In an exclusive interview with Diplomat Magazine’s Publisher, the Ambassador of the Republic of Serbia, H.E. Mrs. Ksenija Milenković, talked about her country’s history, as well as its current foreign policy priorities.
Ambassador, the National Day of Serbia falls on February 15th. What is the origin of this date?
On February 15th, 1835, Serbia promulgated its first modern European constitution, drawing inspiration from the French constitutional charter of 1814 and the Belgian constitution of 1831. In those times, unfortunately, Serbia was still under the rulership of the Ottoman Empire, and therefore the constitution, which is usually a symbol of an independent state, was not enforced for a very long time. It took us then until 1878 to regain our independence, in the context of the Berlin Congress.
While our first modern constitution was drafted in 1835, it is worth noting that our first codified act was drafted already in the Medieval Ages, before falling under Ottoman rule. This was the time of the Kingdom of Serbia, and the document is known as the “Dušan’s Code”, from the name of the then-ruler, Emperor Dušan. This was back in the 14th century. After that, however, we fell under the Ottoman Empire, and remained under their rulership for a while.
Moreover, it should also be stressed that there is a degree of symbolism in the date of February 15th, which is a very famous religious holiday in Serbia. Back then, when the State was separated from the Church, the date of February 15th was deliberately chosen for the adoption of the constitution. This date represents the Serbian religious holiday of Sretenje, which could translate as “the meeting”, and it is really a major holiday, and especially it was so back then. Thus, this is also a reason behind why we celebrate our National Day in that date.
What is the origin of the Serbian-Dutch diplomatic relations?
Serbia and the Netherlands have a long history of bilateral relations. After Serbia reestablished its independence in 1878, we established diplomatic relations with the Netherlands already in 1899 – which made the Netherlands one of the first countries to establish relations with us. Last year it was indeed the 120th anniversary of our bilateral relations: a long tradition.
An important part of any bilateral relation is the political dialogue. How is the political dialogue between Belgrade and The Hague?
Actually, from a Serbian standpoint, we would like our political dialogue with the Netherlands to intensify. In the last 15 to 20 years, we did not have as many bilateral contacts as it would be needed. One of the reasons for this is that – as for most of the countries in the Western Balkans – the dialogue with member states of the European Union is often done through the European integration process. And of course, the discussion on integration is very much reflected in our bilateral political dialogue with the Netherlands. Given our status as a candidate country to the membership of the EU, when we talk to the Netherlands – or to other European member states – the topics related to EU membership and the integration process are always at the forefront.
It is worth recalling, however, that we had in important visit in November, when Minister Blok came to Belgrade.
For many years, we had not had a bilateral visit of the Foreign Minister. It was really good to have Minister Blok there – at the time I was still back in Belgrade, and I can say it was really a good visit. My Minister also told him that the visit should be seen as an opportunity to reset our bilateral relations, as well as to improve our overall political dialogue.
Ambassador, could you tell us more about Serbia’s bid for membership in the European Union? How far are you from a settlement – or better, how close?
Membership in the EU is one of the main priorities of the Serbian government. Currently, we are not as close as we would want to be, because of course we would want this process to be faster. However, we are realistic. We are aware that there is some skepticism in the EU, including in the Netherlands, about enlargement in general – not on Serbia in particular. So, we are aware of this reality, and we know that the process cannot go as fast as we would like.
We are currently working on a number of different areas, on several different issues. The process is now stricter and more difficult than it used to be. There are different reasons for it, but this does not matter: this is a fact now, there are the rules of the game. So, what we want to do now is to intensify our dialogue with the European Union and with its members states – including the Netherlands. This is my main task here: to intensify and to strengthen the bilateral relations between Serbia and the Netherlands.
Moving away from the political dimension: how strong is the cooperation between Serbia and the Netherlands in economic terms?
In the economic domain, our cooperation has been quite good. The Netherlands is present in Serbia with some quite significant investments.
For instance, there are two Dutch shipbuilding companies that build the ship’s shells, which are then brought here to complete the building process. My understand is that these companies are really happy with the professional level of our workers in Serbia. Moreover, we also have important Dutch investments in the retail sector. The major Serbia supermarket chain, Maxi, had been bought by Belgian investors two years ago, and it has now passed under Dutch ownership. These are examples of large investments, but then there are also many other smaller ones.
In terms of foreign trade exchange, our relationship with the Netherlands is quite balanced. It is not a huge sum of money – it is around 600 million a year – but it is rather good, especially considering that since 2010 there has been a constant increase in bilateral trade and economic cooperation. An important domain for trade is agriculture – in both ways, as both countries have very prominent agricultural sectors. So, our economic cooperation is definitely increasing, and we want to build up on that – especially when it comes to technology, where the Dutch economy is very advanced.
There have recently been regional initiatives aimed at promoting further integration in the Western Balkans. Ambassador, could you tell us more about this?
The most recent and notable initiative has been the so-called “Mini-Schengen” – that is the unofficial name that has been attached to it. This is an initiative between Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia, and its aim is to connect people from these three countries, to enable them to move freely.
One of the first results will be to enable citizens to cross the border only with their ID. Moreover, we also want to enable an opening up of the labor markets – so that for instance in Serbia there would be an open labor market for citizens of the two other countries. The model is actually that of the European Union, with its so-called “four freedoms”.
The initiative has been launched and endorsed at the highest level, with the involvement of our President, and the two Prime Ministers of Albania and North Macedonia. Up to now, there have been three meetings of the leaders. Currently, we are in the process of drafting the agreement.
It is important to remind that this initiative is open to everybody else in the region. If they want, they are welcome to join – even Kosovo. Sure, on the one hand there is a political issue with Pristina, in the sense that there is a political dialogue that should result in some solution on normalizing relations. But on the other hand, we want to work on the economic and people-to-people contact, two aspects that are beneficial for the people. So, the initiative is open to everyone – not only Kosovo, but also all other countries in the region.
Photography by Naldo Peverelli.