U.S. support to Serbia’s EU accession process and reforms are undisputable. The reforms will bring about a stronger rule of law, a flourishing economy that can compete in the international economic arena, and social and environmental policies that are aligned with international standards. “We’re here to help because we see and value Serbia’s potential. I am confident Serbia will succeed,” said H.E. Kyle Randolph Scott, U.S. Ambassador to Serbia, for InFocus America.
How would you assess the current level of bilateral relations between Serbia and USA?
– This is a complicated question. On a practical level, we have very open, honest, and productive relations between our governments. We work together on many shared priorities, including fighting international crime, boosting trade, and building stronger educational exchanges. This is a reflection of our shared values and a relationship that stretches back nearly 150 years. On the other hand, I need to be honest and say that I’m frustrated that we also seem to be stuck, with the tabloid media and some politicians perpetually fanning the flames of anti- Americanism. In fact, I think we’ve seen troubling steps backward in this arena in recent years, with more one- sided reporting of anti-American conspiracies and a lot of hateful rhetoric. My question is: why? We share Serbia’s goal of trying to integrate the country into its rightful place in Europe, of boosting economic growth, of promoting a free and independent media. While the Serbians I meet have been extremely hospitable and friendly, there is an endless amount of hateful, anti-American sentiment pumped out by the tabloids and social media trolls. I travel constantly throughout Serbia and am convinced these extremists don’t represent the values and perspectives of most Serbs. Unfortunately, their views are amplified by the tabloids and social media, providing what I believe is a very distorted picture of Serbia.
In which areas do you see space for further collaboration?
– Security, innovation, and culture are the obvious fields. We have excellent relationships with Serbia’s law enforcement authorities and have robust cooperation programs in place, and we hope to see more military cooperation. In March, in fact, our U.S. Navy SEALs trained with some of Serbia’s elite law enforcement and military units. This is a direct reflection of our two nations’ shared values of fighting international criminal threats and providing a secure environment for our citizens. Innovation is another area. Serbia has a lot of brain power and a deserved reputation in science. I have worked hard to promote more American investment here because I’m bullish about Serbia’s potential for economic growth and for its ability to provide educated workers for American technology and services firms who have come to Serbia. I like to see high quality jobs created right here in Serbia. I’m also a fan of the arts and have seen some amazing cultural collaborations here, from film production to joint musical performances. Serbia has a vibrant arts scene. America is also home to a large Serbian-American population who forge an especially strong bond between our countries, and the Serbian Orthodox Church is frequently the main conduit that Serbs in America connect back to Belgrade.
What is your opinion about the current level of reforms, in which areas Serbia advanced during the last year, and where more effort is needed?
– In terms of EU accession, Serbia has opened 16 chapters, and provisionally closed two. The government has put a lot of work into the required reforms, but there are areas where the involvement of civil society experts and a more patient, collaborative approach would have allowed for reforms that last. This is the case with some of the judicial reforms for Chapters 23 and 24. Serbia is on the right path by making these reforms – we have to remember the reforms aren’t done just to join the European Union. The point of the reforms is to help Serbia develop its full capacity as a nation and people. I am confident Serbia will succeed. The reforms will help bring more rule of law, a flourishing economy that can compete on the international economic arena, and social and environmental policies that are aligned with international standards. In other words, when Serbia becomes a place where young people see a future for themselves. I also share concerns I have heard from the EU about Serbia’s slow rate of alignment with EU foreign policy. We are committed to supporting Serbia on this path by assisting with making these reforms that often require a lot of work and coordination with the international community. We’re here to help because we see and value Serbia’s potential.
To what extent the current situation with regard to the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina is affecting the pace of the EU accession and the functioning of the CEFTA agreement?
