‘We can learn a lot from Israel about innovation’

In an exclusive interview with 'The Jerusalem Post Magazine,' Dr. Nenad Popovic touched on issues ranging from Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit to the status of Kosovo.

Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis and Shanghai mayor Yang Xiong (photo credit: COURTESY SCIENCE AND SPACE MINISTRY)
Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis and Shanghai mayor Yang Xiong
In late May, nearly two dozen government ministers from around the world gathered in Jerusalem for an international conference hosted by Science and Technology Minister Ofr Akunis. The gathering, the first of its kind, was aimed at highlighting Israeli innovation and promoting more robust multilateral dialogue and cooperation.
Among those in attendance was Dr. Nenad Popovic, a successful entrepreneur and economist, who was appointed to serve as Serbia’s first minister of innovation and technological development.
Popovic, who has authored eight books and founded ABS Electro, a company with annual revenues of over €200 million, has visited Israel numerous times over the years and greatly admires the Jewish state’s varied accomplishments.
In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post Magazine, he touched on issues ranging from Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit to the status of Kosovo.
Why are you visiting Israel and how would you describe the bilateral relationship between Serbia and the Jewish state?
I am visiting Israel to attend a ministerial conference on innovation being hosted by Israel’s science minister, Ofir Akunis.
It is a very impressive gathering, with more than 20 ministers, and there have been some very interesting speakers, such as the founder of Waze, Uri Levine, the CEO of Facebook in Israel, Adi Soffer Teeni, and Saul Singer, author of Start-up Nation. The point is to share knowledge and ideas about building innovative ecosystems in different countries as well as our views of the future of digitalization and innovation. It has been very impressive, and I am really so glad that I was present.
With regard to the relationship between Serbia and Israel, I can say that we are close friends and we have a lot in common as countries and as nations. Our bilateral relations continue to grow stronger, and I find that we understand Israelis very well and Israelis understand us.
A night drive with Israeli start up Bright Way Vision (Yocheved Lauren Laufer)
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What tangible signs of improved relations can you point to?
Well, to begin with, a lot of Israelis are coming to Serbia. Last year, we had 40,000 tourists from Israel, but the year before we had only 20,000, so the number doubled in one year! It is fantastic, it is excellent!
In addition, Israeli companies are very active in Serbia, and they continue to expand their operations there.
This is particularly evident in the field of real estate and construction, with many Israeli companies engaged in building projects in Belgrade, which of course creates jobs for growing numbers of Serbs.
In addition, there are now a lot of hi-tech companies coming to Serbia. Many international companies, including Israeli ones, are outsourcing work to our programmers and engineers.
Is there something about Israeli innovation and technology that you fnd particularly appealing?
First, I would say that Israel is No. 1 in the world in terms of innovation. This is even more remarkable, considering the problems that you have on your borders and the ongoing threats that you face from some of your neighbors. This makes Israel’s success even more impressive.
My government is actively promoting innovation in Serbia, and in this area we have very close cooperation with the Israeli government in technology and specifically agro-tech. We also work closely with the Israeli Embassy in Belgrade, which is very active in this field and has helped build the Serbian entrepreneurial ecosystem through grants, programs and mentorships. We can learn a lot from Israel about innovation.
What efforts is Serbia making to develop its own hi-tech sector?
For the first time, we now have a ministry specially dedicated to promoting innovation and technology, which I head. It shows where Serbia is going.
In the 1990s, we had wars and were bombed by NATO in 1999, but the level of our academics and education did not suffer. In fact, it has gotten even better. In this regard, the problems we faced in Serbia are very similar to those of Israel, and the problems have made us both even stronger. While our industry has faced problems and is not yet on the level of EU countries, our universities, faculties and research centers are definitely the best in Southeastern Europe and are on the same level as in EU countries.
