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Assessment of Italian Soft Power Strategies: The Case of Serbia

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    The global political and economic ranking of the states in the contemporary international relationships is influenced by many factors. The notion of ‘soft power’ as defined by Joseph Nye imply that there are processes with increased ability to influence the behavior and thinking of others through the power of attraction and ideas. The proponents of this notion argue how such trends help smaller and resource-deprived states to ‘compete’ with larger and richer and allow for a easier achievements of goals on the international stage. Author analyze the concept and try to apply it to the foreign policy of Italy, using the specific example of Italy-Serbia relations. He explores the opportunities and potentials, which are considered ‘soft power’ and which the Italian State use or could use in communicating with the Republic of Serbia in order to strengthen its own image and privileged influence. Author estimates that the Italian strategy of strengthening soft power can be primarily based on cultural and economic values.

    The concept of power in terms of international relations has traditionally been defined and assessed in so-called “hard” terms, often understood in the context of purely military and economic might. In 1990 an American political scientist Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” and put forward the respective theory, describing a capability to gain important benefits in terms of the value and image of the country, at the expense of military and economic power, size of territory and population. Soft power assets can include a nation’s education institutions, development aid programs, tourism assets and economic strength as well as other elements of national identity such as political values, lifestyle and culture. Initially envisaged mostly for describing contemporary US policies, it has later been modified in a way that makes it applicable for analyzing the foreign policy of practically any state, be it a global or a regional power, or even a small and weak country. The notion popularity apparently originates from the fact that this strategy allow for a wide range of possibilities to influence foreign states through attraction and persuasion rather than coercion, and hence obtain political, economic and other foreign policy advantages.

    This enables even states lacking military and economic power, or other means like territory and population, to strengthen their own image and international position. During the Cold War, Italian foreign policy was commonly defined as a so-called “low profile” power, referencing to its membership in European Economic Community (EEC) and NATO being characterized by ambiguous neutral stance on the international stage. No Italian government identified and outlined strategic regional areas of interest, gave geo-economic priority to specific areas, or provided diplomatic assistance to companies (private or public) operating outside the state borders. The most plausible explanation for this phenomena was likely the presence of the potent Italian Communist Party (PCI), which led other political parties in power to minimise the extent of Italian diplomacy in order to compromise with oppositional PCI and prevent internal political conflict and turmoil.

    Since the fall of the Soviet Union and dissolution of Italian Communist Party, Italian diplomatic service initiated a more aggressive approach, and in particular after 1994 took an increasingly active role in promoting a stronger foreign policy. Diplomatic and military measures, notably peacekeeping missions in Yugoslavia, Albania and Middle East were also accompanied by focused economic and cultural initiatives in Mediterranean and East European countries. In parallel, previously dispersed efforts in form of development aid were concentrated, as were the institutions coordinating foreign policies in economic diplomacy sector. Following the downfall of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević regime in October 2000, the international sanctions against Yugoslavia (of which Serbia was a constituent state) begin to be withdrawn, and most were lifted by 19 January 2001, which heralded the new era of improved relations with Western European states, including Italy.

    In the years 2004-2007 the economic collaboration between Italy and Serbia has significantly improved. While political cooperation has always been satisfactory, this period illustrated a marked increase in investments and financial participation. By 2007, almost all Italian banks were present on Serbian market. This presence of major financial institutions which could operate either through direct investments or indirectly by channeling through a network of different local subsidiaries proved to be of vital importance for the support of further Italian investments. In addition, the Italian government has made loans available for small and medium-sized enterprises and entrepreneurship (SMEE) in Serbia, with the first tranche amounting to about 300 million euro. The Italian regions themselves have shown significant interest to invest into Serbia, helping both small and medium-sized local businesses as well encouraging and directing Italian companies to rapidly initiate the process of internationalization. About 500 companies (both small and medium-sized and large companies) followed suit and have relocated their production. This proved to be of great importance for Serbia, as during the transition period SMEE in Serbia became an important economic factor.

