It is important that we understand that we are implementing the ongoing reforms for our own sake; for the sake of the Serbian citizens and business people in Serbia
The President of Color Press Group, Robert Čoban conducted an interview with the Serbian Prime Minister, Ana Brnabić on 14th December at the first gala dinner ‘World in 2018’ which took place in Belgrade. In the interview, the Prime Minister underlined that we lived in an emerging region, as well as the importance of e-government, personal contacts in politics, and finding reliable economic partners all over the world – from Russia and the US to the EU, the UAE, China, India and Turkey. Here is the entire interview which the Serbian Prime Minister gave for the first issue of Diplomacy&Commerce in 2018 in which she talks about Serbia’s further activities on the EU accession, the reforms that the government continues to conduct, and Serbia’s importance in the region.
What are your impressions of the first gala dinner in Hong Kong where you were one of the keynote speakers?
— I am happy to see that, after Hong Kong, Belgrade is next to host the ‘World in 2018’ gala dinner. Hong Kong was excellent, and what I consider especially important is that I, as the Serbian Prime Minister, had been invited to be one of the keynote speakers at such an important global event. I think that this was also important for both Serbia and the region. I also think that we used the given opportunity well, that we managed to send out a more positive and more optimistic message about the Balkans, and convey that, realistically speaking, 2018 could be a groundbreaking year for many important decisions. If we demonstrate enough leadership qualities and bravery, and with a little bit of luck, at the end of 2018, the Balkans will look completely different and will relay a totally different message. The message being that we don’t constantly need someone from aside to tell us what we need to do and how to talk to each other, but rather that we can demonstrate that we can do it alone and thus that we are mature and responsible enough to be a member of the European family of nations.
The Editor-in-Chief of The Economist, Daniel Franklin asked you a question about the relations between Serbia and Russia. What is your view regarding this issue?
Daniel Franklin did not spare me in our conversation. One of the questions in this hard talk was about Russia bearing in mind that we are one of the very few countries that did not impose sanctions on Russia. This is a frequently asked question both in Serbia and abroad. Our response, to all of our partners, is always the same. The same response is given to the EU, as our strategic goal is to become an EU member as soon as possible. The same response is also given to the USA and Russian Federation. The faster economic growth is one of our key priorities. Last year, it stood at 2.8%, this year it will be 2%, while the projected growth for next year is 3.5%. However, we need at least 4% in order to develop faster. We can achieve this only if we have strong partners, including Russia with which we have signed the Free Trade Agreement considering how big and important is the Russian market. This is also one of the reasons why many investors come to Serbia. Traditionally, Russia is our friend because we have a similar language, share the same religion and the Slavic brotherhood that connect us. We are also connected commercially. Also, we have been bolstering and upgrading our partnership with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), India, and China, through the 16+1 format. All of this just corroborates my previous statements. We have good relations with the Russian Federation because we need them as partners in order to achieve a faster and more intensive growth. As for the United States, that goes without saying. We have been partners with them on several levels.
What are your expectations for 2018 in terms of the continuation of reforms?
— I am optimistic about the next year in regard to Serbia and our economic development because we have all the prerequisites to succeed in 2018. We are ending this year with higher pensions and public sector salaries, higher minimum wage, and tax exemptions primarily for startups and small business owners. In the future, new companies will be exempt from paying taxes during the first and second year of their operations. I do hope that this will provide a big impetus and a motive for people to launch their own business. It is important that we understand that we are implementing the ongoing reforms for our own sake; for the sake of the Serbian citizens and business people in Serbia. The date of our formal accession to the EU is not important. What would happen if the EU were to say that it would not accept new members in the next 10, 15 or 20 years?! What would change in our case? Nothing! Our three pillars on which the European integration process and development rest are the following – macroeconomic stability and economic power, efficient and transparent public administration with no excessive red tape, and the rule of law, transparent and efficient judiciary, and the fight against organized crime and corruption. We have to implement all of this independently from the EU. Our path is as important as our goal. If we implement these reforms efficiently, honestly and authentically, than our EU membership is going to be a consequence of these reforms, and we can peacefully wait to see whether the EU will open its doors to new members or not. It would not be a good thing if our membership in the EU was only formal, and that we are implementing the reforms also just formally. Yes, we can become an EU member in this way, but we are not going to progress at all, or feel the benefits of the membership. This is not an option. Our focus in on reforms that we are implementing for our own sake because we want to be a society based on the European values.
You met with important state officials in Hong Kong and Budapest. How important are personal contacts in establishing good relations between countries?
I think that personal relations are of crucial importance, and that personal contacts play a huge role. We have witnessed this when my predecessor Aleksandar Vučić started to develop personal relations with the Albanian PM, Edi Rama. I think that we can agree that today Serbia and Albania have better relations than centuries before. Why? Because someone dared to make a personal contact. Edi Rama was the first Albanian PM to come to Serbia in 68 years following Aleksandar Vučić’s invitation. We do have open issues with Albania, but it is important that we talk. Two months ago, Mr Rama and I opened an important event called the World Policy Conference in Morocco. The conference organizers recognized this as an important step for the Western Balkans, and wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to overcome centuries-old hostility in a short amount of time. Although the hostility is not yet entirely eliminated, that does not mean that we cannot talk openly and sincerely despite not agreeing on certain topics. On the contrary, there are a lot of topics that we do agree on, and based on which we can build our partnership. Vučić has also established personal contacts with the prime ministers of Bulgaria, Greece and Hungary. Serbia’s advantage lies in the fact that it has a president and a prime minister who think that this is important and who, each in their own line of job and in accordance with their powers, are trying to position Serbia as the leader in regional stability. Serbia has pragmatic interests in the region. There is no healthy economic development without stability which is why we don’t need instability. Nobody will invest in Serbia if they perceive our country as unstable.
Serbia plays an important role in the region. How can we overcome the tensions in the region (Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, relations with Croatia)?
— In terms of the region, now is the right moment, and I think that we have a great opportunity, that appears only ever few decades, to resolve some important issues providing there are leadership and courage. Regional stability is very important for Serbia because we cannot record growth if our region is perceived as risky. Speaking about the report compiled by the European Investment Bank (EIB), which says that, in terms of the corruption volume, the Western Balkans occupy the second place in the world, the first thing I would like to say that we are talking here about a perception of corruption, not the corruption per se. There is a problem with corruption, but I don’t think that we are as bad as we are portrayed to be. Fighting against corruption is something that we are definitely focusing on. We have to fight it, not because of the EU, but for our own sake, as I have said before. Which brings me to one of my favourite topics which is e-government.
Implementing e-government is the fastest and easiest way to fight corruption which can be seen in the case of electronic issuance of building permits. Back in the day, this process was slow, the most corrupt out of all processes, and was carried out arbitrarily which was the perfect breeding ground for corruption. Now, that we have e-permits, there are no more instances of a person working behind a counter saying: “If you compensate us, we are going to put your application on top of this pile, and, if you don’t, it will continue sitting at the bottom of it.” Now that we have a transparent process we know exactly how far along we are in processing the application. We also know who gave a positive opinion about it, and who gave a negative one, and what are these opinions based on. We know how we act. Faster we implement electronic services for as many permits and procedures as possible, less corruption there will be in our society, the system will be more transparent, and all service users, i.e. citizens and businesses, will be much happier. And this is crucial – to create a system that is tailor-made to user needs.