We are trying to stop the brain drain, as some of our youth, especially engineers and programmers, leave the country after university and head for places like Silicon Valley or London. We are investing in innovation infrastructure, such as new technology parks and start-up centers, to encourage our youth to launch their own start-up companies, and we are offering government grants as well. One of our advisers in the Serbian Innovation Fund is Dr. Shuki Gleitman, the ex-chief scientist of Israel.
Despite widespread international pressure, Israel has refrained from recognizing your southern province of Kosovo as an independent state. What is the status of this issue?
I would say that the crucial problem for Serbia is Kosovo. It is our southern province, it is our territory. What the Albanians did was try to create a fake country, a fake state called Kosovo. Unfortunately, they are supported by NATO, which bombed Serbia in 1999, and by a majority of the EU countries and the US. But according to our constitution and UN Security Council Resolution 1244 of June 1999, Kosovo is the territory of Serbia. Nevertheless, the US and many EU countries recognized Kosovo as an independent country. But it is not, and it will never be an independent country or a country at all. We shall never recognize Kosovo, and we shall never allow Kosovo to be a member state of the UN. Never.
We understand that the situation cannot be as it was before 1999, but also they should understand that Kosovo can’t be independent. We have a long history of standing up, of fighting for what we believe in, and historically Kosovo is where Serbia was born. Kosovo is our heart and soul. We can’t compromise on our heart, soul, history and values just because some countries in the international community want us to do so.
I should point out that there are five countries in the EU that didn’t recognize Kosovo. We are grateful for that, and we of course thank Israel for its position.
In your neighbor Croatia, there appears to be a growing sense of nostalgia for the Ustashe regime, which was allied with the Nazis and slaughtered tens of thousands of Jews and hundreds of thousands of Serbs. Do you think that the Croatian government and the EU are doing enough to counter this trend?
This is a real problem. We have a long, dark history with Croatia, and they have a Nazi past. During World War II, the Ustashe built a large concentration camp known as Jasenovac, where they killed people in the most brutal way, practically all of whom were Jews and Serbs. But after the war, thanks to the fact that Josip Tito, the first president of Yugoslavia, was a Croat, he chose to hide a lot of Croatia’s Nazi past. The problem is that the EU accepted them as a member state, but they never actually apologized for the past.
I am very worried about the situation and the display of Ustashe symbols. There’s a scary trend now in Europe. But I am proud to say that in Serbia the Jewish community has a long history and they feel safe. I often attend Shabbat dinners with friends, and last year I visited a sukka for the first time during the festival.
We are sitting here in Jerusalem, which the United States recently recognized as the capital of Israel.
How do you see Jerusalem?
First, I must say that I love Jerusalem. I come here often. I visited the city more than 10 times before becoming a minister. It is a great city, and I enjoy spending time visiting the various religious sites. There is a positive spirituality that I enjoy. Regardless of politics, Jerusalem is the center and the heart of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
Serbians and Israelis are close, and we share common experiences, challenges and history. I was very proud recently when I saw the pictures from the 9th of May Victory Day Parade in Russia, which commemorates the surrender of Nazi Germany. I must say that it was fantastic picture, with Serbian President [Aleksandar] Vucic, Israeli Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, and Russian President [Vladimir] Putin marching together. The biggest victims of World War II were the Jews, Russians and Serbs, and that photo says so much about our nations. It was really nice.
One final question, somewhat philosophical in nature: In Jewish tradition we are told to “remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations” (Deuteronomy 32:7). What role do you think historical memory should play in shaping global events?
It should definitely play a central role. Tradition and history are what a country is based on. If you do not appreciate the past, you will not have a brighter future.
Serbia and Israel both have long and proud histories, and they don’t make compromises on that. They can compromise on other things, but they don’t compromise their ideals. Our forefathers went through terrible times, but they never compromised on crucial national issues, and they survived and succeeded. We lived for hundreds of years under the Turks, but we did not yield.
The Nazis occupied our country and wanted to kill our nation, but we survived.
Whenever we encounter problems, we should think back to how our grandparents would have handled the situation, learn from them and do what is right. We should always remember the past and use that as a basis for building the future.