It is time for Serbia and Bulgaria to move forward together

    - To give less importance to historical interpretations, to give priority to the economy and joint projects
    - In order to deal with the coronavirus, we have increased the salaries of doctors by 30%, we have built 2 hospitals, while 1,300,000 people have already been vaccinated
    - The visit of Foreign Minister Nikola Selakovic symbolizes the importance of our cooperation
    - Among Serbia's priorities is the full EU membership
    - There is no reason for anyone to worry about Belgrade's ties with Moscow and Beijing
    - There is readiness for holding talks with Kosovo, but Serbian interests must not be minimised
    - Sofia and Skopje will find solutions to the issues on which there is a misunderstanding
    - In 2020, we attracted a record of foreign investment of 2.9 billion euros
    - The most important thing is to create conditions for our children and grandchildren to stay here, says the Serbian Ambassador to Bulgaria Željko Jović in a special interview for the "Standard" newspaper.

He is a true Serb - a dignified and proud man, an educated and erudite man, a smiling and hospitable host, an Orthodox Christian who passes on the values of his faith to his two sons. Born in 1974 in Belgrade, he completed his secondary education in Belgrade, graduated as a Political Scientist in International Relations in Belgrade, at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Belgrade, and received a doctorate in Political Science in Belgrade. Again in Belgrade, he made his impressive career as a scientist and diplomat.

Prof. Dr. Željko Jović began his career at the Security Information Agency of Serbia, where he worked from 2003 to 2013. He was then appointed as head of the Directorate for Analysis and Support of Foreign Policy Planning at the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. From 2014 to 2019, he was Deputy Director of the Office for Kosovo and Metohija in the Government of Serbia.

At the same time, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Željko Jović makes numerous scientific publications related to environmental catastrophes, eco-terrorism and environmental crises, energy security, security challenges in the Western Balkans and others. He is leading courses at the Security Information Agency's research and research center, and now teaches at the Diplomatic Academy of the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since 2016 he has been an associate professor at the Academy of National Security in the subject "Environmental and Energy Security". He speaks English, Bulgarian, Russian.

On the 8th of October 2019, he presented his credentials as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Serbia to the Republic of Bulgaria.

- Your Excellency, within the six months since you have been Ambassador to Bulgaria, the Serbian President Alexander Vučić and Foreign Minister Nikola Selaković have also visited our country for talks with Bulgarian leaders. You must feel very satisfied, because there had not been such a revival in Serbian-Bulgarian relations for years.

- The duty of the diplomat is to build bridges, unite and improve cooperation. When in our work, at the level of the two countries - the country that sends us and the country that receives us - there are excellent connections at the highest political level, and when these connections are shown by direct visits, you cannot be dissatisfied but happy. And the key fact is that Serbia and Bulgaria have never really had such a high level of relations and cooperation at different levels in previous decades. Naturally, this closeness is above all a reflection of the personal, close and friendly relationship of our President Vučić with your Prime Minister Borissov and with your President Radev. But one of the goals of our new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Nikola Selaković, and one of his messages is that these relations must be transferred to all other levels.

- How do you assess the visit of Nikola Selaković to Bulgaria - one of his first since becoming Foreign Minister? It was followed by great media and public interest. What specific perspective for bilateral relations has emerged between Bulgaria and Serbia after his talks with the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, our Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva and President Rumen Radev?

- I evaluate the visit of Minister Nikola Selaković as excellent and with a visible political effect for the further strengthening of our cooperation and for the maximum deepening of our relations. The very fact that, after seven years of no official visit by a Serbian foreign minister to Bulgaria, this is one of his first visits since his appointment, speaks a lot about the importance that both the Minister and the Republic of Serbia give to the relations with Bulgaria and how much we rely on further joint work and cooperation. The reactions of your public are a reflection and a clear proof of these aspirations and messages, because we felt that we were accepted as sincere friends. This positive energy, the demonstrated readiness of the two sides for further joint work and the desire for progress give a perspective and a clear vision of the joint and better future. In addition to the projects that we have already implemented together (energy and transport) and which are being completed, Serbia has specific plans for the future, which are presented in your country and in which there is, as I said, the potential and bilateral desire to continue cooperation, in order to ensure for our region and our citizens full economic and political stability and further accelerated growth.

- The activation of cooperation in economy, energy and transport infrastructure between Bulgaria and Serbia is very important for the development of the region. You have recently identified yourself as a Balkan nationalist. What exactly did you mean?

- I gave my definition of a Balkan and a local patriot, without intending to offend anyone or anger anyone, thinking primarily about what we have in the Balkans, and which, unfortunately, we often do not realise enough - wonderful places, beautiful nature, serious economic potential, people who, despite the sometimes visible burden of the history of all countries, are ultimately an indivisible Balkan soul. We just need a little more sense of togetherness and closeness and a little more reason and understanding of the fact that we do not have all the time in this world and that more important than us are those who come after us - our children and grandchildren, to whom we have an obligation to compete in creativity, innovation and progress to create the conditions for them to stay here. Without them, all the beauties and advantages of our Balkans are something that others will enjoy.