– My observations are based on that of an outside party because clearly, we are not an EU member. Serbia’s EU path is conditioned on normalizing relations with Kosovo. From this perspective, a stalled dialogue means a major roadblock in Serbia’s path to the EU. But that doesn’t mean Serbia should let a slowdown in the dialogue affect its preparations for EU membership. Many reforms are needed to meet the EU acquis, reforms that have nothing to do with the dialogue with Kosovo – from fisheries, to transport, to environmental standards. I would say that showing progress on these is critical to demonstrate that Serbia is “all in” and committed. As Johannes Hahn, the EU’s enlargement commissioner said a few days ago, “It would be a mistake to stop everything just because the dialogue is in a deadlock.” Regarding CEFTA, Kosovo’s tariffs on goods from Serbia and Bosnia is a major problem that violates the spirit and letter of Kosovo’s commitments to their regional partners. The U.S. has played an active and vocal role in calling on Pristina to remove the tariffs. CEFTA and its member states should also take a more active role in resolving the tariffs issue.
Are the US companies working in Serbia affected by the effective ban on goods from Serbia in the Kosovo market? How do you explain that this market disruption is still in place?
– A number of U.S. companies operating in Serbia are affected by the tariff dispute. For those companies, and for us as a government, this is a very serious issue. Serbia and Kosovo need to get back to the dialogue, and anything that prevents that is unwelcome.
What prospective US investors see as potentials of the Serbian market, and what do they worry about?
– U.S. companies are drawn to Serbia by the strong technical and language skills of the local labor force. These U.S. companies offer high paying jobs with good career development options, incentivizing top talents to stay in Serbia, and to return to Serbia. The key concerns we hear are about predictability in taxes and regulations, transparency, and rule of law. The fastest way to deter a potential investor is if they think it will be impossible to comply with the rules despite their best efforts, if they cannot forecast their risks, costs, and obligations, and if they have no fair recourse in the courts for when problems do arise. Much progress has been made, but the work is far from over.
As you know there are many initiatives of the Serbian IT community to make stronger connections with the Silicon Valley. Where the Embassy see its role in supporting these connections?
– U.S. companies lead the world in technological innovation, and we are very pleased that so many of Serbia’s most successful information technology companies are tied to the U.S. Cooperation between the community of Serbian developers and the Silicon Valley are already strong, and we support efforts to make them even stronger.
Often, the public sees just the political dimensions of our bilateral relations. What are your favourite examples of cooperation which public may not be well informed about?
– I think we would need another issue of your magazine to properly answer this question because I really feel many Serbs do not understand the depth and impact of the $1 billion in assistance from the government of United States in Serbia since 2001. In fact, we have so many examples that I asked my team to compile a map that is now available on our Embassy’s website. They range from fixing schools in small towns to paving roads to bureaucratic reform efforts. Let me describe a few of my favourite areas of cooperation – they might not be flashy projects with golden shovels or ribbon cutting ceremonies, but we believe they have made a real difference. Promoting business: Through USAID, we helped streamline Serbia’s business environment, including construction permits and business inspections. This assistance launched an electronic permitting system that made Serbia the tenth best country globally for ease of securing a permit. In fact, the work helped IKEA to become the first foreign investor in Serbia to receive an electronic construction permit in 2015 – a full 25 years after their first attempt to enter the Serbian market. The U.S. Export-Import (EXIM) Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) are also both now working in Serbia to help provide financing and risk insurance for major development projects. Cultural programs and professional exchanges: Since 2001, thousands of Serbs have participated in our educational and cultural exchanges, including doctors, religious leaders, journalists, scientists, and high school students. Through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, we have funded ten projects worth $500,000 since 2001 to help preserve Serbia’s cultural heritage. Our militaries and law enforcement officers increasingly train side-by-side, knowing we can only protect our citizens against international threats if we cooperate. Good governance: Legal reform, increasing media freedom, and tackling corruption have been the focus of multiple projects, ranging from helping to establish a new whistle-blower protection law to electronic registries and case management systems in your courts. As I said, these are not flashy projects, but the court management system alone has reduced case backlog by 80 percent in some courts and generated more than 100 million euros for Serbia’s budget through court costs and fines.