The U.S. ambassador to Serbia said he sees the Balkan nation strengthening its ties to the European Union, downplaying the notion that Belgrade is turning closer to Russia at the expense of its relations with the West.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, Ambassador Kyle Scott also said the mounting antigovernment street protests in Serbia are a sign of a “vibrant democracy” and a “very healthy phenomenon."
Scott, a career Foreign Service official who speaks Serbian and Russian, became the U.S. ambassador to Serbia on February 5, 2016.
Among many other postings, he served as political officer at U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 1996 until 1998.
Concerns about the future direction of Serbian foreign policy surfaced after Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic claimed a convincing victory on April 2 to become Serbia's new president.
Vucic has vowed to continue Serbia’s path to EU membership, but he has also expressed desires for better ties with the country’s long-time ally, Russia.
The presidential role is largely ceremonial, but he is expected to retain de facto power through control of his ruling Serbian Progressive Party.
Since the election, thousands of mostly young people have protested each night in Belgrade and other Serbian towns against Vucic, many carrying banners reading "Down with dictatorship" and "Freedom of media.“
Scott said he sees no deviation in Belgrade's course toward European integration.
“Serbia getting closer to Russia? No, quite the opposite. I think Serbia is seeking to and is moving closer to the European Union,” he said in the interview.
He said Serbia has stated the desire to be militarily neutral “and we respect that." But he added that the country "wishes to integrate in the European Union, and we very much support that process as well.”
Scott added that EU membership would benefit the Serbian people and the entire Balkan region.
On the antigovernment demonstrations, Scott said it is “a fascinating and interesting phenomenon to watch.”
“I’ve been also very pleased to see the reaction of the government, which is to say, ‘Of course these people have the right to protest; they should be heard; they should be able to present their views, just as others can present their views.’ So I think it’s a very healthy phenomenon," he said.
"The right of citizens to take their grievances in public addresses, to speak freely, to the freedom of assembly are all key elements of a vibrant democracy," he added.