    The main aim of the policy was to establish more and more SMEE each year to boost employment and absorb the surplus of workforce that left companies undergoing restructuring. This important goal was achieved, and the share of the sector of SMEs in total GDP and employment is considerably higher than before. Italian companies have brought the latest modern technologies and industrial know-how into the Serbian economy, therefore improving production efficiency as well employing over 20.000 workers by 2017. While economic cooperation has gone a long way in these years, it was also boosted by a series of events and large international conferences, for example ‘Italy in Belgrade’, where many new projects have been launched. Of particular importance was the collaboration between FIAT S.p.A and Zastava automotive industry in 2008 and the start of production of the so-called ‘Serbian Punto’ automobile, which has gained a notable popularity and high sales number on the local market.

    Within a few years Italy became the first investor country and main economic partner in Serbia, both in terms of the volume of investment and extremely high number of Italian companies operating. By 2013 it became the first trading partner of Serbia, beating even decades-long dominance of Germany while still leaving room for increasing trade between the two countries. In terms of foreign trade, Serbia exported more than 13% of total goods exports to Italy compared to 12.6% of Germany in 2017. The main areas of investments of large Italian companies are: textiles (Benetton), footwear (Geox), automobile industry (FIAT), energy production and distribution. However, the development of deeper economic relations between these countries has been facilitated by several other elements of “soft power”.  Few countries in that period gardener a similar mediatic attention boost in Serbian public opinion.

    First of all, good personal relations at the governmental level facilitated the opening steps in outstanding manner, for example former Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini visited Belgrade twice in 2005, while in 2006 Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema came personally to inaugurate Italian Institute of Culture ‘Palazzo Italia’. The latter is a project that no other country had in Belgrade at the time, and this aesthetically and architecturally pleasing palace became a symbol of ever-increasing Italian presence in Belgrade. Present in the capitals and large cities of almost ninety states around the globe, Italian Institutes of Culture are part of the wider “soft-power” effort and represent an ideal meeting and dialogue place for intellectuals, artists and other cultural operators, but also for ordinary citizens, both Italian and foreign, who wish to establish or maintain a relationship with Italy. The Institutes purpose is to promote the image of Italy and its culture: classic, contemporary but also scientific.

    A wide plethora of activities are organized by the staff selected from the Italian Foreign Ministry, for example events with a focus on art, music, cinema, literature, theatre, dance, fashion, design, food, photography and architecture; offering courses in the Italian language; managing an efficient network of libraries; establishing contacts between Italian and foreign cultural, political and even economic spheres; and facilitating an intercultural dialogue founded on democratic principles. Being not only a showcase of Italy, its lifestyle and source of updated information, Institutes have also became a driving force for cultural cooperation initiatives and activities and an essential reference point for Italian communities abroad and for the growing demand for Italian culture that is registered all over the world. Also the wide diffusion of the Italian language in Serbia is a key factor boosting the economic ties. This is enhanced by the strong cultural attraction to Italy, as well as by specific language programs for the promotion of Italian language carried out by the Italian Government, funding both on-site language courses courses and scholarships.

    The Italian Embassy in Belgrade, ​​in collaboration with the Italian Institute of Culture, vigorously promoted the teaching and dissemination of the Italian language and culture. Significant progress has been achieved on level of primary and secondary schools, as since 2001 the Italian language has been included in the state educational programs, on par with other languages of instruction like English or German and considered so-called ‘universal languages”. In 2004 the prestigious Third Belgrade Gymnasium has established a bilingual Italian-Serbian section, which regularly receives a double registration number compared to available places. On university level Italian diplomatic representatives encouraged and directly assisted the creation and expansion of the Italian Studies departments at the major Serbian universities. At the Belgrade University, which has a full-time lecturer at the Department of Philology of Italian Studies, enrollments rapidly rose to over 1000 students, making Italian the second most taught language after English; in Novi Sad – where a part-time lecturer is available – the teaching of Italian language is established as a four-year course and the number of enrollments has exceeded 200 students. Since 2009 the teaching of Italian was also introduced at the University of Kragujevac.

