H.E. Attila PINTÉR, Ambassador of Hungary to Serbia – A perspective of understanding and respect

A true friend of Serbia, H.E. Mr Attila Pintér, the Hungarian Ambassador to Serbia, spoke with Diplomacy&Commerce magazine about many intriguing topics related to our mutual history, deep friendship, and significant economic cooperation.

H.E. Pinter Attila, ambassador of Hungary to Serbia

Hungary strongly supports Serbia in its long-lasting process of joining the European Union. Do you think that the accession process could be faster? What does Serbian membership in the EU mean to Hungary?

I believe that the EU needs to recognize Serbian efforts and we need to speed up to process as soon as possible! Hungary wants Serbia in the EU and we are spreading the word in every possible forum. Hungary is connected to Serbia in many ways and we want to work on these political, economic and social ties. There are a lot more opportunities to do so if we are both in the EU.

In these complicated times, we need to send clear messages and reinforce already existing partnerships – such as the one between Serbia and the EU. At the same time, we need Serbia to implement all the reforms set in the EU accession process. I like to summarize it this way: delivered results speak for themselves.

Many think that ties between our two countries have never been as close as today, but what could our mutual history teach us about relations between Hungary and Serbia?

I think we can learn one thing: we can overcome our differences with genuine willingness and understanding. This was demonstrated in the political reconciliation process. There were times when our nations’ relations were at their lowest point, but I think both of us recognised that there are more things that connect us than separate. Despite certain great conflicts in European history, we spent hundreds of years living side by side. We learned each other’s customs and traditions and even borrowed some words into the language. This experience may not be as visible to us as some great events, but this is what truly defines Serbian-Hungarian relations. We are trying to make this more and more visible so it will become a dominant perspective – a perspective of understanding and respect. There is now a historic alliance, even friendship, between the two countries. 

The position of the Hungarian minority in Serbia is one of the very few positive examples in Europe of respecting minority rights. Do you agree with that statement and how important is that for both nations?

Yes, I agree with the statement. I am certain that this field plays a crucial role in our relations and there could be no development unless minority rights are guaranteed. We look at minorities as a bridge between Serbia and Hungary. They help to connect us and we show respect and support to them so that they can preserve their culture and identity. Of course, this also needs to be secured by the law, so strong minority rights are a must. I see that both Budapest and Belgrade recognized this need and the increasing support and opportunities for the respective minorities prove that words are followed by deeds.

A nation that strives to be true to itself in this era of unanimous globalization usually has to deal with a lot of outside judgment. How important it is to stick to your national interest despite pressures from abroad?

The international political environment has become hard to navigate recently and we need the courage to stand up for ourselves. Every action is followed by a reaction, so it is not a surprise that some acts of foreign policy are not welcome by everyone. Yet this is not necessarily a problem. Careful balance and good judgement are needed to find the right way to express our national interests and to understand different motivations and interests. We seek like-minded countries and I think Serbia is one of them in this matter.

From the Hungarian experience during the transition to the formation of the free market, what is your advice for the Serbian economy? Should some bottom lines be drawn?

The Hungarian experiences during the transition to a market economy are mixed from a historical perspective. Even during the regime change of 1989-1990, Hungary clearly marked the political and economic direction that eventually led to joining the European Union in 2004. Hungary began its transformation along 3 main principles: 1. a disciplined budget policy; 2. the level of state redistribution should be as small as possible; 3. the goods, money and capital markets must be liberalized and privatized so that manufacturing exports become the engine of economic growth.

Despite certain great conflicts in European history, we spent hundreds of years living side by side

Learning from the experiences of the initial years, the goal of the paradigm shift in economic policy after 2010 was to cut back on the phenomena typical of wild capitalism and to bring strategic infrastructure companies back into state or at least national ownership. The banking system also came under majority Hungarian ownership. We managed to achieve all of these changes, with record foreign direct capital flow into the country year after year.

Serbia has followed a similar path in the last ten years, and the economic successes clearly illustrate that it is on the right path. These efforts are also recognized by international financial institutions. In my opinion, this path is correct and the good results so far should be preserved. The point is that the state must remain a strategic player in the market economy and take appropriate measures quickly in case of crisis. Fortunately, this kind of approach has already been adopted by international financial organizations in recent years.

Our economic cooperation has been flourishing for many years. What are recent investment trends like?

Doing business and fostering economic cooperation has had a longstanding tradition between Hungarian and Serbian companies. As one would expect from neighbouring countries, we cover a wide range of fields of cooperation that includes bilateral trade, joint efforts in infrastructure development as well as cooperation on energy security. Recently, we have seen a growing interest of Hungarian companies in investment opportunities in Serbia. It is evident that in the last few years Serbia has gone through an impressive economic recovery that paves the way for growing stability and competitiveness. These economic conditions are paired with a talented and hard-working workforce and state incentives provided by the Serbian Government, making Serbia an extremely attractive investment destination. These factors all contributed to the increased interest in the country’s investment opportunities; a fact clearly indicated by the growing FDI influx. Big investors, such as the internationally renowned petrochemical company MOL and the Hungarian OTP Bank Group have a long-standing presence in the country, continuously expanding their activity through reinvestments.

The EU is still incomplete without the Western Balkans, and there is huge potential for the economic and social development of the region within the EU

In terms of capital allocation, today Serbia is a priority target country for Hungarian enterprises. On this note, in November 2019 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary launched a specialized financial instrument, the Western Balkans Investment Scheme with the specific aim to foster the economic development of the Balkan region – including Serbia – through strengthening the presence and role of Hungarian companies. The program was considered highly successful, thus the Hungarian government continued implementing the initiative of promoting Hungarian investments abroad with a new programme called the Foreign Market Growth Incentive that has a global scope. These new investments will have visible results in the coming years.

Some would argue that different nations cannot be true friends but cooperate just out of interest. From your perspective as a diplomat, is it possible to develop a genuine friendship between two nations irrespective of individual interests and historical context? 

I believe so. Yes, there are genuine friendships. It is not idealistic to think that there is more to politics than just interest – there is also empathy, understanding, and solidarity. If we are willing to learn from each other, we might realize that we have a lot in common and we can overcome historical differences. Hostility always thrives on the fear of the unknown. I have made true friends in Serbia during my years here and I hope this can happen between our nations too.

What is the prospect of the Western Balkans region in the context of EU integration? Does Hungary have unresolved issues with Serbia which resolution is a prerequisite for our country to join the EU?

There are no unresolved issues in our relations. We want Serbia to become an EU member as soon as possible. The EU is still incomplete without the Western Balkans and there is huge potential for the economic and social development of the region within the EU. I dare say that EU funds would benefit all walks of life and could change the everyday life of citizens for the better.

Hungary is a very popular tourist destination for people from Serbia. What should we do to make Serbia more attractive to Hungarians?

There is a growing interest in Hungary for Serbia. I believe that a more thematic approach and a strong media campaign would attract more tourists. For instance, it would be great to present the different regions of Serbia, also hiking and skiing opportunities as well as the gastronomy and local traditions. The offer of hotels and tour agencies is of high quality in Serbia, but Hungarian travellers need to be informed of the amazing offers waiting for them.

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