Regardless of their shared past, the United States and Serbia should nurture the best possible relations
In her interview for the Focus On America issue, Professor Zorana Mihajlović, PhD, Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia and Minister of Mining and Energy, talks about the relations between Serbia and the United States over the past 140 years and overcoming the negative legacy, as well as on natural gas supply, energy transition and gender equality.
The US administration supports Serbia’s integration into the European Union. What are the relations between the USA and Serbia like at the moment, considering it has been 140 years since the two countries established diplomatic relations. How much has the Ukraine crisis affected them?
It is obvious that the relations between Serbia and the United States have been getting better year on year. Improved and increasingly successful cooperation and a much better understanding of what are the interests of both Serbia and the United States are, should in many ways, be credited to the American ambassadors to Serbia in the past 10 years or more. Christopher Hill, who is very knowledgable not only about Serbia but the entire region, will boost the level of cooperation between our two countries even more with his knowledge and experience. Two years ago, the Memorial Complex and a small airport were opened in Pranjani, in memory of the heroic rescue of allied pilots behind enemy lines in the Second World War, during the Halyard mission in 1944. Finally, we must not forget that the strength of our democracy plays a huge role in fostering good relations between the two countries, i.e. the issue of human freedoms, development, and the entrepreneurial spirit. I believe that Serbia will never deviate from that path again and this is an important prerequisite for further improvement of our relations, from political and economic to those related to energy, culture and science. I believe that it would be really beneficial for the future cooperation between Serbia and the United States for our two countries to conclude a strategic partnership agreement, which we have already done with some countries such as the Russian Federation, China, France, Italy, the UAE, Azerbaijan and Hungary. I believe that it would be good to have such an agreement with the United States too since the country is our important partner.
How much is being done on overcoming the negative legacy from recent history, and can the relations between America and Serbia again resemble those from the time when we were allies?
The events of the 1990s cast a shadow over the much longer diplomatic relations between Serbia and the United States. On October 5, 2000, thanks to the Serbian citizens, Slobodan Milošević and his regime became history – first at the elections and then by defending their electoral will in the protests in which I took part too, together with hundreds of thousands of my fellow citizens. Looking back, we should remember that our relations with the United States should not only be confined to the 1990s and Milošević’s time, bearing in mind that we have been partners and allies for most of the last century. We are also aware that Serbia and the United States are on different sides when it comes to resolving the Kosovo issue. But we cannot help but see that the United States has been showing more understanding of Serbia’s views on this issue. Of course, Serbia will not, cannot and should not forget the military aggression against our country, during which the United States and NATO members inflicted huge material, human and spiritual damage to our country. That is why the initiative started by the former US ambassador to Belgrade, Cameron Munter and carried out by all his successors of paying their respects at the grave of innocent victims of NATO aggression is of great importance.
Regardless of the past, the United States and Serbia should nurture the best possible relations. I have no doubt that, in the future, these relations will somehow become even better than those we had when we were war allies. But, in order not to waste time, our common job is to assist time in that business – that is to develop better economic relations, to have as many American companies investing in Serbia as possible, for Serbia to promote its culture, tradition and history to the US as much as possible and to find as many common things that connect us as possible.
Due to the Ukrainian crisis, the gas supply to Serbia is being increasingly jeopardized. Is there reason to worry and how much such a situation can affect us?
It is a pity that Serbia did not complete the gas interconnection leading to Bulgaria much earlier, because, in that case, we could have already started receiving gas from other suppliers, which is especially important in times of crisis. The construction of the Niš-Dimitrovgrad gas pipeline began this year, during our Ministry’s mandate. Via this pipeline, Serbia will connect to the gas pipelines on the Southern Gas Corridor, as well as with the new LNG terminal in Alexandroupolis.
“Every new interconnection, every new gas route, and especially every new source of gas are incredibly important for our energy security”
This will ensure the delivery of natural gas from the Caspian region to Serbia, specifically the Shah Deniz gas field in Azerbaijan, from the LNG terminal in Alexandroupolis, the future East Med gas pipeline, and even the possibility of gas delivery from Asia. Every new interconnection, every new gas route, and especially every new source of gas are incredibly important for our energy security, and given Serbia’s central position in the region, they contribute to the energy security of the region too.
What will be Serbia’s response to global challenges related to the energy transition? Renewable energy sources need to attract more investments and involve the private sector. When is this process expected to begin and how long will it take?
