International Round-Table “Serbian – American Relations”

Good morning and thank you for providing me with this opportunity to set the stage for this important discussion of a topic close to my heart: Serbian-American relations.

The history of the Serbian people dates back centuries.  Serbs are fond of telling me that they were eating with forks made from gold long before Europeans ever discovered that America even existed.  Our formal bilateral relations date back 140 years.  And although the United States is the relatively younger country, in all that period we have been the same country – the United States of America.  We added five states to the union during this period, bringing it to our current flag of 50 stars, but we remained essentially the same country.

Not so here in Serbia.  Over these 140 years, our relations have spanned the Kingdom of Serbia, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, then Serbia and Montenegro, and finally today’s Republic of Serbia.  These changes reflect the turbulent nature of politics in this region, the constantly shifting borders, the ethnic mosaic that has earned this region the reputation as a barrel of gunpowder.  But it underscores an important element of US-Serbian bilateral relations: despite all of the changes here, despite the sometimes radical shifts in leadership in Belgrade, the bonds of friendship that underpin our relationship for more than 100 years of common history remained strong.  And I also believe that prospects are good for continued progress.  We stood side by side for the overwhelming share of this period, and the United States looks forward to remaining by Serbia’s side in the centuries to come.

What has defined our relationship are shared values, and shared struggles.  Americans hailed Serbia’s struggle for freedom in World War I, and our solidarity was epitomized by President Wilson’s decision to fly the Serbian flag over the White House.  We fought a common foe in World War II as well, and in four days I will travel to Pranjani in the heart of Sumadia to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Operation Halyard, the daring rescue inside Serbian territory of hundreds of downed pilots who were sheltered and protected by Serbian peasants and our Serbian allies.

And on this fateful day, September 11, we remember the victims of the most deadly terrorist attack in my nation’s history, one in which almost 3,000 citizens from over 90 countries died.  That day marked the beginning of a new era of struggle against a common foe, and Serbs and Americans are again finding ways to cooperate to thwart terrorist attacks and keep our peoples safe.  We are again together in the search for ways to work together toward a more peaceful, stable, and prosperous world.

In America, we still grieve for the victims of September 11.  We seek to honor their memory — not with bitterness, resentment, or even hatred — but with decency, compassion, and hope.  I see glimpses of this spirit here in Serbia as well, although all too often it struggles against other instincts as well.  In some ways, this conference is a good occasion to reflect on the complicated process of how a nation and a people react to adversity and tragedy.  Instead of allowing dark times to define us, we must grow together toward healing and hope.

History has taught us how terribly the Serbs and other peoples in the Balkans have suffered for hundreds of years.  This nation has experienced tremendous losses.  Repeatedly.  From the great migrations of the 17th and 18th centuries, the terrifying retreat to Albania in World War I, the blue graveyard near Corfu, the Nazi occupation and the Ustase death camps, or the hundreds of thousands of Serbs displaced during the conflicts of the 1990’s.  And yet, the humanity which I witnessed as Serbs welcomed and cared for the wave of refugees emerging from the Syrian conflict in 2016 will be one of the most inspiring memories I take away from this country as my mandate draws to a close here.  Rather than allowing their own dark times to define them, Serbs displayed their empathy, and sought to heal and help those in need.

In a similar manner, we cannot allow the Milosevic period and the violent breakup of Yugoslavia to continue to dominate US-Serbian relations, or to define Serbian-American friendship.  Our common story does not begin and end in the 1990’s.  Instead, it was a painful preface to a new chapter – one in which we have sought to return to the leitmotif of US-Serbian relations from previous eras.  Since 2000, we have collaborated on Serbia’s vision of inclusion in the western community of nations.  Americans have sought to rebuild Serbia, giving over $1 billion in American government assistance to rebuild schools, pave roads, provide drinking water, improve government capacities, and strengthen small and medium-sized businesses.  We have invested in the Serbian people, sent thousands to be trained in our country, only to return to contribute to Serbia’s well-being.  American companies have invested capital and technology that today provides over 20,000 Serbian citizens their daily bread and a reason to stay that they can take to the bank.

I believe that deep and proud history of Serbia and the United States deserves to be told, and that we are writing a new script as we speak to build a newer, stronger relationship.  This new narrative is one of hope and optimism, one of partnership and friendship.  It is, I must admit, an entirely different script than the one being written by tabloids and Internet trolls, by those who wish to define for Serbian audiences a black and white world where Serbia is the victim of western villains.

If your conference today can help us embark on strengthening this true picture of American and Serbian relations, one defined by shared aspirations for the future, it will be a resounding success.  We must work together to invest our people with new meaning, and hope, and the will to build something better and stronger together.

This region has seen far too much history.  Far too many people have succumbed to the temptation to define their lives through victimhood, forever energized to continue riding the dragons of nationalism and hatred.  Throughout this region, Slavic peoples celebrate Djurdjevdan.  It is high time they took St. George’s example, and slayed these dragons.  History can inform, but need not define, the Balkan Peninsula.  There are ample examples of historic antagonists setting on a new path: France and Germany, for example, or Norway and Sweden, or the United States and Japan.  Instead of being trapped by bitterness and anger, they found a way to come to peace with the past and build something better and stronger, together.  Many of these same places, I might add, have moved on to the point that they now vacuum up bright, talented young people from Serbia and the rest of the Balkans who yearn to break free from the problems which continue to plague this region.

By building Serbian American relations to a new, higher, level, we can also grant hope and optimism to peoples from this region to see their future in their homeland.  If Serbia takes full advantage of the friendship and assistance being offered by the U.S., the EU, and other countries that are concerned with your development and stability, such as Japan, Norway, and Switzerland, I am convinced there is no boundary to what Serbia can achieve.  Today, we stand at a very important crossroads.  My country has appointed a new special representative for the region.  Our goal is to help this corner of Europe achieve the stability and prosperity it deserves.  We don’t ask Serbs to forget the recent history, but we are asking you to look at the bigger picture.  We have been friends for more than a century, and we look forward to extending that friendship for the next hundred years to come.

Thank you.