Interview by Biagio Carrano
A point of reference in politics for conservatism in Serbia, a polyglot intellectual, and a great friend of France, Russia and Italy, MP Jovan Palalic is constantly engaged in building international relations and offering historical and geopolitical reflections from a point of view centred on protecting national identities and traditional values.
In this interview with the Serbian Monitor, he analyzes the new phase of relations between Italy and Serbia in the current international scenario in light of the conservative agenda.
The Meloni government has identified the Western Balkans, and Serbia in particular, as a strategic area for boosting Italian geopolitical interests. What are the areas of mutual geopolitical interest that can be developed by both Italy and Serbia?
Certainly, with the formation of the centre-right government of Giorgia Meloni, we are witnessing a significant change in Italian policy towards the Balkans. We welcome this because we believe that Italy, as a strategic partner of many Balkan countries, can play an important role in this complicated region, where great powers struggle for dominance or influence. Italy’s advantages are that, in addition to its centuries-old presence and good knowledge of the Balkan conditions, it approaches every issue and problem in a balanced way, striving to understand the problem in all its complexity and to find compromises through dialogue where everybody wins. Given that Serbia is the largest country in the region and that it has a strategic partnership agreement with Italy, there are numerous points of cooperation and overlapping interests. The partnership with Serbia can give Italy enough room not only for stronger economic penetration in this region but also more active involvement in complex political and security issues in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Open Balkans initiative, with a different approach compared to other powers involved in regional events.
This can certainly give new weight to its voice at the European level, considering the importance of the Balkans for the continent’s security. Serbia, in addition to an important economic benefit from Italy’s new regional activism, would gain a friendly voice in international forums, which can influence the easing of the pressures we are exposed to, with a more objective presentation of our position that Rome, with its international influence, is able to do.
The Italy-Serbia Business and Science Forum, which took place in March in Belgrade, will be followed by another one in Trieste, in early 2024. Based on your contacts with the Serbian business and political world, what aspects of economic and scientific collaboration would you like to see addressed?
The Italy-Serbia Business and Scientific Forum held in Belgrade in March of this year strongly validated that the new Balkan policy orientation by Giorgia Meloni’s Government is not just “on paper only”, but entails more concrete actions. What is particularly encouraging and gives hope for the future of our economic relations is the emergence of new areas of cooperation. In a world that changes so quickly and imposes new engagement on the part of both the State and companies to maintain their competitiveness, the introduction of science, digitalization and high technologies as new topics gives our cooperation enormous potential for development. Agriculture is also viewed through this new lens of high technology, in order to secure not only higher productivity, but also quality and, above all, healthy food products.
The importance of this Forum for the improvement of our relations is demonstrated by the presence of not only a significant number of companies but also the heads of government of both countries. There is no doubt that the forum, which will be held next year in Trieste, will be a new opportunity to value the Belgrade Forum from the aspects of the concretization of its conclusions, but also the emergence of new areas of our economic cooperation.
You are historically committed to improving political and intergovernmental relations between Italy and Serbia, particularly with certain Italian regions such as Veneto and Lombardy, the two regions that have made some of the most successful Italian investments in Serbia. Having moved beyond mere labour costs as the only factor as an appealing investment factor in Serbia, what opportunities do you see for Italian companies in Serbia today?
My involvement in boosting the relations between Serbia and Italy for almost a decade now actually started from Lombardy and Veneto, as you correctly noticed. It has now been extended to many other regions and cooperation at the national level, but I don’t hide my connection to Lombardy and Veneto, where most of my Italian friends come from.
During the last visit to Lombardy and Piedmont, Milan and Turin in June of this year, we discussed the possibilities of expanding cooperation in new technologies, starting from agritech to new startups and improving relations with our science and technology parks. I am confident that Serbia has the most educated experts in these fields in this part of Europe, who can bring new quality to Italian companies. The strong development of these sectors, as well as the quality of our experts, has been repeatedly validated by the relevant international institutions. Our government invests a lot in these areas and provides strong financial incentives, while rightly recognizing their importance for our country’s future. All this creates huge opportunities for investments by Italian companies who base their production and development precisely on this higher level of development, workforce and simple manual operations in the work process.
We are also expecting an important visit from the President of the Lower House of the Italian Parliament, Lorenzo Fontana, who is also from Veneto, and with whom I had the opportunity to discuss the relations between our countries and the situation in Europe several times.
The visit of the President of the Lombardy Region, Attilio Fontana, scheduled for this autumn, will facilitate stronger relations between Serbia and one of the wealthiest regions in Europe. What are his and the Serbian leadership’s expectations from this visit?
I spoke with the President of Lombardy and my friend, Attilio Fontana, in June in Milan. We touched on, among other things, the possibility of his visit to Serbia. He accepted our invitation and the preparations for the visit are underway. I cannot emphasize enough Lombardy’s importance not only in the Italian but also in the European framework. This is one of the most developed regions of Europe, which is successfully led by Attilio Fontana, for the second term now. Serbia can learn a lot from the experiences of such a developed region, and also establish an economic partnership that will contribute to our greater development, especially in a number of important areas. We talked about cooperation in the metal machinery segment, the health system, innovations in agriculture, waste management, green technologies, scientific cooperation… The fact that representatives of Assolombarda will come to, as members of the Lombardy delegation, creates a strong possibility for our Chamber of Commerce to expand its experiences and opens perspectives for contacts of our companies with members of one of the most important European associations.
