Serbia and Italy, close nations. Stojiljković: “The European Union is one of the most important priorities”

06.08.2021 – 09.00 – Serbia: a country very close to Italy and Europe in terms of history, tradition and strategic importance. However, for many Italians, Serbia is still little known: The recent presentation of the comic “Welcome to Kosovo” is an opportunity to talk about this topic. Despite the very close relations that have grown over the years and developed into a primary trade partnership, Serbia in 2021 is a country that many Italians still perceive as very distant. We met in Trieste with the Consul General of the Republic of Serbia, Ivana Stojiljković.

Why do you think this is so?

“How much we know about a country and its people depends on our personal interests, especially our contacts and the media that surrounds us. The circumstances of the war that the Balkan countries have been involved in for the past three decades are the reason why Serbia is mostly misrepresented. Now we have to work diligently, and it will take time to correct this injustice, but we are moving towards this goal, and very successfully. Serbs and Italians have been much closer friends for centuries than history has recorded. Although most Italian citizens do not know that no less than 17 Roman emperors came from Serbia, this unfortunate outbreak of Covid-19 has led many of your citizens to learn about our country and its true values. The friendship between Serbia and Italy was further strengthened during these difficult times: during the first wave of the epidemic, in April 2020, President Vučić sent an airplane with medical aid and equipment to Italy, while last August the Italian Government sent a medical team to Serbia, which, with the experience it had gained during the first wave, helped our doctors in the most difficult moments.”

How is Serbia dealing with the Covid 19 epidemic?

“Today’s authorities, led by President Aleksandar Vučić, have led Serbia to be considered a trustworthy partner. Friendships and cooperation with the West and the East have allowed us to deliver the largest number of vaccines on the market and successfully start mass vaccination not only of our own population, but also of neighbouring countries. In our country of just over seven million inhabitants, 5.15 million doses of vaccine have been administered, and Serbia has also donated vaccine to the neighbouring countries of Montenegro, North Macedonia, Republika Srpska and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Citizens of neighbouring countries were also able to get vaccinated during their stay in Serbia. The image of Serbia is changing every day for the better, and people know us for what we are: honest, hardworking, friendly, peaceful.”

How many Italians visit Serbia every year? What are the main destinations and reasons for travel? 

“In recent months we have received numerous requests from Italian citizens who want to visit Serbia. We do not know their exact number, but considering that there are about 2000 Italian companies operating in Serbia, this number can already be in the tens of thousands if we count only the people who travel to Serbia for business reasons. Cultural exchange is also at a high-level thanks to the activities of an Italian cultural centre in Belgrade: several thousand artists work in Serbia during the year. The most recent cultural cooperation took place between the region Friuli Venezia Giulia with the “Il Piccolo Opera Festival” and the city of Kragujevac. As far as tourism is concerned, Italians are very interested in getting to know and visiting Serbia’s cultural heritage: mediaeval monasteries, fortresses, Neolithic settlements such as Lepenski Vir and Viminacium (the places where the Roman emperors came from), as well as numerous museums, especially the museum dedicated to the work of Nikola Tesla and the ethnographic museum”.

And how many Serbs live in Italy?

“A large number of Serbian citizens live in Italy. The exact number is difficult to ascertain because the Italian Republic conducts official censuses that register only those who hold Serbian citizenship exclusively (people with dual Serbian and Italian citizenship are not included). This year 33,322 people were registered, most of whom live and work in the regions of Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia. The number of people who have also obtained Italian citizenship is very high.

In what way are Italian companies from the Northeast most present in Serbia? 

“Economic cooperation with Italy is well-developed and diversified. Italy is the second most important partner for trade exchange with Serbia and one of the largest investors in the region. Trade exchange amounted to 3.354 billion euros in 2020. About 1850 Italian companies are registered in Serbia, partly or majority owned by Italians, employing about 39,000 people; among the most important investors are names such as Intesa Sanpaolo, FIAT Chrysler, Unipol Sai, Ferrero, Cogeme Group. In recent years, the Veneto region has been the most represented in terms of number of investments, while Friuli Venezia Giulia has entered into an increasingly close cooperation with the development of the port of Trieste and the important international positioning of trade routes. As for Friuli Venezia Giulia, another major investment is on the horizon: earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit another major company, Danieli & C. in Udine, and start detailed negotiations on investments in Serbia. During our talks we also discussed investments in the field of environmental protection. I am confident that with the stabilization of the epidemic situation, many other opportunities for economic cooperation with the region will open up.

What about logistics and transport?

Belgrade and Trieste are two of the most important points of contact between East and West; this is precisely why my first activities since the beginning of my term as Consul General were aimed at strengthening air and road connections between the two cities. Dr. Enrico Samer, director of the Samer&Shipping company, which has also been operating in Serbia for some time, the president of the Port Authority of Eastern Adriatic, Dr. Zeno d’Agostino, and the director of Trieste Airport, Dr. Marco Conslavo, have been my interlocutors and partners in the development of this connection project.”

What stage has been reached?

