Exclusive interview with Ambassador Gori: “Renewing Italy’s presence and commitment in Serbia

In recent years, Serbia, especially its capital Belgrade, has changed profoundly: massive investments in construction and the related boom in the real estate market, the growth of new businesses based on digital and innovative technologies, and last but not least, the arrival of more than 100,000 Russian citizens following the aggression against Ukraine, are among the phenomena that have changed not only entire urban landscapes but also the socio-cultural framework, raising the level of complexity with which both Serbian politicians and diplomatic representations, Western and otherwise, must deal. And following these changes, understanding their impacts and acting accordingly is not just the task of diplomats, but of all Italians working in the country, if they don’t want to fall into irrelevance. We discussed this and other issues with the Italian ambassador in Belgrade Luca Gori, who has characterized his mission since his arrival last June by the multiplicity of plans for dialogue and the involvement of the country’s political and social interlocutors.

On 20 June 2022, Ambassador Luca Gori presented his credentials to the President of the Republic of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic, who, in welcoming him, hoped for a further intensification of political dialogue and economic relations between the two countries.

Your Excellency, you have been following and studying the Western Balkans and its European perspective for almost twenty years. What are the constants and new elements in the region and in Serbia, in particular?

The seminal ‘Imagining the Balkans’ by the Bulgarian scholar Maria Todorova (1997, Italian translation 2002) analysed the impact of many stereotypes on the representation of the Balkans and the political and social attitudes of other European nations towards the peoples of the area. See also our article “Balkanism, the European Image of the Balkans”.

The main constant I continue to discover in the Western Balkans is the difficulty in processing the region’s past; to finding an interpretation of historical events, even recent ones, that allows us to build a solid path to reconciliation and definitively unblocking regional cooperation. On the other hand, there are many new elements, starting with significant economic growth, particularly in Serbia. What worries me most, however, is the fatalism that today threatens to dominate the relations between the EU and the Balkans. At its root, there are two static visions that are welded together – the way in which Europe and the Balkans look at each other and the two narratives that have blocked mutual expectations. On the one hand, a sort of ‘Neo-Balkanism’ persists in some corners of Europe, according to a 2.0 version of Maria Todorova’s concept, whereby scepticism is professed towards a rapid emancipation of the Balkans. On the other hand, an antagonistic narrative is consolidating in the region, a counter-stereotype to ‘Balkanism’, if you will. In other words, a certain sort of ‘Balkanism’ is spreading, to be understood as an act of critical realism towards the ways (not always understandable to public opinion) and timelines (objectively long) of the enlargement process. Italy clearly rejects this fatalism and aims to reactivate the transformative and attractive force of the EU integration process.

The recent joint visit of Italian Interior Minister Tajani and Defence Minister Crosetto was presented as the beginning of Rome’s new activism in the Balkans. How will this renewed attention to the area manifest itself?

It will manifest itself with the activation of a political process: visits, meetings, events, telephone diplomacy, business forums and the mobilisation of the Italian System, as it happened at the National Conference ‘Italy and the Western Balkans: Growth and Integration’ held in Trieste on 24 January and wanted by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Antonio Tajani.  Italy must have its own process in the Balkans. Italy’s interest and presence in this region are constant elements of our foreign policy. Italy contributes to developing the economy and preserving stability in the region by providing troops to the KFOR and EULEX missions in Kosovo and ALTHEA in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The joint visit of ministers Tajani and Crosetto was an important signal of the significance given to this area by the new government. This is the starting point of the new process.

On 22 November 2022, the joint visit to Belgrade by Foreign Ministers Tajani and Defense Ministers Crosetto underlined the commitment of the Meloni government for a greater involvement of Italy in pursuing the stability and economic and social growth of Serbia and the Western Balkans.

2022 was an excellent year for Italian agri-food exports, as they reached a record value of 60 billion euros. For its part, Serbia has become increasingly sensitive to the quality of Italian food. What is the situation in Serbia and how can we grow further, in quantity and quality?

