The newly appointed President of the Government of AP Vojvodina, Igor Mirović, has ambitious, extensive but achievable plans for the northern Serbian province. This month we spoke with him about the most current issues and activities which lie ahead for the new team.
In your first address you specified three priorities of the new provincial government. The first is economic development. What are the priorities and what we can expect in the coming period?
Our main priority will be to bring in domestic and foreign investors. I said in the Provincial Parliament that the measure of our success would be the amount of new investments and the number of newly created jobs in Vojvodina. I formed a team which has to manage this important task. The process will have sense in the light of the new policies we have to implement in Vojvodina, and we will coordinate efforts with the Government of Serbia. We will put the local authorities in the service of investors.
We have a very favourable strategic position here in Vojvodina; we are like the “tip of the arrow” in the belly of the EU. Vojvodina is surrounded on three sides by EU countries. How much could that help?
Vojvodina has many advantages. First of all are the local administrations, who can offer resources to investors, and then there is the provincial government, which can help them additionally. The key is in the harmonious cooperation between the central, provincial and local authorities, without political and bureaucratic influence, but tailored to the investors. We also want to encourage investments in less developed municipalities. We want to emphasise economic, and not political, logic. Our surroundings are favourable and cooperation is crucial and possible through cross-border cooperation, IPA projects etc. We will be transparent.
When we talk about incentives for investors in deprived municipalities, like Žitište or Alibunar, did you study the foreign models, like the Scandinavian models for encouraging investments in the North, the Greek model for the islands or the Russian model for distant regions? The Moscovisation of Russia, Belgradisation of Serbia and Budapestisation of Hungary is a real problem, so the Novosadisation of Vojvodina is something to be avoided.
It is indeed a real danger. We need to develop business infrastructure and promote communication to help investments. There are many deprived municipalities: 15 out of 45. We are lucky in a way, since these municipalities are located near borders and have a good opportunity to develop cross-border cooperation. Our raw models will be the Development Agency of Serbia; we want to form the Development Agency of Vojvodina and will most certainly use foreign experiences.
The Serbian Government has the best results in changing the railway network. Among several capital projects you’ve announced the completion of the Belgrade-Budapest railway line. What are the new realistic deadlines for this and other infrastructure projects that you have announced? And what about the local transport infrastructure, like Subotica-Sombor, for instance?
There is a sheer necessity to build infrastructure: motorways, railways, roads. We have complete project documentation for the Novi Sad-Ruma road with a tunnel, which will be extended towards Šabac. This is a joint investment of the governments of Serbia and Vojvodina, and in a year or so we will be able to talk to potential investors. We also need to speed up the building of the Banat corridor and there is a need to invest in culture, like the National Theatre in Subotica, in which the Provincial Government is involved. We need to renew important roads between and towards the provincial centres, which are hubs of economic development. The Roads of Serbia is our partner there. Huge international investment for what I call the Trans-Vojvodinian Railway, but which is in fact the Belgrade-Budapest line, is crucial and we are pushing it through. The government is compiling project documentation and several industrial zones are situated beside this railway link, like the new Bačka Topola Zone. Transport will be increased and sped up, ensuring tourism will flourish. In 2016 or 2017 we will start working on that huge project.
If the province wants, for instance, to make a road from Sombor to Bečej, how much authority does it have in that case and how much does it need to consult with Belgrade?
Of course, such an initiative is ours, but we cannot do it by ourselves. We don’t have enough money and mechanisms for that. Coordination is crucial, and together we are stronger; we can gather around projects and everyone will give less money if we are more numerous. We have to forget the political differences. Earlier we did not have concepts. Citizens are not interested in political games. They want a result: a road between two important towns, or to have a fully operational hospital. So, we have to ask ourselves, like Kennedy said: Ask yourself what you can do for Vojvodina! Be a part of the team and together we will solve problems!
Even though it is the richest part of Serbia, Vojvodina actually has a large number of poor and underdeveloped municipalities. Do you have an economic plan for them?
The important step is rebalancing the budget. During the autumn we will define next year’s budget. We will identify resources for potential investment in deprived municipalities and, most importantly, communicate with investors. We will form the centre, which will respond to investors in real time, not at a bureaucratic pace. We don’t have 15 or 30 days to provide an answer. The business behaviour of everyone who works here is crucial.
Your second priority is the development of agriculture, including the development of small and medium-sized agricultural holdings and the redevelopment of irrigation systems that are in a terrible condition, like the DTD Canal. What is your position regarding the sale of land to foreigners and the treatment of domestic and foreign owners of farms?
This area is full of unfinished business. We have named the new Secretary for Water Management, and the new staff of Vojvodina Waters. One of the incentives comes from the Ministry of Agriculture, and the other comes from the Provincial Secretariat. We will diversify the incentives, and in the years to come we have to transform extensive agriculture into intensive, and we have to have as many satisfied producers as possible. I have spoken about the development of agribusiness and about the need to preserve small farms. This is strongly connected to deprived municipalities. Young people, young couples, have to manage small farms in these areas, so they can stay there. I am not in favour of selling land to foreigners, but state-owned unused land can be leased for many years to foreign companies, and they should kick-start production and employ smaller farms and companies. In this way we solve the problems of unused land; hundreds of thousands of hectares, of small farms. And all of that will increase GDP.
