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Belgrade Sees US as Important Pillar Amid Great Power Competition

FILE - Serbian government official Marko Djuric speaks during a press conference in Belgrade, March 27, 2018.
FILE - Serbian government official Marko Djuric speaks during a press conference in Belgrade, March 27, 2018.

Two decades after a U.S.-led bombing campaign on the Serbian capital, Belgrade, that helped to end the Kosovo war, a top Serbian official says his country is eager to return to the friendly relations that preceded the war – and improve on them.

Marko Djuric, the Serbian ruling party’s second-ranking official and his country’s ambassador to Washington, told VOA that the U.S. involvement in the 1990s conflict over Kosovo’s rejection of Serbian rule was “our only rough patch in relations with the United States.”

"Two decades onwards, I think it is very much safe to say that we’re well beyond this and that we’re looking not only to put the relations where they always normally used to be, but even to boost it further,” Djuric said during an interview at his official residence in Washington.

Relations between Belgrade and Washington have been on the mend since the administration of former President Donald Trump brokered an economic normalization agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, which was concluded at the White House on September 4, 2020.

“I was [Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s] plus-one at the signing ceremony,” Djuric said half jokingly. A month later, Djuric was tapped to lead Serbia’s diplomatic mission in Washington, demonstrating the importance his government attaches to the relationship.

Trade office plans

“We would love to see the increase of political communication on all levels, and we’re working very hard at boosting economic cooperation,” Djuric told VOA, citing a 50% increase in embassy staff and plans to open a trade office in San Francisco later this year.

Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, has publicly expressed a personal affection for Kosovo, where his late son Beau Biden worked to rebuild institutions after the 1998-99 war. Kosovo “continues to hold a special place for the Biden family,” he said in a letter in February marking that country’s Independence Day.

But while some initiatives put in place by the Trump team now face an uncertain future, Djuric is unfazed and promises a hearty welcome if Biden were to visit Belgrade during this year’s 140th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Belgrade and Washington.

Better communication, more trust

“As ambassador, I will try to use as much as possible the 140th anniversary to bring the leaders of Serbia and the United States closer together,” Djuric said, noting that it has been more than 40 years since former President Jimmy Carter visited Belgrade in 1980.

Djuric said he is committed to work “to increase the level of political communication and political trust between Serbia and the United States,” and that his country would like to see the United States increase its presence in “all spheres” in Serbia.

FILE - A Serbian officer protects the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade.
FILE - A Serbian officer protects the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade.

Cameron Munter, a former U.S. ambassador to Serbia, said in a written interview that Serbia’s outreach to the Biden administration comes as no surprise, but that Belgrade needs to understand that American leaders are more concerned at this time with broad transnational issues than with relations with individual countries.

“Certainly, bilateral ties are important, but the Biden administration is looking at strategic issues, and any foreign ambassador would be wise, I believe, to understand bilateral ties within the broader context of global challenges,” Munter said.

Serbia, for its part, also sees its relations with Washington in a wider geopolitical context.

“Our need to connect better with all of our neighbors and work in the direction of creating lasting stability is imperative for our future development," Djuric said. "This cannot be achieved without the support of great powers, and the U.S. has a very significant authority in our region still.”

China, Russia links

The ambassador does not believe the U.S.-Serbian relationship should be held back by Belgrade’s long-standing ties to Russia or a more recent increase in economic and other links with China.

“We’ve benefited a lot from our partnership with China, but as much with Russia, with the U.S. and with the European Union,” Djuric said, describing a “balanced approach” to foreign policy that has its roots in ancient thinking.

“We have even from the period of the Nemanjic dynasty — this is now more than 800 years ago — a saying that Serbia should be West in the East, East in the West and at the same time, above the East and West,” Djuric said.

“We pay very strong attention to not go beyond what are our national interests. In that sense, we always evaluate the cost and benefit analysis of everything.”

It was that balanced approach that led Vucic to risk angering Russia by coming to Washington to sign last year’s economic agreement with Kosovo — an act that prompted Moscow’s foreign ministry spokesperson to accuse Vucic of selling out, according to London- and Belgrade-based analyst Vuk Vuksanovic. Russian President Vladimir Putin subsequently offered a rare apology for the remark.

Vuksanovic told VOA in a phone interview from London that the apology was a sign of the importance Russia places upon its own relationship with Serbia, and he urged Washington to pay attention to developments in Belgrade.

Other analysts believe the real test for Serbia’s commitment to improving ties with Washington lies in strategic areas, such as energy security and telecom industries.

“In its current format, I don’t think President Vucic will lose his Chinese and Russian friends if he promotes better relations with the U.S.,” said Leon Hartwell, acting director of the Transatlantic Leadership Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

"If, however, he was serious about energy diversification and signing on to the Clean Network — and here I am not merely talking about paying lip service to those issues — then that would be a different story.”

The Clean Network is a U.S.-backed initiative to remove Chinese state-backed telecom entities, notably Huawei, from partner and allied countries’ 5G networks.