“The reintroduction of the direct flight connection between Belgrade and Trieste was one step closer to completion, but was unfortunately interrupted by the epidemic. At the same time, we have been talking about strengthening rail transport, all with the aim of creating the best and strongest economic and trade connections.

Many people in Italy talk about an aspiring Serbia, which is turning towards Europe and promises to open up the Union to the East; just as many talk about a Serbia whose economy is still in deep crisis and a country where, outside the major centres, there is widespread poverty, forcing young people to emigrate. With a promise of admission to the European Union, which will never be fulfilled. What are your thoughts on this? What is the reality?

“EU membership is the most important priority in Serbia’s foreign policy. In this very important and difficult process for Serbia, in which we have been given the most difficult conditions, Italy remains a very important partner because it supports the continuation of EU enlargement and also helps Serbia in the integration process. The IMF estimates that Serbia has weathered the Covid 19 pandemic well and expects the economic recovery to continue in 2021, while the slump in economic activity in 2020 is estimated at 1%, which is the lowest percentage in Europe. In addition to direct aid from the Serbian state, which was transferred to families three times, public sector wages and pensions were increased at the beginning of 2021, as well as the minimum wage for employees.

What about the young people leaving your country?

“Over the past two years, the Government of the Republic of Serbia has been working hard on a program for the return of Serbian citizens from abroad, but it is also trying to keep young people in Serbia before they decide to leave. This can be achieved by strengthening infrastructure and economic development, but also through concrete measures: incentives in the form of interventions to improve employment and find jobs for our citizens who come from the diaspora and for our citizens who completed their education abroad. In Serbia, the Fund for Scientific Research also issues vouchers for people from the diaspora; we make efforts to electronically recognize diplomas earned by our young people abroad; we create tax benefits in case a citizen wants to open a start-up or an innovative company. At the same time, thanks to the large number of foreign direct investments, Serbia is developing homogeneously and there is no significant internal migration to the big cities in search of work. Last year, about 400,000 people returned from abroad, and most of them stayed in Serbia, where they work and live.

Russia has changed its economic policy since 2015 to deal with European and US sanctions; Serbia, albeit in a different context, has shown with President Vucic since 2017 that it wants to follow a similar path of renewal. How have the paths of international business development changed in Serbia?

“Serbia is a country that offers quality and balanced conditions for development and is becoming a new expanding market, rich in technological resources and services with the highest added value. Thanks to numerous agreements on foreign trade relations, Serbia is an excellent place for investors, representing a total market of about 1.3 billion buyers doing business with special benefits. Serbia is now a leader in Europe in attracting foreign direct investment and has therefore been declared the best investment destination in the world. The Serbian labour market is stable, Serbia offers transparent and competitive market conditions, and the workforce is highly skilled: 24% of people in Serbia have a university degree, 86% speak fluent English, 12% German, 6% French or Spanish and 4% Italian.”

What about Italy? Important companies have decided to internationalize by establishing a presence in Serbia: not only in production, but also in advanced services. Is Serbia growing along with the companies that are now working there, or is there a risk that they are just here because of the cheap labour?

“Diplomatic and bilateral relations between Italy and Serbia were established more than 142 years ago and have continued to develop. Trade and economic relations were further strengthened by the Italian-Serbian strategic partnership agreement signed 12 years ago. In Serbia, there are Italian companies of different sizes and types, depending on their geographical location, but spread all over the territory, from the north to the south of Serbia. After the pandemic, Italian companies became more interested in establishing themselves in Serbia, which they see as a market where they can place their products. They also see it as a favourable production location for exports, especially to countries with which Serbia has signed trade facilitation agreements. Belgrade, like Trieste, is a crossroads where East and West meet: major transport corridors by road, sea and air pass through the city. Among all foreign investors, Italian companies account for about 19.4%. Historically, the first important Italian investor in Serbia was Fiat. Thanks to Fiat’s help, many other companies in the automotive industry were subsequently established. Today there are banks, insurance companies, but also the Italian textile industry with brands such as Pompea, Golden Lady, Calzedonia, Olimpias. Italian companies are present in almost all sectors of the economy: construction, information technology, renewable energy, footwear, packaging, mechanics, woodworking, furniture and agriculture. I would like to take this opportunity to invite Italian companies to get in touch with our country and establish a business partnership with Serbia”.

Serbia as a bridge between Asia and the West. Serbia has traditionally been a friend of Russia, with which it has very close economic and strategic ties and has managed to maintain and develop good relations with the United States, without sacrificing China’s strategic investments. Serbia is part of the New Silk Road from a logistical point of view, but it is also part of the digital New Silk Road. What is the key to this diplomacy?

“The secret of success lies in politics, which takes care of all the details as if the state were a family. And it is the success of honest diplomacy that guides the Serbian president. Such an achievement as having friends in all four parts of the world and winning the respect of the greatest heads of state and important politicians of nations can only be achieved by someone who has clear vision and keeps the interest of his people in mind. This interest very often coincides with regional, European and even global interests. Serbia is a good and reliable partner, which is why it maintains strong friendly, strategic and economic relations throughout the world.

