In the belief that the success of a country’s reform process requires not only the support of the citizenry, but also citizens’ active participation, part of the long-term donor support of Switzerland to Serbia is directed towards strengthening dialogue between the government and citizens. Speaking in this interviews for the CorD Magazine special edition, Swiss Ambassador H.E Philippe Guex says that there is concern that space for this dialogue in Serbia is shrinking, despite the fact that the participation of citizens is an essential element of any democratically regulated society. Ambassador Guex announces that Switzerland will continue striving to strengthen links between civil society organisations and local governments in the period ahead, as well as providing expert assistance to the Government of Serbia in strengthening the voice of citizens by amending the Law on Referendum and Civil Initiative.
Your Excellency, your mandate in Serbia began in 2016. You said then that, after diplomatic engagement in London, Paris and Brussels, you wanted to come to Serbia "for economic, social and political challenges". Did the events fulfil your expectations?
Europe would not be Europe without the Western Balkans. And Serbia is in the very heart of the Western Balkans. The political situation is very much intertwined not only with the nineties, but with the entire 20th century which is very challenging for diplomats. Economically, there is still much to do to bring Serbia to the EU average level of economic development. Looking at the success story of the Eastern European countries, I have no doubt that Serbia will follow that path as it is getting fit to join the EU. Therefore, to answer your question: yes my position in Belgrade is fulfilling my expectations I had when I began three years ago.
You represent a country that is among the top four bilateral donors to Serbia. Only for the period 2018 - 2021, Switzerland will have donated almost €100 million to finance public administration reforms, to development of small and medium enterprises and to strengthening the dialogue between the authorities and citizens. In Serbia, they will tell you that there is almost no dialogue between the government and citizens. Does is look like that to you too?
There is a concern that the space for dialogue between the government and citizens is shrinking. Citizens’ participation through different means is essential in a fully-fledged democracy. It is not an easy task, but it is worth it. Citizens’ participation ensures that reforms suit people’s every-day needs and facilitates their acceptance by the public. Through our projects, we are contributing to enhanced citizens’ participation and supporting local governments to bring relevant laws and regulations to life. Our up-coming civil society project seeks to mobilize citizens around issues of common concern and strengthen the cooperation between civil society and local governments. Switzerland is also supporting Serbian government in revising the Law on Referendum and Civic Initiatives, with a view to enhancing citizens’ ownership of such processes.
You are the ambassador of a non-EU country. Still, you think that Serbia’s approach to the EU means an additional guarantee of the country’s stability in the eyes of foreign investors. Do you think that the pace of reforms in Serbia corresponds with its aspiration to join the EU soon?
It is up to the Government of Serbia to decide the pace of reforms that will align the country with the EU’s democratic and economic standards. Politicians and the press are too often entertaining the idea that the European Union is imposing reforms to Serbia. Nothing could be more mistaken. Reforms are necessary for the sake of Serbia and its people. Beyond granting sustainable prosperity, reforms aims at preventing Serbia to backslide towards autocracy and nationalism - two plagues Serbian people suffered too much from in its recent past.
The latest EC progress report on Serbia reiterates the importance of strengthening the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption. You said in another recent interview that progress in the rule of law would create space for more investment from Switzerland?
It is clear to me that not only economic reform will boost up Swiss – Serbian economic relations, but also any reform linked to the rule of law, like the independence of the judiciary, the fight against corruption or the freedom of media. There is no cherry picking. Democratization and market economy go together hand in hand. At least in the Western world.
Are Serbia and the Western Balkans viewed in Switzerland today more as a potential investment region or as a possible new source of instability?
The Western Balkans region is seen in Switzerland as having potential for investment as long as it stands together - as a region - and increase the regional cooperation. The stability of the region attracts investors more than anything else. Therefore, each and every step in the direction of a more integrated regional approach is not only welcomed, but necessary. On the other hand, when tension arises between Serbia and Kosovo, I happen to receive phone calls from worried potential Swiss investors asking for assessment updates.
How do you view the failure of France and Germany's attempts to unblock the Belgrade-Priština dialogue?
Two of the most influential countries of the European Union, France and Germany, are investing efforts to unblock the situation between Belgrade and Pristina, which is a good and promising sign. We cannot expect to have immediate results, as the situation is currently very complex. Both in Pristina and in Belgrade this opportunity should be grasped because standstill and no-dialogue is not an option.
Can you comment on the Pristina government's refusal to abolish taxes imposed on goods from Serbia?