Wineries and microbreweries have mushroomed in Vojvodina recently. Apart from typical food, like Mangalica (pork) and goat’s cheese, new types of food products are really important. Like in France, we should not produce faceless food, beer and wine.
This segment will be integrated into the incentive policy of Vojvodina. So far the relationship has been based on self-made companies. This will be a priority now and that’s why it’s a really good question. I visited many farms recently. We need to enhance this sector. Vojvodina is now full of small wineries. We will give incentives to things like organic food. On goat’s cheese, for instance, we have not done anything so far, since the opinion was that this was a high end product, so why bother? Now we are changing that. Our great chance is that Western companies invest here, like Ferrero Rocher, which invested in Sombor and a dozen companies immediately emerged, wanting to proper themselves up with that and to become subcontractors in hazelnut production. We have a huge opportunity to sell these products in Russia and the Eurasian Union. I once again call upon Western investors to recognise this chance.
Your third priority is the relationship with national minorities – ethnic communities. In what ways do you intend to resolve these conflict issues?
This is the “heart and soul” of the new Provincial Government. We will define and help national minorities in culture, education, information and official use of languages and scripts. We will be very active in dialogue with minorities, regardless of the fact that Serbia is a model country for the organisation of minority rights. There is always new space for dialogue. We will unburden ourselves of some taboos if necessary. In the years to come we will have to give our children harmonious relationships among different communities. This is a matter of stability, and intercommunal relationships are one of the pillars of the stability of Serbia.
You said that the Vojvodina government wanted to establish a business model, not a political – bureaucratic model, which has been the case to date. What does that mean in practice?
Each of our associates has to know what they are doing: promoting knowledge, developing infrastructure, education, relations with investors, projects of local communities… The business model implies: you know your job and are active in implementation. The political model implies: you are a politician who puts himself in the spotlight, instead of acting as a “servicer” of citizens.
Novi Sad has an excellent IT community. Can the IT community help speed up communications and the forming of an efficient e-Government?
Your question coincides with one of the first orders I issued to the Secretary: to analyse what we have done so far in the implementation of e-Government and to try to reach the corrected model and to speed up the information flow during the next six months. This will require substantial financing, as IT technology changes quickly. It will take time too. Some elements exist, but we have to implement e-Government to the lowest level.
You have announced increased investment in social protection and health funds – areas where money was once heavily syphoned by the central administration in Belgrade. What are the realistic possibilities for the provincial government?
We formed the separate Secretariat for Social policy, demography and gender equality. We will modernise programmes in all areas of social security. The Secretary of Health has quite a lot of problems and we will ask for help from the most prominent health workers. For instance, we have Kamenica-2, which was opened as a promotional gimmick in April and does not work; the Clinical Centre in Novi Sad is unfinished and many regional hospitals are in a bad shape. The Angio-room in Subotica is crucial, given that 45% of all diseases in Vojvodina are of a cardio-vascular nature. The pressure on Novi Sad has to be lifted and regional centres will have to be levelled up. We will invest on prevention, as the richest countries do.
Among the projects you have promoted is the announcement of the construction of the new building for broadcaster RTV. From the point of view of at least part of the national and European public, a higher priority is the current state of RTV. What is your stance on this issue? The PR is not good.
RTV did not promote anyone from outside to editors’ positions. It is a crucial argument for me that RTV is independent. Our predecessors did the opposite and brought many people from other radio and TV stations, sometimes illegally. Secondly, we want to be a partner to RTV and not to interfere with editorial policy. We will never dare to comment on their policy. Thirdly, we have to help by building a new building to replace the one destroyed by NATO in 1999. The support will, I believe, come from countries which have moral obligations, and also from those who know that RTV produces minority language programmes. This is a tremendous opportunity to gather around the project. And we will help journalists technically through this long-term project. We will tear down the remaining structure and construct a new building. Professionalism at RTV is separate from our help; we don’t influence them. We are not driven by political promotion in that: I don’t have to cut a ribbon. Let us leave something behind and someone else will continue the job.
Your associates have announced that citizens will soon get an answer to the question of when and how your predecessors misused funds over the past 16 years. Where is the boundary between publishing a clear account and causing a showdown with political opponents?
We have to rebalance the budget in two months. The first thing is to see what has happened in 2016. And it is not our job to decide if anyone will be held accountable. We will point out the irregularities. The priorities were dubious. Now all of Vojvodina depends on just one angio-room. We had two, but one failed. On 15th May the last government received a request to send money to repair the angio-room, and they did not; they gave money to some promotional activities and summer events and concerts. If this angio-room fails, a patient from Subotica would have to travel three hours to Belgrade. Will they survive? The priorities have to be defined. In Central Serbia there are five or six angio-rooms servicing the same number of people. That is scandalous.
Your predecessor in this post almost never appeared at events organised by foreign Embassies in Belgrade. Can we expect from you a more intense relationship with the diplomatic and international business community in Belgrade?
I will respond to all invitations. We want to be active and to present new policy directly; to exchange information and experiences, so everything will be for the benefit of the citizens of Vojvodina.