‘We hope to enhance political and economic ties with SL’ - Serbian Foreign Affairs Minister | Sunday Observer

‘We hope to enhance political and economic ties with SL’ - Serbian Foreign Affairs Minister

Serbian Deputy Prime Minister
Serbian Deputy Prime Minister

Sri Lanka’s stance to respect Serbia’s territorial integrity and not recognize Kosovo as an independent state has earned it special status, so much so that we will support Sri Lanka on all issues to advance its interests at international level, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister of Serbia Ivica Dacic told the Sunday Observer in a special interview in Colombo.

The Serbian Foreign Affairs Minister was in Colombo as part of a tour covering Sri Lanka, India and Nepal. The visiting Serbian Minister said the purpose of his tour is to enhance political and economic ties between traditional friends in the South Asia region.

Dacic met Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, Foreign Affairs Minister Tilak Marapana, and Transport and Civil Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva during his two day visit that saw the signing of an air services agreement to promote two way tourism.

The excerpts of the interview,

Q. You were in India and Nepal before your arrival here in Colombo, what is the purpose of your current tour?

A. These are traditionally friendly countries, our friendship dates back to former President of Yugoslavia, Tito and to the time the Non Aligned Movement was established. The relations with these countries are good but they are not developed sufficiently. President Tito visited your country twice.

He was a good friend of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Serbia is a successor to Yugoslavia, we like to develop friendly and brotherly relations with Sri Lanka.

But, since we are geographically apart we did not devote enough attention to our relations. In 21 years this is the first mutual high level visit between Serbia and SL.

Part of the trip is to strengthen political relations, we expect there will be more bi-lateral visits in the future, we also hope to strengthen economic relations. Currently the trade balance stands at 4 M US $ per annum.

Q. What are your interests in Sri Lanka, in particular?

A. We expect to cooperate, consult and support each other at international level. Hopefully, there will be meetings among the business community in both countries to develop economic relations.

We are ready to abolish visas for Sri Lankan nationals in order to facilitate and promote tourism. Further, there can be cooperation in healthcare sector, pharmaceuticals, etc. We would like to offer more scholarships for young people to visit Serbia for education.

Prime Minister of nepal said, he divided all the countries under three categories, the countries with which we have brotherly relations, those with friendly relations and those with diplomatic relations. Sri Lanka for us falls in the first category.

Q. Any reason for you to believe that Sri Lanka is an important trade partner for Serbia?

A. We feel, as traditional friends, Sri Lanka and Serbia should seek and identify common interests. Our relations date back to 1961since the first Non Aligned summit. In 1976 there was an NAM summit in Colombo.

Serbia imports many Sri Lankan products mostly via a third country, so instead of that we should establish direct links. And there are many products in Serbia that can be marketed here. Sri Lanka enjoys preferential trade facility with the EU. Serbia has a free trade regime with the EU as well as Russia. Sri Lanka is part of the Chinese Maritime Silk Road project. These avenues can be exploited to gain economic development.

Q. What are the SL products that will have a good market in Serbia ?

A. Tea, and spices such as cinnamon. At the hotel I met some Serbian nationals who are here for ayurvedic medical treatments. There is a lot of potential, it is up to the business community to sit down and discuss the possibilities.

One of the investors of this beautiful hotel is from Nepal, and his son who is in Delhi opened a noodle factory in Serbia. He is taking advantage of the free trade agreement which I mentioned, to export his products to 40 countries. I believe there may be many more examples in the future.

Q. Serbia in the present form is a very young country, having gained full independence in 2006. How did you face the challenge of rebuilding and bringing the nation together after being part of Yugoslavia for a long time?

A. Serbia actually existed before Yugoslavia. It was the state that created Yugoslavia. In 1918, when it had a chance to retain its sovereignty, it gave up that project in order for Yugoslavia to be created.

But, some countries did not feel it was to their advantage. They did not like the fact that Yogoslavia was a big country conducting such an independent policy, an obvious leader among the Non Aligned states. They encouraged the break up. Because of that Serbia has been exposed to pressure for many years primarily in terms of our territorial integrity.

