We sincerely hope that the upcoming elections will lead to a parliament that will reflect the diversity of political opinions and visions in this country and that will allow for a genuine cross-party debate – Nikolaus Lutterotti

Austria’s policy towards Serbia will not change after the recent snap elections, says Ambassador of Austria to Serbia Nikolaus Lutterotti assuringly. According to him, Austria will continue to push for EU enlargement, but he adds that the speed of the process depends on reforms in Serbia itself. Speaking about the most important area – the rule of law, covered by Chapters 23 and 24 – Ambassador Lutterotti assesses that the reach of reforms is mixed.

He considers that Serbia has made certain progress on its legislative and institutional reform agenda, but that there is a need to strengthen efforts when it comes to implementation.

In this interview for CorD Magazine’s Austria special, Ambassador Lutterotti also supports the efforts of the OSCE and the European Parliament aimed at assisting on political dialogue in Serbia that would ensure the election process is aligned with democratic norms and EU standards.

Your Excellency, should we expect significant changes in Austria’s political direction following the snap parliamentary elections of 29th September?

– Austria’s foreign policy has been characterised by continuity and reflects my country’s interests. In particular, EU-enlargement has been a core priority given our close political, economic and cultural relations with the countries of Southeast Europe. We regard EU enlargement as a stabilising factor for Southeast Europe, and hence as contributing to peace, economic development and social welfare. From today’s perspective, I don’t expect significant changes in Austria’s foreign policy direction.

A political scandal involving Vice-Chancellor Strache preceded the calling of early parliamentary elections. Media reports covering that event also mentioned Serbia. Has this scandal impacted on bilateral relations between Austria and Serbia?

– Austrian-Serbian relations are excellent, and the level of our political, economic and cultural cooperation has grown steadily. These developments are the result of efforts on both the Serbian and Austrian sides and are based on mutual interests. We have not felt an impact on our bilateral relations.

Serbia is also preparing for parliamentary elections, to be held in March 2020. Critics from the opposition, who insist that conditions to hold fair elections don’t exist and call for a boycott, have not been met with understanding in the EU. What is your position on this issue?

– Free and fair elections are one of the essential conditions for a democracy, which is a core principle of the European Union. We are looking forward to seeing the full implementation of the recommendations of the ODIHR and the Council of Europe regarding conditions for elections in Serbia. The dialogue that has been launched among representatives of the governing and opposition parties and facilitated by civil society organisations seems to me to be a positive step.

We also appreciate the efforts of the European Parliament to facilitate an interparty dialogue. These initiatives must be met by a meaningful and constructive approach from all sides of the political spectrum. We sincerely hope that the upcoming elections will lead to a parliament that will reflect the diversity of political opinions and visions in this country, and that will allow for a genuine cross-party debate.

We are looking forward to seeing the full implementation of the recommendations of the ODIHR and the Council of Europe regarding conditions for elections in Serbia

One of your messages to Serbia’s citizens is that EU membership requires credible reforms in the domain of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms. How would you rate the current situation in these areas in Serbia?

– We have respect for the reforms that have been undertaken so far. Overall, it is our assessment that progress in the area of the rule of law is mixed. Serbia has made some progress on its legislative and institutional reform agenda. But as far as the implementation of chapters 23 and 24 are concerned, there is a need to strengthen efforts.

Nikolaus Lutterotti, Ambassador of Austria to Serbia

This is particularly true for the area of the independence of the judiciary, the fight against corruption, media freedom, the domestic handling of war crimes and the fight against organised crime. We are aware that this is a difficult and complex process, but it is essential for the advancement of Serbia’s path towards membership in the European Union. Reforms need to be implemented and hence take effect.

You have stated repeatedly that EU enlargement to encompass the countries of the Western Balkans is in Austria’s interest. Do you have the impression that enlargement remains in the focus of the EU following elections for the European Parliament and EU institutions?

– As far as Austria’s interest in EU enlargement towards Southeast Europe is concerned, I am confident that this remains a priority for us. We will also continue to advocate for enlargement to remain at the top of the agenda of the European Union. The EU has repeatedly reaffirmed, at the highest level, its commitment to enlargement, which remains a key policy of the European Union.

There have also been positive messages from Brussels regarding the commitment to EU enlargement by the next Commission. Does the EU have other challenges? Yes, the EU has numerous challenges, and the EU will have to address these challenges. This is in the interest of both the EU and candidate countries.

Serbia has opened only 17 of a total of 35 EU accession negotiation chapters, despite having been negotiating for more than five years. Such a pace doesn’t provide hope that the country could achieve EU accession by 2025. How would you comment on this timeline?

