Despite being a relatively small country, in the last quarter of a century of its independence, Slovenia has managed to conquer both European and world markets, which fills me with a sense of pride and self-confidence. At the same time, I am looking forward to Serbia and Slovenia boosting their mutual relations or, in the words of our Prime Minister Miro Cerar, “to the new road with old friends”.
The celebration of the 25th anniversary of Slovenian independence and the recent joint session of the governments of Slovenia and Serbia provide ample reason for us to talk to the Slovenian Ambassador to Serbia, H.E. Vladimir Gasparič, about his views regarding Slovenian membership in the EU, the challenges brought about by the migrant crisis and Brexit, and their effect on the future of the European concept, as well as relations between our two countries in the areas of security, economics and culture.
The recent joint government session, held in Belgrade on 24th October, covered many areas of cooperation between the two countries – from economy and e-governance to tourism, agriculture and environmental protection. There was also discussion of current issues, like the migrant crisis, which the two countries have been cooperating on closely. On this occasion, the representatives of the two governments signed a new cultural cooperation programme covering the period from 2017 to 2021.
Slovenia celebrates 25th years of independent statehood this year. What sentiments do you have about the former Yugoslavia and what are the biggest benefits that independence has brought to Slovenia?
A quarter of a century of Slovenian statehood is an exceptionally important anniversary for all of our embassies around the world, including in Belgrade, which we try to celebrate in an appropriate way. For me, 25 years represents the road from insecurity, following the disintegration of Yugoslavia, to investing a lot of effort into not allowing the once most developed republic in the former Yugoslavia to turn into a European problem and to try to survive this shock (primarily in an economic sense). At the very beginning we were often told that the small country of Slovenia, which had been traditionally tied to the Yugoslav market, would not be able to survive as an independent country. We proved otherwise and replaced the Yugoslav market with the European and global markets. Of course, this wasn’t easy and it did not happen overnight.
I feel pride and self-confidence when I think about that, because I was personally involved in many of these developments – since I was busy trying to help Slovenian companies break onto the markets of the Far East, first as a businessman and later as a diplomat.
As far as my sentiments about our former common country go, I am reminded of them almost every single day. It is quite worrying that even 25 years after we reached the succession agreement, we have failed to honour what we signed, considering that we are only half way there. Of course, this does not only apply to relations between Serbia and Slovenia, but also to succession issues with all five of the other former Yugoslav republics.
Speaking from the standpoint of one of the newest EU members, what is your view of the recent talks about the destiny and formation of the EU, considering that the talks are not really going well?
When we became an EU member in 2004, we were naturally thrilled and full of enthusiasm. Truth be told, the EU was also very different back then. However, even at that time some of my colleagues from the countries that had joined the EU many years before Slovenia warned me that the EU was not a big, happy family. We fully understand that now, but we are nevertheless still a FAMILY. I would like to say that every family has its own problems, even the happiest of families, and that the most important thing in the end is to solve these problems together. I am confident that the many problems that the EU is facing will be resolved in time and that we will manage to preserve our family. The alternative scenario is so bad that I don’t even want to think about it. I have to underline that Slovenia has been very active in searching for solutions, advice and a way out of this situation, despite the fact that we are a very young EU member and that our population is only two million.
There have been divergent tones in the EU and our neighbouring countries regarding ways of successfully dealing with the migrant crisis. What are your expectations regarding this issue and have our two countries continued to cooperate in this respect?
Slovenia is working on softening these divergent tones and is very active in giving concrete suggestions regarding the overcoming of the migrant crisis. We have very close cooperation with your Interior Ministry, the police and other relevant bodies, and we exchange information on a daily basis. I would like to underline that Slovenia, just like other countries, highly appreciates the way in which Serbia has been dealing with the migrant crisis. We spoke a lot about regional stability, migration, the EU negotiation process and Slovenia’s assistance to Serbia on its path toward EU-related reforms during our third joint government session in Belgrade on 24th October 2016. We have managed to understand each other more deeply and have identified several areas where we can use synergy. As Prime Minister Cerar said, “We are on a new road with old friends”.
What is the probability that the countries of the region, like Serbia, will become EU members following Brexit and given the current situation in the EU?
Brexit was shocking for everybody. Slovenia really hopes to be able to learn appropriate lessons from it. Nevertheless, I didn’t notice strong scepticism regarding the enlargement. As you can see, the EU is still very vigilant and supportive regarding the progress made by countries that are aspiring to become EU members and those that are membership candidates. Slovenia also supports and utilises this principle. For us, enlargement in the region is of strategic importance, because we want to share the same core EU values with our southern neighbours.
In which areas has Slovenia been helping Serbia on the country’s road towards the EU?
Slovenia is one of the top EU countries in terms of the number of experts who have been cooperating on different projects pertaining to Serbia’s accession negotiations. We are talking about Slovenian experts who come from different areas that Serbia must reform. We share our best practice cases and experiences with our Serbian counterparts. We have been praised by quite a few people for our participation in this process, particularly in terms of the dedication that Slovenian experts show in helping their peers in Serbia. We perhaps have a slight advantage because we know the language and because we know your mentality and the way you operate, which stems from our common history. We should not forget the traditionally good chemistry between Slovenians and Serbia, which can be felt in all areas of social life.
How would you rate overall bilateral relations between the two countries?
I would rate bilateral relations as being very good, diverse and friendly, which can be seen from the many visits of our top officials. In that context, I would also like to mention the annual joint government sessions which include the participation of both prime ministers and representatives of many ministries.
What were the main items on the agenda of the last joint government session?
The main topics of the last government session, which took place in Belgrade on 24th October, were economy-related – considering that we had many businesspeople accompanying our prime minister and other government ministers at the session. Our focus was on e-governance, tourism, agriculture and environmental protection. Of course, we touched upon other topics too, like migration, regional stability, the EU negotiation process etc. All in all, we agreed that we share many interests and synergies in cooperation. Serbia is an important partner for Slovenia, because Serbia has a key influence on the stability of the region. Serbia is our second biggest investment destination that carries huge potential. Lately, Serbian businesspeople have expressed a strong interest in investing in Slovenia.
The total value of trade between our two countries stands at around a billion euros. Is this good or perhaps still insufficient, considering the estimated potential?
We think that economic cooperation between our two countries is very good, which doesn’t mean that it cannot be further improved and strengthened. There are over 1,500 Slovenian companies (with Slovenians as majority or minority shareholders) in Serbia, which is the highest number of foreign companies among all foreign investors in Serbia. Together, Slovenian companies in Serbia have a total of close to 25,000 employees. In terms of the trade value, Serbia was Slovenia’s tenth most important partner in 2015. We expect trade to grow substantially this year, since there is a long-term growth trend with existing 2016 data showing good export results achieved by Slovenia. Serbia is still Slovenia’s most important trade partner in Southeast Europe.
Apart from economic cooperation, Serbia and Slovenia have very strong cultural cooperation. Which cultural programmes and events would you like to highlight?
At the joint government session, we signed a new cultural cooperation programme covering the period from 2017 to 2021. The potential and interest in cooperating are very big. I have been in Belgrade since January this year and I am thrilled about the diversity and charm of Belgrade’s cultural life (theatres, galleries, cultural and historic heritage, people’s kindness and appreciation of Slovenia etc.)