Economic cooperation with China allows Serbia to solve some of the most delicate aspects of its economic situation, which has been sluggish for many years. However, will Serbia be able to maintain the balance created between the political East and the West, considering the agreements signed at the end of 2020 between President Vučić and Prime Minister Hoti, which put the brakes on the entry of Chinese communication giants into the country?

“As President Vučić pointed out, the Washington Agreement has not affected cooperation with any of Serbia’s partners so far. China is one of the most important partners for Serbia in the fight against Covid-19: in addition to assistance in the form of medicines and medical equipment, most vaccines were purchased in China, and Chinese donations were used to open laboratories for research against the virus, while the construction of the Chinese factory for the production of Sinopharm is underway. Moreover, Serbia is criticized by those who have a much larger partnership with China. Cooperation with China is of great importance for both sides, as it has opened up Serbian industry and enabled the reconstruction of infrastructure in Serbia. Along with Russia, the US and EU countries, China is a country with which Serbia is building a strategic partnership. We are part of the initiative with the countries of the Middle and Eastern European (17+1) for a new opening of Western trade channels, following the old Silk Road” and this represents an important condition for global stability for Serbia.”

Serbia, corruption, lack of freedom of the press, and the absence of a real political opposition in parliament. These accusations are made frequently and mirror those made against Hungary and, more recently, Poland, and are, according to analysts, the main obstacle to even closer relations with the European Union. What is the position of the Serbian government?

“The fight against corruption and crime is one of the most important tasks facing the Serbian government today. The proof that the Serbian government takes this very seriously is precisely the fact that none of those who have not complied with the applicable laws have been ‘protected’, regardless of their position or political affiliation. As far as freedom of the press and media is concerned, President Vučić recently stressed that representatives of all Serbian media do their work in an atmosphere of unrestricted freedom of expression and that he will forever be committed to this, as freedom of the media itself is one of the most important assets of the new democracy. In Serbia, the media have the right to express their opinions and political stances, and our government has supported a public initiative that addressed this very issue, exhibiting both 2500 front pages of newspapers and the information, reports, commentaries and analyses of the media that have been critical of the authorities over the past two years.”

Serbia and religion, Serbia and youth. In Trieste, the community Serbian Orthodox is very well known and has addressed the citizenry on many occasions; at the same time, many families from Serbian Muslims live in the city. How much has Serbia changed with regard to its youth? What do the young Serbs dream of? What do the young Serbs from Trieste, who form a very important core of the citizenship of the capital Friuli Venezia Giulia, dream of?

“Serbia, like Italy, is a multicultural country where everyone, regardless of nationality, lives together without exception. Young people are our pride. They have their own goals, and they manage to achieve them in all areas. Just in the last few days, the world’s leading tennis player Novak Dokovic from Serbia won his 20th trophy, while Vasilije Micić was named the best basketball player in Europe and Nikola Jokić the best basketball player in the world. The women’s basketball players are European champions. Young people achieve first places in science, in culture. Young Serbs in Trieste also dream of these successes, proud of their ancestors, their tradition and culture. They continue to improve their community, each with his own contribution. I am particularly happy about this, because our two peoples, the Italian and the Serbian, are very close in the three regions that make up my area of responsibility – Friuli Venezia Giulia, Veneto and Trentino Alto Adige. For me, it is a great satisfaction to be a diplomat where there is great respect and cooperation with the host country. Of course, our diaspora deserves this, because over the centuries it has built good relations with its neighbors through its honest work and contributions to society as a whole. Recently, the Union of Serbs in Italy organised a promotional event for the book “Welcome to Kosovo” at our Consulate General: Italians were present in large numbers, and this is a confirmation that we want to learn much more about each other, that we want to get to know each other even better, and this is the basis for friendship and cooperation. In the coming period there will be many important activities organised by Serbian associations, and one of them, organised and curated by Serbian Youth Cultural Association, is also the exhibition dedicated to the most famous scientist of all time, a Serbian scientist; it is entitled “Nikola Tesla – the man from the future” and will be held in Trieste from 18 September to 10 October, again with the support of the Ministry of Culture, the Consulate General of the Republic of Serbia, Serbian Orthodox Church and the Municipality and many Italian supporters”.

Belgrade is a capital city that has experienced a strong upswing in recent years. Perhaps too strong? Will Serbia distinguish itself even more and how?

“Belgrade is a cosmopolitan city where everyone feels welcome. Foreign investment does not create dependency but represents the capital that creates new jobs and large construction sites for the reconstruction of Serbia and a higher quality of life. There is a saying that anyone who has once felt the positive energy of Belgrade or any part of Serbia will always come back. Therefore, I take this opportunity to invite our Italian friends to visit and get to know Serbia: the beauty of our country, the rich history and culture of Serbia, the friendly and hospitable people and the traditional Serbian cuisine. Long live Serbia and long live Italy!”

[Roberto Srelz]

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