Politicians and the media too often entertain the notion that the European Union is imposing reforms on Serbia. Nothing could be more mistaken: reforms are necessary for the sake of Serbia and its people. Beyond enabling sustainable prosperity, reforms aim at preventing Serbia from backsliding towards autocracy and nationalism – two plagues that the Serbian people suffered from too much in the recent past – Philippe Guex

In the belief that the success of a country’s reform process requires not only the support of the citizenry but also citizens’ active participation, part of the long-term donor support of Switzerland to Serbia is directed towards strengthening dialogue between the government and citizens.

Speaking in this interview for this CorD Magazine special edition, Swiss Ambassador H.E. Philippe Guex says that there is a concern that space for this dialogue in Serbia is shrinking, despite the fact that the participation of citizens is an essential element of any democratically regulated society. Ambassador Guex announces that Switzerland will continue striving to strengthen links between civil society organisations and local governments in the period ahead, as well as providing expert assistance to the Government of Serbia in strengthening the voice of citizens by amending the Law on Referendum and Civil Initiative.

Your Excellency, your mandate in Serbia began in 2016. You said at the time that – following diplomatic postings in London, Paris and Brussels – you wanted to come to Serbia “for economic, social and political challenges”. Have events since then fulfilled your expectations?

– Europe would not be Europe without the Western Balkans. And Serbia is at the very heart of the Western Balkans. The political situation is very much intertwined not only with the ‘90s but with the entire 20th century, which is very challenging for diplomats. Economically, there is still much to do to bring Serbia to the EU’s average level of economic development. Looking at the success story of the Eastern European countries, I have no doubt that Serbia will follow that path, as it is getting in shape to join the EU. Therefore, to answer your question: yes, my position in Belgrade is fulfilling the expectations I had when I began three years ago.

You represent a country that is among the top four bilateral donors to Serbia. For the 2018-2021 period alone, Switzerland will have donated almost €100 million for financing public administration reforms, developing SMEs and strengthening dialogue between the authorities and citizens. Stakeholders in Serbia will tell you that there’s almost no dialogue between the government and citizens. Does it look that way to you too?

– There is a concern that the space for dialogue between the government and citizens is shrinking. Citizens’ participation, through different means, is essential in a fully-fledged democracy. That is not an easy task but is worth it. Citizens’ participation ensures that reforms suit people’s everyday needs and eases their acceptance by the public. Through our projects, we are contributing to enhanced citizen participation and supporting local governments in bringing to life relevant laws and regulations.

Our upcoming civil society project seeks to mobilise citizens around issues of common concern and to strengthen cooperation between civil society and local governments. Switzerland is also supporting the Serbian government in revising the Law on Referendum and Civil Initiative, with a view to enhancing citizens’ ownership of such processes.

There is a concern that the space for dialogue between the government and citizens is shrinking. Citizens’ participation, through different means, is essential in a fully-fledged democracy. That is not an easy task, but is worth it

You are an ambassador of a non-EU country. Still, you think that Serbia’s approach to the EU means an additional guarantee of the country’s stability in the eyes of foreign investors. Do you think that the pace of reforms in Serbia corresponds with its aspiration to join the EU soon?

– It is up to the Government of Serbia to decide the pace of reforms that will align the country with the EU’s democratic and economic standards. Politicians and the press too often entertain the notion that the European Union is imposing reforms on Serbia. Nothing could be more mistaken.

Reforms are necessary for the sake of Serbia and its people. Beyond enabling sustainable prosperity, reforms aim at preventing Serbia from backsliding towards autocracy and nationalism – two plagues that the Serbian people have suffered from too much in the recent past.

The latest EC progress report on Serbia reiterates the importance of strengthening the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption. You said in another recent interview that progress on the rule of law would create space for more investment from Switzerland? 

– It is clear to me that not only economic reforms will boost Swiss-Serbian economic relations, but also any reform linked to the rule of law, like judicial independence, the fight against corruption or ensuring freedom of the media. There is no cherry-picking. Democratisation and market economy go hand-in-hand, at least in the Western world.

Are Serbia and the Western Balkans viewed in Switzerland today more as a potential investment region or as a possible new source of instability?

– The Western Balkan region is seen in Switzerland as having the potential for investment, as long as it stands together – as a region – and increases regional cooperation. The stability of the region attracts investors more than anything else.

Ambassador Philippe Guex

As such, each and every step in the direction of a more integrated regional approach is not only welcome but necessary. On the other hand, when tension arises between Serbia and Kosovo, I happen to receive phone calls from worried potential Swiss investors seeking assessment updates.

How do you view the failure of France and Germany’s attempts to unblock the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue?

– Two of the most influential countries of the European Union, France and Germany, are exerting efforts to unblock the situation between Belgrade and Pristina, which is a good and promising sign. We cannot expect immediate results, as the situation is currently very complex. This opportunity should be grabbed in both Pristina and Belgrade because a standstill and no-dialogue is not an option.

Can you comment on the Pristina government’s refusal to abolish tariffs imposed on goods from Serbia?