The growth trend of Italian food exports is also confirmed in Serbia. Suffice it to say that, in 2021, Italian exports in the food and wine sector increased by 36% relative to the previous year. Italy continues to be Serbia’s leading supplier of olive oil, pasta and rice, and the leading EU partner for wine. In Serbia, there is a great appreciation for ‘Made in Italy’ food products, but we want to make a qualitative leap in two directions: the first is training and disseminating knowledge of our true excellence and the second is the fight against the phenomenon of ‘Italian sounding’ and labelling systems that we consider harmful to our products. We also want to work on quantity, improving and facilitating customs procedures for imports and targeting large-scale distribution and e-commerce. The great ‘showcase’ of this is the Week of Italian Cuisine in the World, held every year in November, but the International Agriculture Fair in Novi Sad, which starts in May 2023, where Italy has been chosen as a partner country and which will be a great opportunity to promote our agri-tech sector.

The fact remains that the presence of Italian companies in Serbia, which was very significant a decade ago, has been diluted over the years, both due to a slowdown in the flow and entry of foreign investors and companies that have often witnessed the country’s growth in certain sectors in time. In which segments is the recovery possible and in which sectors can Italy make a significant contribution?

Let us start off with the numbers. According to the most recent data from the Serbian Business Registry Agency, there are over 1,200 companies with an Italian capital share in Serbia. These are very varied companies, ranging from large groups to micro-enterprises, active in a wide range of sectors (from automotive to banking, from textiles to insurance, up to digitalisation and renewables) and throughout the Serbian territory. The Italian entrepreneurial ‘fabric’ employs around 50,000 people and generates over 5% of the Serbian GDP. Italy remains Serbia’s third largest trading partner, with a trade that exceeded EUR 4.2 billion in November 2022, and among the main foreign investors in the country. At the same time, I agree that it is necessary to open a new season in economic relations between Italy and Serbia and look at new sectors in which we boast expertise and excellence, starting with agri-tech, digitalisation, green and energy transition, and artificial intelligence. This is why we will organise a Business Forum in Belgrade on 21 March 2023, dedicated precisely to these topics, also symbolically marking the start of this new phase.

The Italian-Serbian Business Forum, scheduled to take place at the end of March 2023, will create an opportunity to take stock of the economic and diplomatic relations between the two countries, to strengthen them, and in many ways to rework and renew them. Can you give us some advance notice of this important event?

We are working with all the parties involved in this high-level Business Forum, starting with the Serbian authorities and combining an institutional segment and sectoral tables dedicated to three priorities: (1) green and energy transition; (2) agriculture and agri-tech; (3) infrastructure. There will also be many B2B meetings between Italian and Serbian companies. It is a great team effort, to which the entire Italian System in Serbia is contributing. I would particularly like to thank the ICE Director, Antonio Ventresca, the President of Confindustria Serbia, Patrizio Dei Tos, and the President of the Italian-Serbian Chamber of Commerce, Annino De Venezia.

“it is necessary to open a new season in the economic relations between Italy and Serbia, which looks to new sectors in which we boast skills and excellence, starting from agri-tech, digitization, the green and energy transition, artificial intelligence”

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the comparisons and the likeness between Donbas and Kosovo, often promoted by highly visible analysts and scholars in the media, has passed through the lens of public opinion. This has led people in Italy to follow the tensions in North Kosovo with more anxiety, fearing the opening of a ‘second front’ in the conflict between the West and Russia. How do you assess this comparison? Could Kosovo, rather than a second Donbas, not become a second South Kosovo?

