Interview of Minister Selaković for the Ljubljana daily "Delo"

25. May 2021.
1. The discussion on the European perspective of the countries in the region, which was at the center of the recent meeting of the Brdo-Brioni initiative, is very topical not only in the region but also beyond. But we got the impression that the EU ambition of many countries has cooled in the last few years. Is our impression wrong?

The European Union has been showing fatigue in enlargement for years, which naturally causes accession fatigue in the Western Balkans states, but the burden of responsibility for insufficient dynamics in the European integration process is often unjustifiably placed on the candidate countries. Throughout the region, there is still a predominant mood in favor of EU membership, but there are also understandable frustrations about lost time and betrayed expectations.

How much is Serbia still interested for EU membership?

Serbia has been on the road to the EU for twenty years. We applied for membership 12 years ago, received candidate status in 2012, and since the beginning of negotiations in 2014, we have opened 18 of the 35 negotiating chapters and closed two. A survey conducted by a Belgrade institute this month confirms that there is still an absolute majority of citizens in Serbia interested in EU membership and that such a commitment would be unequivocally confirmed in a referendum. On the other hand, the Government of Serbia, without any hesitation, constantly says that EU membership is our key strategic goal. It is not a question, therefore, of a ceremonial expression of commitment, but of the true will of Serbia and its citizens to be part of a wider European family to which they lean both historically and in terms of values and interest.

Serbia has recently proved to be a very successful leader in the region. Such success of Serbia does not make everyone in the region happy, why should the countries of the region rejoice seeing a strong Serbia?

It is time for us, as societies, both mentally and politically, to overcome our Balkan mental attitude that it is good when a neighbor’s cow dies. Therefore, the real question is not why someone would rejoice in a successful Serbia, but why everyone would not rejoice in a successful Serbia. We live in an area where we are connected by family ties and complementary economies, so, if you will, I still live by the memory of our common successes, at a time when we were more closely connected. I do not see any rational reason for anyone to be afraid of a successful neighbor, because the unsuccessful neighbors are the ones who should be feared. Political radicalism, demagoguery, xenophobia are phenomena that find fertile ground more easily in an atmosphere of social and economic insecurity than in successful states and progressive societies.  

Seen from afar, it seems that the successful balancing between the great powers, China, Russia, the EU and the USA, has given Serbia some kind of competitive advantage compared to other countries, which in your opinion are the key advantages of such a position of Serbia?

In the conditions of the pandemic, it turned out that the multi-vector foreign policy of Serbia is saving. Our Russian and Chinese friends were able to come to the rescue at a time when the EU was overwhelmed by its own problems, which resulted in serious problems in immunizing the population on our continent. What actually happened was that some political considerations took precedence over the first and most important priority, and that is to return to the mode of more or less normal social and economic functioning in the fastest possible way. Serbia also had an unequivocal economic benefit from, for example, cooperation with the People's Republic of China, because we solved some long-standing problems in the mining and metallurgical complex, which were a noose around the Serbian economy, and those problems could not have been solved in cooperation with some other partners. Therefore, it is not about the need of Serbia to oppose someone, but about a pragmatic effort to ensure progress for one’s own state, without anyone feeling threatened. We nurture traditionally strong and steel friendship with Russia and China, because those countries have never done us any harm, and besides, in absolute numbers, that cooperation is hundreds, even thousands of times less than the cooperation of those who look at our ties with Russian and Chinese friends with suspicion.

What is the recipe for successful balancing between the mentioned powers?

In a world that, after a long period of unstoppable globalization, has begun to polarize again, by becoming polycentric, the position of states that choose to be militarily neutral is very complex, because the centers of power may doubt the sincerity or sustainability of such a position. However, Serbia stands in that position in the sincerest way possible and consistently insists on respect for international law, multilateralism and the policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. We have no way to convince others that peace and stability are really the highest Serbian state and national interests, except by being consistent in insisting on those values. Some of our friends and partners understand that, some may understand it a little less, but it is up to us to convince all those who doubt our goodwill. 

The large inflow of foreign direct investments is a significant success for the Serbian economy, how much are the efforts of the Serbian diplomatic network responsible for that economic success? How can your ministry specifically contribute to success in the area of foreign investments?