– This is certainly not a good sign. Switzerland has been urging the authorities in Pristina to revoke the 100% tariffs. The CEFTA agreement is the cornerstone of regional economic cooperation, thus any violation of it must be denounced.

All constructive actors have to be included in efforts to find a long-standing and comprehensive solution between Belgrade and Pristina, even if it is obvious that the European Union remains in the driving seat. Switzerland takes part in this effort, promoting dialogue and engaging with both parties

Do you consider that the EU should continue to deal with the Kosovo issue or are you more in favour of the proposal that the dialogue includes other interested countries, such as the U.S., Russia and others?

– All constructive actors have to be included in efforts to find a long-standing and comprehensive solution between Belgrade and Pristina, even if it is obvious that the European Union remains in the driving seat. Switzerland takes part in this effort, promoting dialogue and engaging with both parties. I would also argue that not only state actors have to be part of the dialogue, but also non-governmental organisations, civil society actors, artists, experts and academics. Normalised and peaceful relations between Serbia and Kosovo will only emerge from an inclusive societal dialogue.

Swiss companies have been present in Serbia for decades, and since 2014 there has been a Swiss-Serbian Chamber of Commerce. However, you remarked that there is plenty of room for improvement in economic cooperation. What are the main challenges or obstacles along the way?

– As you pointed out, Swiss companies have been present in Serbia for a long time. The establishment of the Swiss-Serbian Chamber of Commerce was a consequence of this long-standing presence, and an additional service provided to companies that are present, but also a way to attract additional companies wishing to enter the Serbian market. The potential is there for Serbia to have even more companies. It is then the task of the Serbian authorities to make the most favourable conditions and incentives to attract even more investors. This means having predictability and security – above all from a rule of law perspective – and fair competition, as those are usually the main aspects investors expect.

How successful were the start-up loans given to Swiss companies through the SECO fund to invest in Serbia?

– The SECO Start-up Fund provides loans to diaspora residents living in Switzerland for investments in their country of origin. The projects must rely on a solid business case and meet recognised environmental and social standards. The SECO Start-up Fund has invested around €6.8 million in Serbia and leveraged an additional €30 million of investment, creating over 750 jobs. The Fund is covering different sectors, like metal processing, IT, furniture manufacturing and paper production. Considering the large Serbian diaspora in Switzerland, it is no wonder that Serbia is one of the countries benefiting the most from this Fund.

The Swiss project “From Education to Employment – E2E–” supports Serbian companies in developing and implementing modern work-based training for young jobseekers. The purpose is to build skills that are required by the private sector

Part of Swiss state aid to Serbia aims to develop SMEs, with priority given to projects that contribute to overcoming inequality. Can you say something about the effects of that assistance to date?

– The private sector has a fundamental role to play in contributing to inclusive and sustainable growth, and ultimately to poverty reduction. This is why one of our fields of cooperation is ‘Economic Development and Employment’. SMEs benefit directly from our programmes. I’ll give you two examples: one upcoming Swiss programme will focus on the manufacturing sector and local SMEs, to deliver goods to multinational companies, and as a result, their competitiveness will improve and they will gain access to foreign markets.

Another important aspect of SMEs is having access to skilled labour. The Swiss project “From Education to Employment – E2E–” supports Serbian companies in developing and implementing modern work-based training for young jobseekers. The purpose is to build skills that are required by the private sector.

One of many art exhibitions was opened at your Belgrade residence in June. It featured works by Serbian artists who were finalists of the “Private Value” competition. It seems that you see great potential in young artists?

– First, supporting young Serbian artists goes hand-in-hand with Switzerland’s international cooperation with Serbia on youth education. Second, artists question the society in which they live. By doing so they promote values like tolerance, respect, openness, fairness and living together. Those values are precisely at the heart of the ongoing reconciliation process in the region. The contribution of the artists and creators to reconciliation is usually underestimated. The Serbia of tomorrow belongs to young men and women who are today in their twenties, be they artists, journalists, clerks, nurses, software engineers etc.

The support of the Swiss embassy to cultural Institutions in Serbia means a lot to them. What are your plans for the rest of 2019?

– In November, we will feature Serbian painter Dragan Zdravković together with Swiss artist Peter Aeschmann, in a common exhibition at the Swiss Residence. As usual, this exhibition will be open to the public twice a week over the course of two months. In early 2020, we will launch another open call for young Serbian artists, which will be our third edition. As with the previous ones, a professional jury will select five to six artists.

Each of them will receive €500 to produce artworks for the exhibition, while the finalist will receive an additional €2000. On top of that, we are supporting Swiss artists coming to Serbia within the scope of numerous cultural institutions, like BITEF, Beldocs or the Belgrade Dance Festival. With the Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Museum, Belgrade stands out as the cultural hub of the whole region.  

SUPPORT

Through our projects, we are contributing to enhanced citizen participation and supporting local governments in bringing to life relevant laws and regulations

DIALOGUE

Normalised and peaceful relations between Serbia and Kosovo will only emerge from an inclusive societal dialogue

TASK

It is then the task of the Serbian authorities to make the most favourable conditions and incentives to attract even more investors