Friends and colleagues, thank you for having me here with you today. I was genuinely pleased to accept the invitation to speak here because I firmly believe in the goals of your organization. More efficient and ethical corporate and public governance in Serbia will lead to increased competitiveness, improved economic freedom, and reduced corruption. These factors are in the interests of both our countries, and reflect the shared values that under gird our strong and growing relationship.
Relations between Serbia and the United States were for a brief period fraught with disputes and conflict. But I am pleases to say that they have been steadily improving for the past 16 years. In many ways, we are moving forward faster now than ever before. From security, to development, to justice, to education and culture, our countries are expanding their cooperation with one another each and every day.
This level of cooperation did not come overnight, and it will require significant work to preserve and expand it. After all, as many of you know, it is far too easy for conversations here to wander back into history. I see it as a crucial part of my job to encourage my partners here to focus instead on the present and the future.
And make no mistake, Serbia’s future can be bright. Serbia is a lynchpin in the region, and we recognize the vital role that a stable, democratic, and growing Serbia can play in this key region of Europe. The United States shares your strong interest in seeing Serbia expand this role as a regional leader. A politically stable Serbia at peace with its neighbors can be the dynamo that moves the entire region forward.
The Brussels Dialog is critical to building a stable, prosperous region. The process has been tough for both sides, but I’m confident that a commitment by both sides to normalization will yield the kind of progress that will improve all the lives that hang in the balance. The Prime Minister’s work to repair and reinvigorate relations with Albania is another clear example of the government’s desire to improve ties with Serbia’s neighbors. Relations with other Balkan countries have at times been slower to improve, but steady progress can be made, and the United States stands ready to help wherever it can in the reconciliation process. In particular, the conclusion of the Croatian electoral campaign offers an ideal moment for Serbian and Croatian leaders of vision to reach out to one another, and begin to address some of your bilateral disputes in a mature and forward-looking way.
Along with some very sound economic decision-making, enhanced political stability and closer ties with its partners in the West has helped contribute to Serbia’s improving economic prospects. In cooperation with the IMF and World Bank, Serbia has undertaken serious economic reforms which have yielded results. The central government’s budget deficit transformed into a budget surplus in the first seven months of 2016—an even better result than the IMF had projected. GDP growth could crest 2.5 percent this year, which would be significant in a fiscally tight environment.
Continuing with these important fiscal reforms and moving to tackle the even more difficult structural reforms will help Serbia to consolidate the gains it has made and, even more importantly, to ensure economic stability and prosperity for Serbia’s people. This will include difficult decisions: downsizing the public sector; restructuring of public companies like EPS, the railways, and Srbijagas; and making progress on the privatization process. Energy diversification is another difficult task that Serbia will need to address as it looks to the future.
The United States is a partner in this effort. Over the past 15 years, the American people have supported a myriad of projects that help stimulate economic growth, strengthen the justice sector, and promote democratic governance in Serbia. We were at your side in the in the development and implementation of macroeconomic reforms. We have worked to help improve Serbia’s business environment, supported national and local governments in their efforts to attract investment, and worked with private sector to increase Serbia’s competitiveness in regional and global markets.
As Serbia’s business environment improves, Serbia is becoming a more attractive destination for U.S. businesses. U.S. companies bring new technology, good corporate governance practices, and new quality jobs. Today, the United States is among the largest investors in Serbia. U.S. companies have invested around 3.8 billion dollars in the past 15 years, and over 16,000 workers in this country work for American companies. We at the Embassy actively support existing U.S. investors in Serbia and also partner with the Serbian government and private sector to encourage new U.S. investors to help Serbia grow into a strong, modern, market-based economy of the 21st century.
And our linkages are growing every day. As part of an effort to support the Serbian economy, the U.S. Congress recently renewed Serbia’s preferential trade status, which lowers or eliminates tariffs on nearly 4,600 products exported from Serbia to the United States. This provides opportunities for all Serbian companies to enter the U.S. market. In fact, Serbian exports to the United States have been growing steadily – from about $3 million in 2000 to almost $500 million in 2013, and averaging between $250-350 million since. I’m sure you can guess what accounts for the largest number of exports – cars and car parts. But it’s so much more – there are arms and ammunition. I know hunting is a proud tradition in Serbia, and that tradition is being shared with enthusiasts in the United States as well. And of course, fruit – fresh, dried, frozen – we appreciate the quality of products we import from Serbia.
After 24 years, we are also happy to have reestablished direct flights between Belgrade and New York. These connections can deepen our business, commercial, cultural, and political relations – and the plane’s cargo hold presents a great opportunity for Serbian products that benefit from Serbia’s preferential trade status to reach the United States. I would like to see our economic cooperation deepen even further, and “the sky is the limit,” as the proverb says (“nebo je granica”).
In conclusion, I’d like to once again underscore the breadth and depth of Serbian-U.S. cooperation on issues ranging from regional stability to economic growth. We support Serbia and look to you to become a leader in the Balkans –both as a stable democracy and growing market-based economy.