This is certainly not a good sign. Switzerland has been urging the authorities in Pristina to revoke the 100% tariffs. The CEFTA agreement is the corner stone of the regional economic cooperation. Therefore, any violation has to be denounced.
Do you consider that the EU should continue to deal with the Kosovo issue or are you more in favour of the proposal that “the dialogue” should include other interested countries, such as the United States, Russia and others?
All constructive actors have to be included in the effort to find a long-standing and comprehensive solution between Belgrade and Pristina, even if it is obvious that the European Union remains in the driving seat. Switzerland takes part in this effort, promoting dialogue and engaging with both parties. I would also argue that not only state actors have to be part in the dialogue, but also non-governmental organizations, civil society actors, artists, experts, academics. Normalized and peaceful relations between Serbia and Kosovo will only emerge from an inclusive societal dialogue.
Swiss companies have been present in Serbia for decades, and since 2014 there has been a Swiss-Serbian Chamber of Commerce. However, you remarked yourself that there is plenty of room for improvement in economic cooperation. What are the main challenges or obstacles along the way?
As you pointed out, Swiss companies have been present for a long time in Serbia. The establishment of the Swiss-Serbian Chamber of Commerce was a consequence of this long-standing presence and an additional service provided to the companies present, but also a way to attract additional companies wishing to enter the Serbian market. The potential being there in Serbia to have even more companies, it is then the task of the Serbian authorities to make the most favourable conditions and incentives to attract even more investors. This means to have predictability, security, above all from a rule of law perspective, and fair competition, as those are usually the main aspects investors are expecting.
How successful were the start-up loans given to Swiss companies through the SECO fund to invest in Serbia?
The SECO Start-up Fund provides loans to diasporas residents living in Switzerland for investments in their country of origin. The projects must rely on a solid business case and meet recognized environmental and social standards. The SECO Start-up Fund has invested around € 6.8 million in Serbia and leveraged additional € 30 million of investment creating over 750 jobs. The Fund is covering different sectors like metal processing, IT, furniture manufacturing and paper production. Considering the large Serbian diaspora in Switzerland, no wonder why Serbia is one of the countries, which benefit most from the Fund.
Part of the Swiss state aid to Serbia aims at the development of SMEs, with priority given to projects that contribute to overcoming inequality. Can you say something about the effects of that assistance to date?
The private sector has a fundamental role in contributing to inclusive and sustainable growth and ultimately to poverty reduction. This is why one of our fields of cooperation is Economic Development and Employment. SMEs benefit directly from our programs. I’ll give you two examples: one up-coming Swiss program will focus on the manufacturing sector and local SMEs to deliver goods to multinational companies. As a result, their competitiveness will improve and access to foreign market will be given to them. Another important aspect for SME’s is to have access to skilled labour. The Swiss project, “From Education to Employment – E2E –”, supports Serbian companies in developing and implementing modern work-based trainings for young job seekers. The purpose is to build skills that are required by the private sector.
One of many artistic exhibitions was opened at your Belgrade residence in June. It featured works by Serbian artists who were finalists of the “Private Value” competition. It seems that you see great potential in young artists?
First, supporting young Serbian artists goes hand in hand with Switzerland’s international cooperation with Serbia in education for the youth. Second, artists question the society they are living in. Doing so they promote values like tolerance, respect, openness, fairness and living together. Those values are precisely at the heart of the ongoing reconciliation process in the region. The contribution of the artists and creators to reconciliation is usually underestimated. The Serbia of tomorrow belongs to young men and women who are today in their twenties, be it artists, journalists, clerks, nurses, software engineers, etc.
The support of the Swiss embassy to cultural Institutions in Serbia means a lot to them. What are your plans for the rest of 2019?
In November, we will feature the Serbian painter Dragan Zdravkovic together with the Swiss artist Peter Aeschmann in a common exhibition at the Swiss Residence. As usual, this exhibition will be open to the public twice a week during two months. Early 2020, we will launch another open call for young Serbian artists. It will be our third edition. As the previous ones, a professional jury will select 5-6 artists. Each of them will receive € 500 to produce artworks for the exhibition. The finalist will receive an additional € 2000. On the top of that, we are supporting Swiss artists and creators coming to Serbia within the numerous cultural institutions, like BITEF, Beldocs or the Belgrade Dance Festival. With the Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Museum, Belgrade stands out as the cultural hub for the whole region.