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Serbia looks to the West

Over the past quarter-century in the Western Balkans, the members of my generation have witnessed and worked toward a historic change – from the tragic war and destruction to the growth of free-market democracies.

Since the difficult days when seven new nations emerged from the former Yugoslavia, we have striven to build modern economies, free societies, and peaceful relations with our neighbors. Our progress has been steady, if not always easy. Joining Western institutions, especially NATO and the European Union (EU), has been one of our most important goals.

{mosads}During 2006, when Montenegro regained its independence, I was honored to serve my country, first as foreign minister and then as ambassador to the United States. In the latter role, I still remember how honored I felt to present my credentials to President George W. Bush. The ceremony was a signpost on Montenegro’s long return journey toward full participation in the Western community of nations.

Aleksandar Vucic, the prime minister of our neighbor, Serbia, will be making his first visit to Washington this week), to meet with Vice President Biden and key Congressional leaders from both parties. Prime Minister Vucic has said he will ask for U.S. support for Serbia’s candidacy for EU membership.

My modest advice to Prime Minister Vucic: assure these American leaders that Serbia will continue its journey of change, a pathway that leads naturally toward the West. It would be important for Serbia, and for the whole Western Balkans.

From economic reforms to international outreach, Vucic is preparing Serbia to join the European Community once the EU opens the door.

The government of Serbia has made significant progress under Prime Minister Vucic: cutting unnecessary spending, reducing its budget deficit, privatizing state-owned businesses, and adopting business-friendly policies to encourage domestic entrepreneurs and foreign investors. More needs to be done.

On the diplomatic front, Serbia is conducting a difficult, but promising dialogue with Kosovo, raising hopes that historic adversaries can become better neighbors. In another departure from the discords of the past, Vucic recently concluded the first visit by a Serbian prime minister to Tirana, the Albanian capital. Both sides confirmed there that, despite their profound differences regarding Kosovo, they are committed to deepening cooperation between their two nations. 

Recognizing Serbia’s significant progress, the EU has encouraged its bid for membership, including at a recent meeting of foreign ministers of the EU member states. Still, Serbia, as the other Western Balkans aspirants for EU membership, must make progress on one more front – strengthening the rule of law and justice, namely in the framework of negotiating Chapters 23 and 24 of the EU accession negotiations.

EU membership is not an end itself. It is a path to reforms that serve the candidate countries’ national interests. Legal and judicial reforms are instrumental to economic freedom, a vibrant private sector, and a business-friendly environment that Serbia–just like the other EU candidates–badly needs to foster prosperity, employment and foreign and domestic investment. An economically stronger and politically stable Serbia will be beneficial to the entire region.

In his meetings with U.S. officials, Vucic should offer assurances that his government will move forward on these fronts. As a former chairman of both of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden is an ideal interlocutor as Serbia sends the message that it is bringing its legal system into accord with European norms, as well as that it is making decisive steps to normalize and harmonize Serbia’s relations with other Western Balkan nations. 

As Vucic can explain to his American hosts, the success of Serbia’s EU accession process would provide an impetus for positive political and economic development of the whole Western Balkans.

For the EU and the U.S., Serbia offers an untapped market, as well as proximity to Eastern Europe, with a skilled labor force and investment opportunities. Just as importantly, Serbia’s engagement with Kosovo, despite all the difficulties, can serve as a positive model for other trouble spots in the Balkans, such as the currently crisis-racked Macedonia. 

One should not forget that Vucic has also already upgraded the NATO-Serbia relationship by signing the Individual Partnership Action Plan last January. Therefore, Serbia is on the right track in the context of its relations to NATO, which remains a challenging and long-term task given the history of the war in Kosovo and the resulting NATO intervention in 1999. 

For Serbia, as well as for my country, Montenegro, the EU represents our natural home, and the U.S. is our natural ally. Working together and with the assistance of our American friends, both of our countries can come closer to our common dream of a Europe that is, at long last, whole and free, prosperous and at peace.

Vlahovic was Montenegro’s foreign minister vrom 2004 to 2006 and ambassador to the United States from 2006 to 2010. He is currently president of the Montenegrin Democratic Union.


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