– The pace of reforms in Serbia is primarily in the hands of the Serbian Government. The reform process is the main driver of the pace of accession negotiations. This should be the focus. With strong political will and determination to advance on the reform path, negotiations can certainly be finalised at a quicker pace.

However, it is important to bear in mind that the benefits of EU enlargement will be felt as reforms take effect, well before the actual enlargement date. In Austria, we would be happy to see Serbia’s accession sooner rather than later, provided accession criteria are met.

Do you believe in the possibility that the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue will resume soon?

– Yes, I do. And I hope that it will happen sooner rather than later and that both sides will show the necessary political will to advance towards an agreement on the full normalisation of relations.

Austria is high on the list of the home countries of investors in Serbia. Austrian company Immofinanz arrived in Sremska Mitrovica recently, opening a retail park in the city. Could Serbia also prove interesting to investors from some manufacturing industries or possibly from areas related to high technology or IT?

– We are very glad to see a company like Immofinanz here. They manage their expansion in Serbia very successfully, having opened 10 retail parks so far. Regarding investments in production and manufacturing, we recently witnessed quite some interest in starting operations here on the part of Austrian companies. This is mainly due to Serbia’s advantageous geographical location and the favourable labour costs, but even more, it is the availability of qualified personnel that makes Serbia an attractive location for investments.

In this respect, we strongly support the initiatives of the government and the Serbian Chamber of Commerce & Industry to implement dual vocational training, because – based on our experience in Austria – we are convinced that this will benefit both the youth and the country as a whole.

While we see a continuous shift to more value-added manufacturing in Serbia among our companies here, we are still quite a way from having high technology investments here. On the other hand, the IT-sector is very promising, given the strength of domestic companies and the excellent output of Serbian universities in terms of research and graduates. Following the example of one outstanding Austrian-Serbian IT-company in Novi Sad, we expect more companies from Austria to look into business opportunities in IT in the medium-term.

Austrian-Serbian relations are excellent and the level of our political, economic and cultural cooperation has grown steadily

You’ve devoted a lot of attention in recent months to talk with representatives of local government in Serbia, promising to help them strengthen their position and attract Austrian investors themselves. Do you see the capacity for such an endeavour at the local level?

– I’m always very interested in entering into a dialogue with representatives of municipalities and local communities. They play an important role in developing and maintaining infrastructure, issuing permits and supporting local business, in general. Hence, they are usually the first point of contact for prospective investors.

Local governments that make sure that procedures are efficient, transparent and fast, and further show their willingness to assist a potential investor along with the various steps of decision-making, are definitely at an advantage vis-à-vis others. Finally, all “hard” facts aside – making an investor feel welcome in a community definitely adds to the attractiveness of a specific location.

You’ve stated that Austria is interested in participating in the construction of mini hydro-power plants in Serbia. However, are you aware that Serbia’s expert public, citizenry and environmental protection minister all oppose the construction of the mini HPPs that are emerging in protected ecological zones and threatening the survival of wildlife and sources of drinking water? How has Austria resolved this problem – given that you have thousands of mini-hydro plants today?

– I am aware that the discussion about small hydro-power plants in Serbia is mainly about problematic locations in protected areas and management of water resources. Of course, it is important for all projects in Austria, as well as in Serbia, to respect nature and environmental issues.

Nikolaus Lutterotti, Ambassador of Austria to Serbia

What I can say is that the experiences with small hydro-power plants in Austria are very positive, both in terms of providing a stable and renewable source of energy, as well as in terms of maintaining a clean and ecologically friendly environment.

Small hydro-power plants in Austria supply electricity to more than 50 per cent of Austria’s households. They add value and jobs in rural areas, while hydropower plants also contribute to flood protection and – if done properly – can improve water ecology. Given our decadeslong history with hydropower, we also have many competent and successful companies working in this field worldwide.

The reconstructed Golubac Fortress was opened in early 2019, with Austria having invested €600,000 in the restoration of this historic monument. Is there any interest in Austria to reconstruct some other neglected site in our country in the future?

– The reconstruction of Golubac Fortress was an important project – not only to restore a historical monument but also to advance the socio-economic development of that part of the Danube region.

If there are proposals for further reconstruction projects, I’m sure that Austria will be interested in considering being part of such a project. For the moment, I’m not aware of any concrete ideas in this regard.

PERSPECTIVE

From today’s perspective, I don’t expect significant changes in Austria’s foreign policy direction

PROGRESS

Serbia has made some progress on its legislative and institutional reform agenda

EFFORTS

We also appreciate the efforts of the European Parliament to facilitate an inter-party dialogue