    At the level of language courses organized specifically by the Institute of Culture, it is necessary to point out a steady growth of enrollments, which are around 400 at the moment, in addition to the 30 students of the course activated at the Diplomatic Academy and further 200 at the Military Academy, in cooperation with the Serbian Ministry of Defense. All courses are organized under Common European Framework of Reference for Languages ​​and are divided into levels (from A1 to C2). Furthermore, Italian authorities have encouraged teacher training activities, with the organization of ad-hoc courses in collaboration with the major Italian Universities for foreigners aimed at obtaining the CEDILS Diploma, and coordinating these activities with Ministries of Education and Sport of Serbia and with the Association of Italian Teachers of Serbia. The courses have been continuously organized since 2001 and they strongly benefited from the new didactic approaches used in language teaching in Italy, as well allowing for rapid expansion of cadre necessary for teaching Italian language in Serbia.

    Italian Government also offers scholarships for particularly deserving students and researchers, for in-depth study of linguistic knowledge in Italy, as well providing funds for editorial translation projects of Italian literary works into Serbian language, with the aim of intensifying the exchange of ideas and culture between Italy and Serbia. In the Western Balkans, Italy is also one of the most active countries in the sector of Development Cooperation, seen as a support for the process of economic transition and political democratisation in the region with the goal of encouraging stabilisation. Italian cooperation is focused in the sectors of infrastructure, energy, the environment, health, education, public administration, support for the private sector (SMEs in particular) and protection of cultural heritage. Italian financing is provided by Law 49/87, and Law 180/1992; many projects have been facilitated by Law 84/2001 and Law 212/1992. Numerous other projects are financed by international bodies such as the UN, OSCE, the World Bank, EBRD and the EIB.

    Many projects have also been started up thanks to the engagement of numerous Italian non governmental organisations. Bilateral agreements have also been signed in the sector of cultural cooperation for scholarships, inter-university cooperation, research programmes, projects and initiatives to create libraries, museums and cultural centres. The promotion abroad of the Italian higher education system is by all means a driving force for Italy’s economic development, due to the direct and indirect impact that a higher level of internationalisation of Italy’s higher education institutions would have on “Brand Italy” as a whole. Among the chief activities of the Italian Embassy in Belgrade is also a consolidation of scientific cooperation between Italy and Serbia, as well as the promotion of collaboration between Universities, Research Institutes, scientific associations and companies, both Italian and Serbian, in the fields of technologically advanced innovation and production. To this end, the Embassy has recently established the permanent presence of a Scientific Attaché.

    Soft power by nature is difficult to measure. While there are few quantifiable metrics to gauge influence, experts often refer to public opinion polls that assess perceptions of Italy. Political instability and the lingering effects of the global recession continue to weigh on Italy’s economy and public services. For example, the Italian Foreign Ministry finances all the Italian Cultural Institutes abroad with around € 13-14 million a year in total. It is not easy to understand if a certain amount of financing is modest or abundant, considering that we are in the sphere of the cultural diffusion, in which the immediate results might not be palpable. However, it may be useful to make comparisons with the foreign counterparts of the Italian Cultural Institutes. The British Council receives about £ 150 million a year in public funding, and the offices of the Institut Français and the Instituto Cervantes all receive more funding than the IICs.

    The major difference can be noted in terms of personnel: at the IIC in Munich, for example, five people work at the Institut Français in the city 19, at the Instituto Cervantes 20. Another aspect that differentiates the different institutions is their independence from the state. : The British Council is a private institution (and most of its funds come from individuals), as does the Goethe Institut; the Instituto Cervantes depends on the Spanish Foreign Ministry, but is more independent; the Institut Français, like the IICs, are public bodies. While the promotion abroad of the italian culture is by all means a driving force for italy’s economic development, italian strategy of strengthening soft power can be primarily based on cultural and economic values because soft power by nature is difficult to measure and political instability and the lingering effects of the global recession continue to weigh on Italy’s economy and public services.

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    Assessment of Italian Soft Power Strategies: The Case of Serbia. (2022, Mar 15). Retrieved from

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