Drawing parallels between different historical and geopolitical realities is always a gamble. The recent tensions between Belgrade and Pristina have partly contributed to generating, both in the press and in public opinion, the fear of a new front opening up in Europe. For my part, however, I see Serbia as fully aware of the importance of preserving peace, an indispensable prerequisite for its economic development. There is also the EU’s engagement with the US-backed Facilitated Dialogue, which is trying to foster a normalisation process between Belgrade and Pristina. Italy continues to give its full support to the exercise and efforts of EUSR Lajcak, as demonstrated by the participation of the Diplomatic Advisor to our Prime Minister, Ambassador Francesco Talo, in the recent joint mission on 20 January, together with Lajcak and representatives of the United States, France and Germany. A compromise proposal is on the table. We are therefore at a delicate juncture where all actors must play their part and act responsibly. The need to implement all the commitments already made, including the formation of the Association of Serbian Municipalities, remains one of the key points for the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

there is the possibility of speeding up Belgrade’s entry into the single market. In this way, Serbia, its citizens and entrepreneurs would toy with the idea of ​​obtaining full freedom of movement of people, goods, services and capital within a reasonable time, on a par with EU member states.

In your article ‘The National Interest: Italy’s Compass’ you highlight the challenge of self-esteem that every country must overcome in order to be able to present itself in the international arena. How do you intend to contribute to boosting Italian self-esteem during your term in Serbia and how can the various actors that make up the Italian community in Serbia contribute to this?

Self-esteem is developed through the exercise of political initiative and by advancing projects, ideas and proposals. From this point of view, it is fundamental that the whole Italian System in Serbia works in favour of a common vision. Before the summer break, I would like to find a free weekend to organise an informal gathering of the entire Italian (and not only Italian) business community in Serbia – a day in which we can directly confront each other in order to elaborate together proposals and share ideas on how to strengthen the role of Italy in Serbia.

On September 28, the presentation fashion show of “Balestra Reload”, the first ready-to-wear collection of the historic Italian fashion house, took place at the Italian Embassy in Belgrade. The show, conceived in collaboration with Vesna Mandic’s Fabrika Agency and embellished with a performance by the opera singer Jadranka Jovanovic, was attended by many Serbian political, fashion and cultural personalities. On the same day, the Embassy organized, in collaboration with the Serbian Chamber of Commerce, a moment of training and bilateral collaboration on fashion. In fact, several new Serbian fashion designers had the opportunity to participate in a workshop held by Federica Balestra.

To what extent can Italian soft power be transformed into a power tout court, capable of truly influencing the orientation of the Serbian leadership and the destiny of the Western Balkans in order to strengthen regional stability and accredit Italy as a mid-power actor in the quadrant?

There is an extraordinary interest in Italian culture in Serbia and the Balkans. Together with our Italian Institute of Culture, we try to leverage this demand and give it quality answers, in all fields. We have many projects for the coming months, first and foremost related to the promotion of the Italian language. I personally believe that the power of culture can only translate into greater political influence if it is placed in a broader ‘power conversion’ context, which also includes other dimensions: institutional, demographic, economic, military and scientific. Our primary objective in this region remains above all to build solid, transparent and mutually beneficial cooperation and partnerships.

Relations between Serbia and the European Union have been mired in great, mutual ambiguity for years. In a nutshell, Serbia demands from the EU a certain date by which it needs to align with the acquis communautaire in order to join the Union and the EU responds that without these alignments a certain date can never be set. In the background, there is strong resistance from some European countries to Serbia’s entry, as well as the dissatisfaction of European and transatlantic chancelleries with Serbia’s refusal to introduce sanctions against Russia. In this framework, Italy is in favour of expediting Serbia’s EU accession process. Is this a realistic prospect today? And if it is, in what ways?

I have already spoken about the fatalism that seems to dominate the relations between the EU and the Balkans today. The start of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia and the granting of candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina are important developments, but they are not enough. Serbia has been negotiating with the EU for nine years. The question is therefore how to restore momentum to the enlargement process. How to give the European perspective back the transformative power it used to have? Of course, everyone has to do their part. The countries in the region must step up their reform efforts. But the EU must make the accession process more concrete, also for geopolitical reasons, as enlargement is the most important tool at its disposal to reduce the influence of other actors in the region. There is no shortage of ideas. These include, for example, the possibility of accelerating Serbia’s entry into the single market. In this way, Serbia, its citizens and business people would cherish the idea of obtaining full freedom of movement of people, goods, services and capital, on a par with EU member states, within a reasonable timeframe.