If we take a glance at the Serbian political scene today, it is hard to identify the left and to distinguish it from the different rightist parties, with different gradations and modes of conservatism, traditionalism, nationalism and even chauvinism. What does it mean for you to be conservative in today’s Europe and particularly in the Western Balkans?
It seems to me that there are ongoing processes in Europe that indicate mood changes in the electorate of a significant number of countries. It is obviously a matter of growing disillusionment with the left-liberal elites who have been managing European societies and the administration in Brussels for years. The economic crisis of 2008 certainly instigated these processes, which was followed by the migrant crisis of 2015, the COVID epidemic and now the economic and energy crisis after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. The living standard of citizens has fallen drastically and the overall economic development has been called into question, with Europe’s technological and innovation lagging behind other power centres, the loss of a number of markets due to sanctions, complete security dependence on America and energy on Asia, all of which is accompanied by a series of identity issues due to mass migrations.
In facing these challenges, on the one hand, it is necessary to turn to the strong foundations and values that throughout history gave societies stability and identity, and on the other, to turn to the future in the form of boosting competitiveness through the development of new technologies, raising the level of education and re-industrialization in strategic sectors. We need to strengthen responsibility, entrepreneurship and independence instead of passively expecting the state to solve everything, as this is the only guarantee not only of personal freedoms but also of the survival of individuals, families and nations. The focus must certainly be on the production of food, energy and the preservation of natural resources when we talk about the establishment of sovereignty and population security, which understandably has its limits in a very connected world. Reaffirmation of the importance of family and family values is of great importance in the situation of demographic crisis and depopulation and should certainly be the focus of interest. Today, every value and identity is relativized and individuals are becoming less and less free and more dependent on state institutions, media and social networks.
A new conquest of freedom, both internal and social, is needed.
A conservative policy with the abovementioned frameworks can be the answer to the growing decline of European societies and Europe in general today.
Belgrade and Novi Sad are on their way to becoming multi-ethnic cities. Alongside the massive influx of emigrants from Russia, there is an increasing flow of immigrants from South Asian countries and Africa. What, in your opinion, is driving more and more people to choose to live in Serbia and what are the risks and opportunities of this phenomenon?
The motives for Russians, Asians and Africans coming to Serbia are certainly different. Due to the war in Ukraine, a significant number of Russians (some say up to 200,000) came to Serbia primarily to continue their business, which was greatly affected by the sanctions against Russia and made complicated in their country. These are highly educated, professional and relatively young people who have brought a new quality with their knowledge and experience. When it comes to migrants from Asia and Africa, we can certainly see two types and two motives for coming to Serbia. A large number of migrants are here just passing through Serbia to reach Western Europe, looking for a new start in life there. Others came to establish a working relationship here or were hired by companies that already operate in Serbia. Because of labour shortages in certain sectors, Asians have recognized the opportunity to work in Serbia, especially in construction and transport industries. Serbia definitely follows closely these processes concerning the arrival of foreigners. We have recently passed a number of important laws concerning the position of foreigners and their employment, so that we could integrate them into our economy the quality and have enough workforce that we currently lack. This issue is approached strategically and with caution which concerns the safety and legality of migrants’ stay or their passage through Serbia.
In a world that is becoming increasingly divided into blocs where dialogue takes a back seat and is increasingly difficult to have, what could be Serbia’s realistic position? How far can the multipolar orientation that characterizes Serbian foreign policy still find adequate space?
Serbia is undergoing the European accession process. Our state policy has not been changed by the government since the democratic changes in 2000. However, that policy and in general, the position towards EU membership is increasingly being questioned by the people. This process has been going on for too long, without a visible will on the part of Brussels to give us membership in a foreseeable time. Without going into the details of Serbia-EU relations, it is important to understand the perception that the Serbian citizens have of this process. For them, European integration is a long process that is accompanied by numerous conditions that Serbia has to meet, particularly regarding Kosovo.
In such circumstances and relations with Brussels, Serbia must think about its survival and development, hence it has developed relations with a number of other countries. We cannot stop our life and risk falling behind while waiting for EU membership.
I think that the majority of citizens feel that the road to the EU should continue, but that we must solve other, primarily economic issues by looking for new partners and markets, including in Asia and Africa.
It is completely wrong to think that any government in Serbia can be exclusively focused only on cooperation with the West. Anyone who understands our citizens knows that such an option cannot be the sole option. In this sense, Serbia is building a position as a bridge of cooperation between the West and the East. When you look at how Belgrade is developing, you will see the meeting of companies and technologies from all over the world, which have created a natural place for dialogue. As a crossroads of road, railway, air and river transport, Serbia naturally builds a position as a sovereign and independent state that plays a role of a connector.
Jovan Palalić is in his seventh term as a Member of the Serbian Parliament and chairman of the Interparliamentary Friendship Group of Serbia and Italy. He is also Secretary General of the Serbian People’s Party (Srpska Narodna Partija). He was chairman of the Serbian Parliament’s Committee on Justice and Administration and a member of the Serbian parliamentary delegation to the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which groups Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan and in which Serbia has been an observer country since 2013.
In Serbia, he writes for Politika daily, Novi Standard and Nova Srpska Politicka Misao (New Serbian Political Thought). His speeches have appeared in many Italian newspapers such as Il Giornale, Libero, La Verità, Tempi, Agenzia Stampa Italia, Notizie Geopolitiche and Faro di Roma.
This post is also available in: Italiano