"I only have words of praise and admiration for the way Serbia is fighting the coronavirus. Serbia sets an example not only for the Western Balkans, but also for the world. Now it is up to the people to do their bit – getting vaccinated so that we could stop the virus as soon as possible and go back to normal. As long as it can find an unvaccinated host, the virus will continue to spread," Ambassador of the United States of America (USA) in Belgrade, Anthony Godfrey, said in his interview with Kurir.
The whole world has been living in the coronavirus pandemic for over a year now. Has the "new normal" become our permanent reality?
We all want to go back to the life when we could get a cup of coffee with friends without any concerns, when we could hug the people that we love, when learning took place in classrooms, and you crossed borders to go on a summer vacation. I've been trying not to think about what we have lost, but about how our scientists have managed to make the vaccine in record time. Now it's up to us not to give the virus a chance to spread – we have to get vaccinated. I'm very proud of the fact that over 80 percent of my embassy staff have taken the vaccine thanks to the Government of Serbia, as well as because Washington has sent us enough vaccines for the rest of the American and Serbian staff to be able to get vaccinated.
The US has for years been following the reforms Serbia is implementing on its path to the EU. Looking from the sidelines, what can you praise, and which areas are we slow and not good enough in?
The United States fully supports European integration as a strategic priority of Serbia. It makes sense that fully joining its European neighbours is good for the country's long-term stability and prosperity. It's clear that there are challenges, especially regarding the progress made in the rule of law, improving the media environment, and the normalization of the relations between Belgrade and Priština. I am sure that the Serbian authorities understand how important it is to get involved in these issues, rather than leave them aside and burden the next generation. I'm impatient, but how I feel is less important compared to the dissatisfaction of many young people that I meet, who see their future outside of Serbia – in Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Vienna, or Chicago. None of this is easy, but the good news is that Serbia almost certainly has the ability to do the hard work that is needed to make progress, and I took the recent visit of President Vučić to Brussels as a clear sign that he understands that.
How do you comment on the news of the alleged non-paper sent to Brussels by the Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, envisaging the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina, i.e. the completion of the "disintegration of the SFRY"? Is a new change of borders in the Western Balkans possible in general?
Just like President Vučić said in response to this pointless idea, the United States too fully respects the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And when you ask about the Western Balkans in general, I assume you mean the unresolved dispute over Kosovo. As my government said in a statement earlier, we have no recipes for a solution. It is up to the leaders in Belgrade and Priština to come up with a plan which would overcome the differences and normalize relations."
The Brussels dialogue of Belgrade and Priština on Kosovo has been at a standstill for quite some time. The new Priština government even says openly that it doesn't consider this topic a priority. At this rate and considering the behaviour of the Kosovo side, is reaching a solution soon at all?
The United States is unhappy with the current delay. So much for that. I'm glad that the authorities in Serbia see the importance of resolving this problem, as well as the fact that the delay only harms people in the region and continues to spark a potentially detrimental brain drain. We support the efforts of Miroslav Lajčák, and are looking forward to the planned start of the dialogue in the coming weeks.
The Serbian public was recently surprised by the statement of the German ambassador Thomas Schieb, who said that the 1999 bombing of Serbia was justified as it prevented "genocide and a humanitarian disaster" in Kosovo…
"Ambassador Schieb is a good friend and an honest person who works tirelessly on increasing German investments and aid to Serbia. I'm not sure why the public was surprised by his statement – that view isn't new, and many countries agree with it. The United States and our allies believe that in the 1990s Slobodan Milošević was taking Serbia on a bloody path to ruin. That wasn't the Serbia of today, not should that put a dent in the reputation of the Serbia which sacrificed so much in both world wars in order to help peace and stability in Europe."
How do you view the events of 1999 today?
"I continually express regret over the civilian casualties of 1999 and the fact that the crisis could not be solved by diplomacy. The then Vice-President Biden did so himself in 2016 in Belgrade. But, I also don't understand the renewed surge of sectarian nationalism, with tabloids – and even some people in power – imposing the idea that Milošević's actions weren't the cause of that tragedy. A real and permanent progress will require a sort of reconciliation in this region but, like many Americans, I choose to look ahead."
On the new administration
'Biden wants stronger ties with the Balkans'
The US got a new administration early this year. I know that it is still early to talk about visits of US officials, but is there a chance that President Biden, Vice-President Harris, or Secretary Blinken will come to Serbia?
"Such a visit is already late! I will continue with my efforts to make it happen. President Biden clearly said that he needs to focus on getting the pandemic under control and supporting the recovery of the economy, but I'm not sure that we have recently had a US president with such a deep understanding of the importance of building strong friendships in the world – and certainly in the Balkans. The United States acknowledges the importance of the role that Serbia has in Europe, and we are committed to improving our partnership and contributing to the strengthening of a free, united, and safe Europe."
On living in Serbia
'My Serbian? Oh my God…
You have been in Serbia for a year and a half. What was the most difficult thing to get used to? Following you on social media, we know it isn't food…
"In order to adhere to the health measures, in the past year my wife and myself couldn't travel around Serbia nearly as much as we had hoped. Rich and interesting conversations that I used to enjoy at coffeehouses, festivals, and schools cannot be replaced by the computer screen. Like many of your readers, I cannot wait to get back to a normal life and be able to safely spend time with people. I'm happy to be in a country that leads the way in the fight against this terrible virus but, despite everything, I'm still optimistic that better times will be here soon."
How is your Serbian coming along?
"My Serbian? Oh my God…"