Serbia has been a transit point for massive migration flows to the EU for decades. Yet the country’s economic growth, together with its demographic decline, are also turning it into a final destination for many migrants, who find a job here and the chance to live in Europe anyway. Can Serbia’s stability and growth also be in the Union’s interest in this respect?

Migration flows are a complex challenge for Serbia and Europe alike. Since the first migratory crises in 2013, Serbia has long been characterised as a transit country for migrants, but since then Belgrade’s commitment to combating irregular migrant flows has grown a lot, as is also shown by the recent measures with which the government has modified the visa-free regime previously granted to citizens of some countries. These are important measures towards alignment with EU standards. Having said that, Serbia today suffers from substantial emigration, which is draining an important part of its human capital. From this point of view, it is clear that regular migration flows, for Serbia and the whole of Europe, can also be an opportunity.

Serbia is among the countries with the best population-to-sporting-success ratio in the world. What are the areas and impact of sports diplomacy?

On 10 September, the Italian embassy dedicated a special evening, entitled “The beauty of a gesture”, to the Italian women’s foil team which triumphed in the Belgrade stage of the category World Cup the following weekend.

Since the beginning of my term, I have wanted to invest in sports diplomacy. Sport not only represents a very solid link between the civil societies of the two countries (just think of how many Serbian athletes play or have played in the Italian football or water polo championships, or the Italian coaches of the Serbian women’s national volleyball team). Sport also has interesting commercial potential. I recently discussed this with Serbian Sports Minister Gajic. We are planning numerous initiatives in the coming months, also building on the excellent reception received by the events that already took place like those involving Paolo Rossi and fencing.

What, in your opinion, do the Serbs expect from Italy, both politically and in terms of economic, socio-cultural and ordinary people?

They ask for understanding, attention and respect. They ask for an equal partnership in all sectors. And they expect Italy’s constant, consistent and high-level commitment towards Serbia.

 Which Serbian writers would you recommend to the Italians to read in order to understand the country and, vice versa, which Italian writers should Serbs know better?

To understand Serbia, its spirit and identity, I think it is essential to study its history. In particular the figures of Stefan Nemanja and Saint Sava, with their aspiration for a free and independent State and Church.

Migrations I and II by Milos Crnjanski is published in Italy by Adelphi; “Goli Otok” and “As a Boiling Frog” by Dunja Badnjevic, published by Bordeaux.

Serbian literature has many masterpieces. Among the many, I would certainly suggest reading the works of Milos Crnjanski, who also stayed in Italy and was fascinated by it. But also more recent books. I would like to mention Dunja Badnjevic and her novels Goli Otok and ‘As a Boiling Frog’. To try to understand Italians, I would invite you to rediscover a fundamental text such as ‘Discorso sopra lo stato presente dei costumi degl’Italiani‘, by Giacomo Leopardi, as well as the writings and speeches of Enrico Mattei.

 

 

 

Luca Gori entered the world of diplomacy at the age of 27 after graduating with honours in political science from the University of Florence. 

After his first assignment abroad in Moscow between 1999 and 2003, he moved to Brussels, where he followed relations between the EU and the Western Balkans, and then served in Washington between 2010 and 2014 as the First Counselor. In 2015, he was awarded the title of Knight Officer of the Order of Merit of the Republic. 

In 2018, he took up the post of Deputy Director General for Political and Security Affairs/Central Director for Mediterranean and Middle East Countries. Author of several essays, his latest book is “Eternal Russia. Origins and Construction of Post-Soviet Ideology’ (LUISS University Press, 2021), in which he analyzes the foundations of the Eurasian traditionalism that today informs a significant part of the ideology of Putin’s Russia.

In addition to writing, Mr Gori likes reading, art, cinema, travel and sport, in particular football, basketball and tennis. He and his wife Eugenia have two children, Beatrice and Alessandro.

This post is also available in: Italiano

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