Diplomat Magazine had the pleasure to engage in a conversation with H.E. Mr. Nikola Selaković, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia. In this conversation, the Minister provided his insights on the bilateral relations between Serbia and the Netherlands, as well as with the European Union more at large. He also explained his government’s stance regarding the ongoing dialogue with Pristina on the Kosovo issue, as well as Serbia’s relation with other international players and bodies, including the Eurasian Economic Union, China, Russia, and the United States.
Your Excellency, could you give us your take on the current state of the bilateral ties between your country and the Netherlands?
Serbia attaches great importance to its bilateral relations with the Netherlands, both within the framework of political dialogue and in the area of economic cooperation. We wish to further deepen and intensify our high-level political dialogue, which was reinvigorated with the visit of the then Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok to Belgrade in November 2019. My visit to The Hague, the first one in the last 14 years, should serve as a demonstration of our readiness to engage in an open discussion with our Dutch partners on all issues of common interest.
Another important tool of our bilateral political relations are regular political consultations between the two ministries of foreign affairs. The first political consultations were held in January this year and they were marked by an active discussion between the two sides about numerous bilateral, regional, and global issues. We hope to continue this newly established format and hold political consultations with the Dutch Foreign Ministry at least once a year.
On the economic front, companies from the Netherlands are among the major foreign investors in Serbia. The trade between our two countries has increased 10 per cent in the course of this year alone, despite the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic. Continued presence of Ahold-Delhaize corporation, Heinken, KLM and many other companies clearly shows not only that Serbia is a desirable investment destination, but that our country also provides favorable and stable legal, economic, and legislative conditions for foreign investors. We further look to expand our economic cooperation in the field of agriculture, given that the Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world. Furthermore, we are interested in the transfer of know-how in the area of digital agriculture, which is in line with our domestic priority to modernize our agricultural production.
We believe that there are many areas in which Serbia and the Netherlands can successfully work together. Our two nations have a 122-year-old history of diplomatic relations and there is also space for strengthening cultural, educational, and people to people contacts. Almost 20,000 Serbs live, work or study in the Netherlands and it is of great importance for them to see strong bonds existing between the two countries.
Going beyond the Netherlands, what is the current state of Serbia’s ties with the European Union more at large?
Serbia is a candidate country for EU membership and the European integration is a strategic priority for our government. Over last twelve months, Serbia has intensified reforms in all areas focusing on the reforms in the area of the rule of law. While the reform agenda is among key criteria for the EU membership, we have done it because we are convinced that reforms are beneficial to all our citizens and have a positive impact on their overall quality of life. And this is not only the matter of our need to make our own society more functional and economically advanced, but it also has to do with the fact that Serbia belongs to the European family geographically as well as in civilizational terms and according to its values. We hope that the Netherlands will recognize and acknowledge such a position and that it will objectively consider the efforts that Serbia is making and the results it is achieving on its path to full EU membership.
We are pleased that, in its 2021 Progress Report on Serbia, the European Commission recognized our reform efforts and recommended to the EU member states further steps in our accession process. In our assessment, this year’s report is the most positive report on Serbia in the last few years. We are therefore hopeful that the member states will agree with the European Commission and decide on opening further negotiating clusters with Serbia in line with the revised methodology for accession negotiations. On our part, we are fully prepared to open clusters 3 and 4, which include important areas such as energy, green agenda, social policy, and tax policy.
Serbia will in the meantime maintain its commitment to the reform agenda. The most recent example of our credibility is the process of constitutional changes aimed at ensuring independence of judiciary, which is to be completed by mid-February 2022.
Your Excellency, could you provide us some insights on your government’s stance in relation to dialogue with the authorities in Pristina?
Belgrade remains fully committed to dialogue with Pristina with an aim of reaching a compromise solution acceptable for both sides. Regrettably, during this year we have witnessed a complete lack of willingness by Pristina to either fulfill its obligations from the Brussels agreement of 2013 or to contribute to any progress in the dialogue. Whilst Serbia has fulfilled all its obligations from the Brussels agreement – related to police, judiciary, elections, to name a few – Pristina has been continuously refusing for more than eight years to even discuss the establishment of the Community of Serb Municipalities, which is their major obligation from the agreement. Moreover, the representatives of Pristina openly claim that what their predecessors signed is not binding for them, that is, that they do not intend to fulfill their obligations. In this way, they not only jeopardize the dialogue process, but also challenge the authority of the EU as a facilitator and guarantor of the implementation of the agreements reached in that process.
Recent unilateral actions by Pristina – including sending special police forces to the north of Kosovo and Metohija, which is in full contravention of the agreements reached – led to further intimidation and sense of insecurity among the Serbian people in the province. Since the beginning of the year, as many as 118 ethnically motivated incidents against Serbs, their property and the Serbian Orthodox Church have been recorded, and this speaks volumes about the nature of the society being established in the self-proclaimed “Kosovo”, and about what is Pristina’s true approach to human rights and regional stability.
We appreciate a proactive engagement of the EU Special Envoy Miroslav Lajcak in easing the tensions, but at the same time we call on the international community to condemn such unilateral actions and exercise its influence on the representatives of Pristina to return to a meaningful dialogue. The statements given by prime minister of the provisional institutions of self-government in Pristina, Albin Kurti, about the unification of the so-called Kosovo with Albania have been particularly worrying. Regardless of all this, Belgrade will continue to demonstrate a constructive role in the dialogue which is in the interest of peace and stability of the Western Balkan region.
Minister, could you tell us more about the recent free trade agreement between Serbia and the Eurasian Economic Union?
Serbia, as a country in the entrance hall of the EU, is compelled to use every opportunity to strengthen its economy. By doing so, we are building a successful state, but we are also preparing for the moment when the EU will give the green light for enlargement to the Western Balkans. The issue of our economic relations with the Eurasian Economic Union is a matter of a pragmatic approach and responsibility towards the interests of our citizens, and it is often given unnecessary political emphasis in conversations of this kind. Those who benefit the most from our trade relations with countries outside the EU are none other than the companies from the EU exporting from Serbia to those markets. However, I need to emphasize that the economic interests of Serbia are primarily related to the EU and the countries of our region covered by the CEFTA agreement. EU countries are the source of over 70% of foreign direct investment in Serbia. The EU is also the most important foreign trade partner of Serbia, because two thirds of Serbian exports of goods and a little over a half of exports of services are realized with the EU.
And besides the EU, Your Excellency, how are Serbia’s relations with other major international players, such as for instance China, Russia, and the United States?
Serbia is conducting an independent foreign policy which includes traditionally good and friendly relations with China and Russia. In our view, these relations are not contrary to our European aspirations given that different EU member states also maintain good relations with both Russia and China. As a small-sized country Serbia is focused on strengthening ties with different countries on a global scale, while at the same time maintaining a neutral position on open issues between world’s great powers. Military neutrality and political independence remain to be consistent pillars of our foreign policy.
On the other hand, the priority of our foreign policy is to refine cooperation with countries with which we have not always had harmonious relations in the recent past, because Serbia today is building a new image of an economically advanced and dynamic state and a reliable partner in preserving regional stability. This year Serbia and the US celebrate 140th anniversary of their diplomatic relations and we see this jubilee as an opportunity to further strengthen our bilateral political and economic relations. We also hope to see positive results of an increased interest of the US administration in the Western Balkans.
Many thanks, Your Excellency, for your insights, and best of luck with your precious work!