- Serbia is well advanced in its preparations for an EU membership. What exactly is the progress in this process of European integration that Bulgaria supports?

- One of the key foreign policy priorities of the Republic of Serbia is its full membership in the EU. Everything we do in this direction, and we really work seriously and hard, is a product of our desire to make the system and society worthy of man. In addition to continuing to work for our economic recovery, building and developing our energy and transport infrastructure, health and gross domestic product, Serbia is also working intensively to improve all areas highlighted by our EU partners, especially in the area of ​​the rule of law, constitutional changes, the judiciary, strengthening and cooperating with independent structures and institutions, freedom of the media and the maximum improvement of electoral conditions.

- In Serbia's path to the EU, are the constant tensions between Belgrade and Pristina an obstacle, as well as the disputes over the future relations with Kosovo? Will there be a modus vivendi between Serbia and Kosovo in the future, as Brussels and Washington are demanding?

- When it comes to Kosovo and Metohija, you know that our position is completely clear and transparent. We do not recognize the self-proclaimed state of Kosovo, but we are aware of the objective situation and the fact that this, for us quasi-state, has the support of part of the international community, the majority of EU members, including Bulgaria. In this sense, we always strive to have a constructive approach and not only declaratively but to also really show readiness for the talks. And not only for the talks, but also for the contracts and the necessary compromises. That is why Serbia keeps saying that Serbian interests cannot be minimized and that the other side must realize that it has not received recognition from part of the international community, from 5 EU members and a large number of other countries in the world, UN members (from the 193 UN members, only 92 have recognised Kosovo) not to mention the trend that has existed for the past few years, when the recognition of the so-called Kosovo was withdrawn by 18 countries. If we want all that for which I have already talked about - a nice, promising, politically and economically stable region, we need common sense, objectivity and a willingness to compromise.

- In parallel with the efforts for European integration, Serbia is developing mutually beneficial relations with Russia and China. Does this hinder the development of Serbia's relations with the West?

- Regarding our relations with Russia and China, I see no reason why anyone should worry. Firstly, Serbia has never hidden its friendly relations with these two countries, so we are talking about this in a very transparent way with everyone, including our European and Western partners. Also, Serbia and the Serbian leadership have never hidden from Russia and China that our strategic definition is the EU, and that we are aware of the fact that the largest percentage of investment comes from the EU. I must emphasise that during previous period, as well as today, in the EU itself there are countries whose economic cooperation, and in some segments also political cooperation with Russia and China, is at a much higher level of cooperation than the one that Serbia has with them. Whether this is a policy of double standards or something else, you can judge for yourself.

- Let's look again at the region. Bulgaria and Serbia are not indifferent to the fate of Northern Macedonia. There is disappointment and resentment in Bulgaria over the fact that Skopje is not fulfilling the signed agreement for friendship and cooperation, and some circles there are pursuing a fierce anti-Bulgarian policy, while Bulgarian national flags are burning. How does Belgrade view the dispute and tensions between Skopje and Sofia?

- I must repeat - we will not have progress and prosperity in the region, we will not have political and economic stability, but we will have an increasingly pronounced process of depopulation as long as there are conflicts and frictions. It is not possible for any bilateral conflict or misunderstanding in the region to be without the influence, and the negative one, for everyone else. Without intending to intervene in any way, precisely for the sake of those who wish to promote the conflict and who could misinterpret our intervention, we hope that the two friendly countries - Bulgaria and the Republic of Northern Macedonia, will find solutions to issues that they do not address in the same way.

- The COVID-19 pandemic, which has been going on for a year, is a universal threat. In the fight against the virus, Serbia is among the countries with the fewest casualties. What caused this? What is our cooperation against the virus?

- During the pandemic, the Republic of Serbia managed, with timely measures, to deal to a large extent in the field of health and in the field of economy, with most of the negative consequences of the virus. Of course, every human life is a great loss and brings lasting pain, especially for the families of the deceased. But we do see the superhuman efforts of our doctors and medical staff, as well as the wise and far-sighted policies of President Vučić. With the government of Serbia and all competent institutions, we managed to reduce the number of deaths to a number that is among the lowest in Europe (about 1.01%). In the midst of the coronavirus, Serbia, with an increase in the salaries of health workers (by about 30% compared to the previous year), managed to improve and equip both numerous health institutions and build two completely new hospitals - one in Belgrade (with a capacity of 930 beds) and the other in Kruševac (with a capacity of 500 beds). Also, thanks to the superhuman efforts of our heads of state, vaccines have been provided by five manufacturers - the American Pfizer, the Russian Sputnik, the Chinese Sinopharm, the Astra Zeneca and the Moderna. To date, more than 1,300,000 of our citizens have been vaccinated.