Bypassing new energy laws, especially the first special Renewable Energy Sources Law, Serbia has taken the first step in the energy transition, which is a global process. Certain European countries have already embarked on this process and have been successfully transitioning from dirty fuel to clean energy sources. The new laws are also important because they create a contemporary and predictable framework for investors, since most of the investments, especially related to RES, are expected to be made by the private sector.
We have also started to prepare strategic and planning documents, which will define the goals and dynamics of carbon neutrality or decarbonisation until 2050. The new energy strategy and integrated climate and energy plan will be the subject of a broad public debate before it is adopted so that we can hear suggestions and proposals from the civil sector, academia and citizens.
Those who are trying to scare people that someone will turn off the thermal power plants overnight, not only are lying but are deliberately manipulating the citizens for their own interests. Serbia now gets two-thirds of its electricity from low-calorie lignite, which is the coal of the lowest quality. This is something we need to change, not only because of our international obligations but above all because of our energy security, the environment and our citizens’ quality of life. We should hop on the train called green energy transition, because every minute we waste, and we have already wasted too many of them, means jeopardizing our energy security and independence and slowing down economic development.
Serbia has all the prerequisites and potential to be self-sufficient in electricity supply and to significantly improve gas supply security through diversification of suppliers and expansion and construction of new gas storage facilities.
Serbia has gender equality laws. Have you noticed any progress made in gender equality? Are there more women directors and company executives? Is the Serbian government going to be more involved in the labour market?
We have done a lot since forming the Gender Equality Coordination Body. The legal and strategic framework has been improved – starting with the umbrella Law on Gender Equality, amendments to the Law on Prohibition of Discrimination, the new Strategy for Promoting Gender Equality to the Law on Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Strategy for Combating Gender-Based Violence. This is a prerequisite and basis for all further activities in this area. Serbia has also introduced gender-responsive budgeting, which is recognized worldwide as an example of good practice, and we are working on it systematically. We are the first non-EU country to have calculated the Gender Equality Index. However, there is still a lot of work ahead of us. First of all, we need to fight against gender stereotypes and prejudices that are the foundation of inequality and the unequal position of women in society. There is no reason not to have more women in management and decision-making positions, as well as not to be paid equally for the same work as men. Women have repeatedly shown that they are capable and successful leaders. Our task is to create conditions so that women and men can have equal opportunities to progress, improve, work and live. When we realize that women’s rights are human rights and that women have enormous potential, we will all be better off.
Women can also helm the development of the energy sector, based on green energy, and their voices should be heard. What can be done to encourage their leadership in that area?
The green energy transition is a kind of revolution in our relationship with both energy and the environment, which creates the opportunity for different participation of women in the energy sector. According to a survey conducted by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), women make up 32% of employees in the RES sector globally, which is less than equal participation, but higher than the average for the entire sector, where women participate with 22%.
“Through the implementation of the green agenda, we have the opportunity not only to change the energy mix, and the attitude towards energy and nature, but also to affirm women as active participants in the energy transition”
The great changes that the process of green energy transition implies are an opportunity to, in addition to working on greater energy security and a healthier environment, change the image of energy as a predominantly male sector, or a “male” business. Through the implementation of the green agenda, we have the opportunity not only to change the energy mix, and the attitude towards energy and nature but also to affirm women as active participants in the energy transition. This means, among other things, opening this sector for female entrepreneurs, managers and engineers, for women to have a better representation and visibility in the energy sector, to have more of them in decision-making places, and to have equal opportunities to use state funds which are at the disposal of citizens, primarily for boosting energy efficiency, but also for green energy.
What will the relations between the United States and Serbia be like in the future?
When I think about the relations between Serbia and the USA, my mind pictures me going to Bruce Springsteen’s concert in the Marakana stadium in Belgrade. I also picture BC Red Star and BC Partizan playing against Denver Nuggets, and Serbia being included in the Apple Store. I would like to see Broadway plays “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Moulin Rouge” staged at the National Theatre in Belgrade, but also for America to meet Milica Vučković and read her book “Fatal Outcomes of Athletic Injuries”. I would very much like to open a campus for Serbian students at one of the most prestigious American universities, but also a campus for the students from our region and the rest of Europe here, in the most beautiful part of Šumadija. Is this realistic? Well, we’ll never know if we don’t try,
This is exactly how I see the cooperation between the United States and Serbia unfolding, which will also lead to concrete results in the economy and business development – the kind of cooperation that will help us better understand each other, will keep peace and protect each other.