In one part of our territory, a separatist movement has been encouraged. That territory was unilaterally declared a separate state without entering into an agreement through negotiations in keeping with international law. We have not recognized their unilateral decision.

Some countries have recognized the independence of so called Kosovo but others including Sri Lanka did not. We are thankful to Sri Lanka for embracing the position to respect the territorial integrity of Serbia. Because of that Serbia is ready to support Sri Lanka on all issues and interests at international level.

We are today seeking to have good relations with all countries. Because of our strategic position, between the East and Western Europe, the pressure on our country is enormous. Hence, our foreign policy has to be balanced. Of course we like to be a member of the EU, but on the other hand we would like to maintain good relations with India, Russia, China and other friendly countries.

Q. With regard to Kosovo, your President has said he is open to the idea of recognizing the Kosovo independence if Serbia also gets concrete benefits from such deal. Can you elaborate on that.

A. That is not precisely what he said. We want to find a lasting and a mutually acceptable solution for Belgrade and Pristina (the largest city of Kosovo). To that end we are ready to compromise. But Kosovo doesn’t want to compromise. They ask why they need to compromise when they are supported by the US.

Let me reiterate, we are ready for dialogue and compromise. But we are not going to accept their unilateral decision.

Q. By negotiations do you mean Serbia is ready to drop its staunch opposition to Kosovo as an independent state?

A. We do not recognize them as an independent state. We would like to continue the dialogue on this issue. But one part of the territory wanting to secede without prior negotiations is not an acceptable position.

We are now cooperating with our friends around the world and asking them not to recognize Kosovo’s independence. It cannot become a member of the UN. Some countries are even reviewing their decision to recognize Kosovo and several countries like Suriname and Burundi have revoked their stance in the past several months.

We do not consider the dialogue is over and feels that this should be negotiated.

Q. Any lessons you can learn from Sri Lanka on convincing the international community on your position and on reconciliation …..?

A. We are in favour of reconciliation. Sri Lanka is a good example, where the situation has calmed down after a long term turmoil. Sri Lanka on the other hand managed to preserve its territorial integrity.

Q. What can Sri Lanka learn from the Serbian experience ?

A. One should follow a balanced foreign policy, one should seek to have best relations with everybody and how to work on developing the economy.

Q. Your region had a violent past and some of your former leaders had been indicted on war crimes charges. Sri Lanka is facing a similar situation, how did you come to terms with this violent past and overcome the challenge of war crimes?

A. We have not managed to overcome all our challenges, but we are trying hard. Big differences usually, arrive from big similarities. Our people belong in the same group of Slavic people, they speak the same language, they share the same history.

But small differences can sometimes generate big conflicts. In our region we periodically experience times of turmoil and peace. Therefore, the idea of joining the EU is good….We have to live together.

Q. How do you face the challenge of international pressure on your country over allegations of war crimes?

A. As far as Serbia is concerned this story is over now. The mandate of the international tribunal has expired. Most of the major cases are now complete. …but some of the trials are still going on.

My country does not have a good opinion about the international tribunal because we feel it was a biased tribunal. Trials were not objective. It is mostly the Serbs that have been indicted and convicted. We condemn war crimes. But it is impossible that only one side has been involved in it and should be condemned for it.

A very few Croats and the Muslims were convicted, and as far as the Albanians were concerned none at all. We have to live with this and we look to the future. Of course there is a lesson to be learned here in Sri Lanka. This is also perhaps a lesson for you.

Q. What is the progress of Serbia’s closer integration with the EU and its eventual membership?

A. Serbia is currently a candidate country. We are in the process of negotiations. The EU commission feels that perhaps we can expect membership in 2025. But within the EU there are different opinions, on whether the EU should be expanded.

As you can see, countries like Britain even exit the EU. We hope that the tendency to enlarge will be maintained.

Q. In India you’ve said that Serbia did not want to become a member of the EU at the cost of friendly relations with other countries?

A. The EU has this common foreign policy and they are asking us to embrace it. For example they expect us to impose sanctions on Afghanistan and Russia and not to promote China or certain other foreign countries. But we would like to respect our policy…regardless of the positions of the EU.