replaced by figures for economic decline. Experts warn that Covid-19 could do that which didn’t happen when the world was rocked by the SARS virus – flooding the world markets. Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as you mentioned in the question, has calculated that the economic decline in 2020 will be the largest since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
In terms of both health and economics, no country around the world is immune to the Coronavirus. And that goes even for the most advanced. Specifically, the richest economies in the world are already beginning to apply assistance measures, with all parameters indicating an economic downturn. It is now already clear to laypeople that nothing will be the same again in the world after the pandemic. And that in itself is a new challenge for contemporary flows.
I would like to emphasise the excellent cooperation we’ve had with the relevant institutions in Serbia, from the introduction of the state of emergency until today
And when the world’s developed economies suffer because of the pandemic, it is to be expected that both the region and our Montenegro, will be hit, which is facing many challenges, as it is a country with an economy that is mainly focused on tourism and hospitality, which at this point we can say have been deleted. In the world, as well as in our country, tourism and air transport have suffered the most, because there is an insistence on minimal contact between people in order to combat the pandemic. Flights have been suspended, state borders closed, hotels are empty just at a time when the preseason period was set to break last year’s records. In fact, numerous hotels have been turned into quarantine sites, occupied by people under health-sanitary supervision instead of tourists. It is precisely the mitigating of the consequences of the pandemic that will be the greatest challenge for Montenegro, as it is necessary to act in several directions in order to preserve jobs, small businesses, serious major companies and the stability of public finances, and to continue with serious investments at the state level.
In parallel with the adoption of measures for the control and prevention of infectious diseases, the Government has also implemented a number of urgent activities related to preserving the vitality of the Montenegrin economy – considering that measures for preserving health automatically exclude certain economic activities.
Given that the epidemiological situation in Montenegro is currently under control and stable, and I can even say favourable, it has been announced that – with mandatory and rigorous consultation among experts – measures will be gradually eased in order to enable Montenegro’s economic and social life to continue. In this regard, Montenegrin Prime Minister Duško Marković asked ministers and heads of institutions to prepare a precise and sustainable plan for mitigating the adopted measures in several phases over the course of the next 45 days.
The government has already adopted two programmes to support the economy, and I believe further support will depend on the development of the pandemic. It will be particularly important to make the most of the tourist season, depending on the epidemiological situation, in Montenegro, the region and across Europe, given that the Montenegrin economy “harvests” more than a billion euros in revenue during the course of a year from tourism alone. One of the challenges for the state, regardless of the pandemic, will be the chance and obligation to make greater use of natural resources, above all the timber industry, agricultural and food production, as well as mineral and water resources.
Epidemiologists are unable to determine when it will be possible to lift any of the restrictive measures introduced to combat Covid-19. Do you think there will even be a tourist season in Montenegro this summer?
Despite the situation, I believe that regional tourist flows will nonetheless start in July and that there will still be a season, but one that’s much shorter and much less effective.
Although it is very difficult to estimate the end of the pandemic, as well as when we will see the reopening of borders and all forms of international transport that is necessary for the obvious inputs and the foundations for entrepreneurial decisions in the field of tourism, I am optimistic and convinced that Montenegro will, as a recognised tourist destination, this year also be visited by a certain number of tourists from the surrounding area and nearby European countries. For us, tourism is a powerful market instrument of economic and monetary stability, an activity that gives the greatest economic impetus to the national economy and society, which is why it is an obligation of the state in the period ahead to prepare precise support and economic measures, with the aim of preserving the potential of tourism in the period ahead.
My ambition, despite the difficult current situation, remains the same: to advance relations in economic, cultural and political terms
On that front, I appreciate the fact that investments in timber, agriculture and food production give tourism additional competitive advantages and quality while investing in hotels and restaurants preserves a market opportunity for agriculture. In the current situation, with reduced imports, I believe this is an opportunity for domestic producers, given that tourism and agriculture are complementary to the wider tourism system. It is actually agriculture tourism that is opening up the market in my own country, and the offer of local food products makes hotels and restaurants more attractive to tourism consumers. Alongside the many uncertainties, I consider that the aforementioned is a chance and that it is necessary to focus on mitigating the consequences, which will certainly be there, at the global level.
At the height of the battle against the pandemic, Serbia was accused of having taken possession of three respirators that Montenegro had already paid the manufacturer for. Serbia denied this, and Montenegro then refused to receive them as a gift from Serbia. Has the misunderstanding over this procurement been resolved?
The embassy was not informed, either by the supplier or by the ordering party, about the delivery of respirators! The public heard the offer of President Vučić and the response of the National Coordination Body, while the Embassy and the Ambassador weren’t invited to arbitrate on this issue. I want to believe that this is the last misunderstanding between our countries during this difficult time.
I would like to emphasise the excellent cooperation we’ve had with the relevant institutions in Serbia, from the introduction of the state of emergency until today, when it comes to transporting our citizens, their passing through Serbia, treatments and other needs that our citizens have had.
It is also important to emphasise that Montenegro, through the continuous affirming of the development and strengthening of good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation, through securing the return of Serbian citizens, but also nationals of other countries, in such a complex situation as the struggle against the pandemic, sent a message of solidarity, assistance and togetherness.
You arrived in Serbia fairly recently, as the new ambassador of Montenegro. Do you have an explanation for the low level of bilateral relations and cooperation between these two former republics of the common country?