Bulgaria and Serbia had excellent cooperation and we have already expressed our gratitude several times for the equipment and assistance that Bulgaria sent to Serbia at the beginning of the crisis, which was intended primarily for our fellow citizens belonging to the Bulgarian national minority living in Serbia.

- During the meeting with Nikola Selaković, President Rumen Radev praised the commitment made by President Aleksandar Vučić during the visit of the Bulgarian head of state to Serbia in June 2018, as well as the actions taken to resolve the problems of the Bulgarian national minority in Serbia. What exactly has been done?

- During the visit of the Minister, we had many open and constructive talks at all levels, including the situation of your national minority living in Serbia. As you pointed out, President Radev and Vice President Ms. Yotova praised the work done, thanked our President Vučić for his personal commitment and implementation of everything requested by our country in 2018 (financial support of the media informing in Bulgarian, printing of textbooks , giving the opportunity to register women's families in an adequate form and others). Naturally, we agreed that the identified problems will continue to exist, but that they are mainly of technical nature, and that we are fully open and that any problem, about which we are informed, we will solve as a matter of urgency. We also informed that the people from the Bulgarian national minority are our fellow citizens, our friends and brothers and that we sincerely want them to stay in these areas and live better. In this sense, I remind you that the Republic of Serbia has built the highway through one of these cities, where the Bulgarian national minority lives - Dimitrovgrad or Tsaribrod, as you call it. We expanded the Pirot Free Zone, with all the necessary infrastructure, to Dimitrovgrad and Babushnitsa, thus creating all the preconditions for specific investments in the economy and the creation of new jobs. And with that we came out to our Bulgarian friends, offering to invest together, but to also work together to attract foreign direct investment in this part of Serbia, to ensure a better and happier life to the Bulgarians and the Serbs who live there. And I will remind you that last year alone, during the coronavirus, Serbia reported 2.9 billion euros in net foreign direct investment, and that in this sense it is a record holder in Europe.

- I can't help but ask you how you feel in Bulgaria as an ambassador of Serbia? Because if an ambassador is doing well in the country where he is accredited, he works with inspiration for the development of bilateral relations, which is mutually beneficial.

- I have already clearly said several times that in Bulgaria I really feel at home and that I already have great and true friendships, which I am convinced will remain healthy when I leave. I have felt this in all my contacts so far. Awareness of the closeness of our relations is dominant in Bulgaria. Of course, no one runs away from history and our individual conflicts and frictions, but it is very important to look for people in our interlocutors for conversation and love, and not for quarrels. We cannot change the past. And our past itself is good rather than ugly, but it seems to individuals that they want to force this "bad story". However, we can really influence the present and, above all, the future. If we do not work together, in coordination and with the belief that we can do better and more, we will not enjoy this future. Therefore, we must be responsible, wise and resolutely move forward together. It is time.

- Yes, it definitely is. But how, Your Excellency, would you comment on the fact that against the background of the positive development of Bulgarian-Serbian relations, anti-Bulgarian statements by Serbian intellectuals and parliamentarians appear? Prof. Dragan Simeunović of the University of Belgrade in a television interview a few days ago called Bulgarians "beasts who kill everything in front of them" and that in the past they killed teachers and priests in Serbia. Bulgarian media also remind of the statement in 2020 of the Serbian parliamentarian Milovan Drecun, according to which "Bulgaria is massively spying on Serbia."

- To my dear colleagues in your Ministry of Foreign Affairs, when I was summoned on the occasion of Professor Simeunović's statement, I first of all pointed out that the Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs during the recent visit was very clear in his extremely positive assessment of our relations and views - for an even more meaningful and better future for Serbia and Bulgaria. Pointing out that I am not a historian and that I do not want to enter into assessments of the validity of historical interpretations, as is the case in both countries, I recommended that both the Serbian and Bulgarian public attach as little importance and publicity to historical interpretations. And to give priority to the economy, the opening of new enterprises, joint investments and projects. And one day, satisfied and relieved of our daily worries, let's talk about what we don't like today and about which we haven't been able to agree so far. I repeat, it is our choice. We are the ones who build the future. It depends on our decisions what this future will be like and whether we will be able to look our children and grandchildren in the eye tomorrow. If we will have the opportunity to watch them at all, because the majority will live in the West, if we do not provide them with conditions for a good, quality and carefree life.

The material was provided by the "Standard" newspaper - and was updated by the Diplomatic Spectrum.

On the photo: H. E. Dr. Željko Jović, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Serbia to the Republic of Bulgaria