Economic diplomacy is a key segment of any successful modern diplomacy. So far, Serbia has not been without success in that field, as shown by the data on the level of direct foreign investments in Serbia in the past period. However, we are convinced that we can do better and more, and we are open to using the positive experiences of other countries. In that sense, we have already made excellent initial contacts with, for example, our friends in Hungary.

Relations with Slovenia, where do you see the most opportunities for improvement, in which area in particular?

In the modern world, the economy is a generator of all other forms of cooperation, but our peoples, I would say, have such a strong and long tradition of cooperation and friendship that we have a rare opportunity to build progress in economic cooperation on existing relations and ties. Serbia is interested in expanding economic and trade cooperation, especially in areas where we have significant but untapped potential, such as manufacturing, IT industry, banking and insurance, food production, tourism, development of small and medium-sized enterprises… I am convinced that economic and political relations will continue to develop in the years ahead, in the mutual interest of our countries.

Serbia is an attractive location for Slovenian companies not only for concluding import and export deals, but also for investments, in which industries do you see the most opportunities for Slovenian investors in Serbia?

I am pleased to state that with more than one billion euros invested, Slovenia is one of the largest investors in Serbia, and that about 25,000 workers work in more than 1,200 Slovenian companies. This trend continues, and last year alone we attracted around 466 million euros of Slovenian investments. Slovenian investors have excellent experiences in Serbia, and I expect that in the future we will have reasons for mutual satisfaction.   

Companies from Serbia are a significant investor in Slovenia, and how do you assess that Slovenia could attract even more attention from investors from your country?

You have well noticed the fact that more and more companies from Serbia decide to do business in Slovenia and that this is a growing trend. According to our data, the value of Serbian investments in Slovenia so far is around 300 million euros. These are slightly more than 2,000 business entities where the majority owner is a legal entity registered in Serbia or a citizen of Serbia. I am sure that this is just the beginning of a dynamic economic relationship between our countries, which will continue to flourish for mutual benefit. 

Cultural cooperation between the two countries, within the negotiations on the heritage of the former Yugoslavia, there were talks of returning films to Slovenia, is there any progress in that area, i.e. where are you on the unresolved problems?

Serbia is sincerely interested and ready to work in a direct dialogue on resolving all open issues with Slovenia. The specific example you mention is part of the broader issue of the return of cultural property, and it is too complex to be able to touch on all its legal and other aspects in this short conversation. And you should keep in mind that it is not only about the cultural goods that Slovenia is asking from Serbia, but also about those that Serbia is asking for, so that process should have a two-way character. I am convinced that there is no lack of good will for that on either side.  

I know that Serbia is trying to promote its tourism, during the pandemic your country seems like a potentially attractive location for tourists from Slovenia, who are looking for quieter locations without a high risk of infection, is there any action plan on this issue?

Slovenians are known as great lovers of natural beauty and people who strive to spend every moment of their free time in nature. In that sense, Serbia is still an undiscovered pearl. In the time before the pandemic, we were used to the presence of a large number of Slovenian tourists in Belgrade, especially during the big holidays, but our capital is not the only attractive tourist destination in Serbia. I am sure that no Slovenian would return dissatisfied from, for example, a tourist tour on Stara Planina, Zlatibor or Rtanj. In the conditions of limited movement during the pandemic, even many citizens of Serbia discovered the natural beauties of their country for the first time. And I'm not just talking about the economic aspect of tourism, because the Serbian and Slovenian people throughout history have experienced harmonious and friendly relations, and tourism can only be one of the means to renew and further strengthen these ties. 

What are Serbia's expectations from Slovenia's presidency of the EU Council?

I wish Slovenia a successful six-month mandate, and, despite being aware of the challenges facing the EU, we hope that Slovenia will find a way to get the issue of enlargement back on the EU's political agenda. We also expect that Slovenia will successfully organize the EU-Western Balkans Summit during its presidency, the holding of which has been announced for October this year. I think that Slovenia, as a country that certainly understands the processes in the Balkans better than some more distant countries, can make a great contribution to a more open and proactive attitude of the EU towards our region.