Serbia is Montenegro’s neighbour. Alongside good cooperation, primarily economic, Montenegro also has some known differences with Serbia, both in terms of the foreign policy of our countries and in terms of some issues concerning bilateral relations. Differences sometimes boil to the surface and become the subject of political discourse, which is normal and will happen.
The Law on Freedom of Religion, which was adopted by the Parliament of Montenegro at the end of last year, caused sharp tensions between the two countries, bearing in mind that the Serbian Orthodox Church and part of the public in Montenegro do not accept this law. What is important to note is that, with this legislation, Montenegro regulated, among other things, the legal framework in which all religious communities are separated from the state and function as part of the legal system. The law guarantees every citizen of Montenegro freedom of religion or belief, while the state protects property and cultural treasures that belong to all citizens. It certainly wasn’t the intention of the legislature to usurp any rights, including property rights.
I firmly believe that there is no kind of hidden intentions or interests against any religious community in Montenegro.
Do you believe the dialogue between representatives of the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Government of Montenegro could lead to the reaching of a solution regarding the property of the SOC that would be acceptable to both parties?
We believe that dialogue is the only solution, which the Government of Montenegro has demonstrated over the years, since the start of the drafting of the Law in question. Furthermore, following its adoption, all religious communities, including the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral, were immediately invited to engage in a dialogue on the implementation of the law and all other issues of common interest.
Specifically, so far, the dialogue between the Government of Montenegro and the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral, or rather their expert teams, has been held in a spirit of mutual respect and openness. The arguments that could be heard, though contradictory, are expert, and we believe that there is room for a mutually acceptable solution to be reached through further talks, which is why the continuation of talks has been agreed.
Considering that the issue of religion is understandably sensitive, it is necessary to exert joint efforts to put emotions aside and try to look at things objectively and wisely and to make decisions that are aimed at stabilising the situation, precisely because of all the links that exist between Serbia and Montenegro. I am convinced that it is our common obligation to advance these links and relationships.
What have you set as the priorities of your mission in Belgrade?
Montenegro has always striven to pursue policies that will contribute to the stability of the region, and good neighbourly relations are one of the three pillars of our foreign policy. Montenegro remains committed to developing good neighbourly relations with the Republic of Serbia, which are further strengthened by common European goals and the regional context, and founded on real interests, with an economic, geographical and political orientation towards one another.
I hope that, after the stabilisation of the health situation in our countries and in Europe, the positive dynamics of EU enlargement will continue
My ambition, despite the difficult current situation, remains the same: to advance relations in economic, cultural and political terms; to raise the level of bilateral cooperation, which is the basis for improving economic, political, scientific, cultural and sporting cooperation.
Do you believe that the European integration process of Montenegro, Serbia and the rest of the region will continue in the near future, or do you think that the latest crisis will delay that process?
It is expected and completely natural that the pandemic has impacted on the priorities of all world governments and countries, including the agenda of the EU and its member states, placing the dynamics of enlargement on the back burner and channelling all energy into defending the lives of citizens and thinking about mitigating the consequences that the pandemic will surely leave behind. However, the pandemic did not affect the stance that the enlargement policy is one of the EU’s key policies and that the admission of new members must continue in the future.
EU support has not been lacking even during the period of the pandemic, and here I don’t only mean the significant financial aid to the health systems of the Western Balkan countries, but also to the message that we received, which was that we can count on the EU, as well as that we are unified in our belief that the place of the countries of this region is in the European community of states. I hope that, after the stabilisation of the health situation in our countries and in Europe, the positive dynamics of EU enlargement will continue.
The European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs adopted a report in recent days on recommendations for extending the duties of EP Rapporteur for Montenegro Tonina Picula. That document represents the European Parliament’s recommendations to the Council, the Commission and the Vice-President of the Western Balkans Foreign and Security Policy Commission ahead of the Western Balkans Summit that had been scheduled for early May, but the new date will only be known in June. The adoption of this document in very specific circumstances, in a situation in which all EU member states are focused on combatting the Coronavirus pandemic, represents a clear message of support to the countries of the Western Balkans and encouragement for the continuation of reforms that will lead to fundamental changes in our countries, and thus to meeting the criteria and progressing on the path to membership.
One has the impression that Montenegro has reservations regarding the new idea of connecting the countries of the region in the so-called ‘Mini Schengen’. If such reservations exist, can you tell us why?
Montenegro is committed to regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations, and I am convinced that regional initiatives are an opportunity to restore trust between countries. Not only has Montenegro accepted its commitments from the regional cooperation documents signed thus far, but rather it has also been implementing them very successfully.
I consider that this initiative is preparation for the EU and will help in the Europeanisation of the countries that participate. We will certainly continue to cooperate with all our friends from the region, but Montenegro will decide for itself what is in its interest and whether this is already contained in other cooperation initiatives. That’s because Montenegro only wants initiatives that will not conflict with the cooperation initiatives that we’ve already signed, but I believe that, in the participation of other countries, there is no idea to replace the common desire and idea of us being part of the EU with some other union.
We believe that dialogue is the only solution, which the Government of Montenegro has demonstrated over the years, since the start of the drafting of the law in question
Montenegro is committed to regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations, and I am convinced that regional initiatives are an opportunity to restore trust between countries
consider that this initiative is preparation for the EU and will help in the Europeanisation of the countries that participate