COLUMBUS, Ohio - Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic led a delegation that met with Ohio military, political, academic and business leaders to promote mutual relations and discuss areas of potential economic cooperation during a visit to Ohio's capital.

"Based on our partnership with the Ohio National Guard, which for some time has really expanded to where it's not just military-to-military, it's not just military-to-civilian cooperation, we came to the idea to build on this fantastic friendship and partnership that we have to cooperate in areas of economy, trade, agriculture, but also culture and education," Brnabic said.

Ohio and Serbia share a number of compatible manufacturing and agricultural industries wherein areas of potential partnerships have been identified and explored. Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted met with Brnabic at the Ohio Statehouse to discuss future cooperation. Talks also focused on agriculture and the food industry, with a special emphasis on fruit processing, which plays a significant role in Serbia's economy. Serbia is a world-leading producer of raspberries and plums. Representatives from the J.M Smucker Co., headquartered in Orrville, Ohio, met with the prime minister to discuss potential business projects.

"The prime minister is a very forward-thinking leader," said Maj. Gen. John C. Harris Jr., Ohio adjutant general. "If given the opportunity, I can assure you she'll create some partnerships between the Republic of Serbia and Ohio, businesses that will flourish and create positive things for years into the future."

OHIO NATIONAL GUARD's STATE PARTNERSHIP PROGRAM AS INFRASTRUCTURE

The Ohio National Guard and the Serbian Armed Forces have partnered to promote regional stability and develop civil-military relationships since 2006, under the U.S. Department of Defense's State Partnership Program (SPP), managed by the National Guard Bureau. The Ohio National Guard participates in about 25 events annually with the Serbian Armed Forces, most of which take place in Serbia.

The SPP was launched in the early 1990s as part of Defense Department and U.S. European Command initiatives to engage with the defense ministries and armed forces of the newly independent nations of the Baltics, Central, and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. All 54 state/territorial National Guard entities have partnerships now with nearly 80 nations around the world. The Ohio National Guard's relationship with Serbia has been particularly successful in laying down the foundation for the prime minister's visit, as well as many other Serbia-Ohio relationships that go beyond military-to-military.

"This was a mutual, beneficial meeting that came about through our relationship," said Capt. Trevor Ducey, the Ohio National Guard's SPP director. "So, the Serbian Embassy knew that the prime minister was coming to the United States and advocated for her to come to visit Ohio because there is such a great partnership and a long-standing, valued relationship where we are seen as friends."

The partnership has served as a foundation to expand capacity building into military-to-civilian and civilian-to-civilian interactions that aim to promote cultural understanding beyond the battlefield to benefit civilian communities.

"A whole of government approach is an integral part of the National Security Strategy and the Ohio National Guard is supportive of widening/strengthening ties with Serbia to include economic, educational, social and cultural cooperation," said Simona Vaclavikova, a political adviser for the Ohio Adjutant General's Department and the SPP.

SERBIA-OHIO CIVILIAN RELATIONSHIPS

The prime minister's visit was a culmination of previous visits and ongoing civilian engagements. The SPP has carried out a directive to increase and expand civilian opportunities in both countries. For example, Serbian Ambassador to the U.S. Djerdj Matkovic met with the SPP, the Ohio Development Services Agency (ODSA) and JobsOhio in March 2018 to discuss areas of possible cooperation. Key economic data was discussed between Matkovic and SPP leaders, and synergies between certain industries were identified -- namely food and agriculture.

"Whatever we're going to do, it needs to be beneficial to both sides," Vaclavikova said. "So, we were looking for these common areas where cooperation could be beneficial, and Smucker's came up right away. Serbia has the interest to tour Smucker's facility to see how the company operates. It comes from an urgent need that Serbia has; they're much interested in modernizing and expanding their facilities."

In addition, U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers, whose 15th Congressional District spans parts of Central and Southeast Ohio, is a member of the Congressional Serbian American Caucus, a bipartisan group of legislators dedicated to maintaining and strengthening ties between the U.S. and Serbia. Also a brigadier general in the Ohio Army National Guard, where he serves as director of the Joint Staff for the OHNG, Stivers has traveled to Serbia on many occasions in a National Guard-capacity to promote closer collaboration between the two countries. He was an escort for the Serbian Prime Minister during her visit to Columbus.

During recent trips to Serbia, members of the Ohio National Guard have been welcomed by Serbian ministers of education and agriculture, chambers of commerce, and presidents/deans of universities. Serbian leaders have expressed that they would like to expand the military-to-military relationship with Ohio to the civilian side, and Matkovic himself has done so through previous talks with experts in The Ohio State University's College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, a world leader in research and technology. As a result, leaders and professors at the college met with Brnabi´┐Ż, Matkovic and the Serbian delegation as part of this visit.

"We've had some exchanges with the Ministry of Agriculture in Serbia to give us some feedback on what areas they would like to explore," Vaclavikova said. "Corn production and rural development were two areas identified, so we think about how we share the latest research and technology with the farmers."

Brnabic and the Serbian delegation also visited The Ohio State University Hilandar Research Library Exhibition. Ohio State has a long history of working with the Serbian people. In the 1960s, the monks of Hilandar Monastery contacted the Rev. Dr. Mateja Matejic -- a professor of Russian Literature at OSU and a Serbian Orthodox priest, known to the monks from his hometown of Smederevo -- and requested his help with creating a photographic record of their cultural heritage. The manuscripts and documents are kept at the Hilandar Library.

In addition, a newly-formed sister city relationship between Kraljevo, Serbia and South Euclid, Ohio has contributed to strengthening civilian ties between Ohio and the Republic of Serbia. Northeast Ohio, including South Euclid, has a large Serbian-American population. When the city of Kraljevo was badly damaged by an earthquake in 2010, Ohio National Guard engineers, alongside the Serbian Armed Forces, helped rebuild a local school and gymnasium. Due to that pre-existing relationship, the mayor of Kraljevo asked the OHNG to help find a sister city in Ohio to signify the bond and close friendship developed between the Ohio Guard members and Kraljevo residents. In September 2018, South Euclid Mayor Georgine Welo joined the OHNG on a trip to Serbia where the sister city partnership was formally signed.

"Serbia is really a perfect partner for building networks and connections," Vaclavikova said. "They understand how everything is connected in society. Military members are part of the communities, and they drive an economy. So, everything from the economy to culture is interconnected, and they're really ready to explore that with Ohio."

One recent economic exploration is a planned trade mission to the Hannover Messe trade show in Germany, co-sponsored by ODSA and the Small Business Development Center at Cleveland State University. Discussions have been initiated to introduce the participating Ohio and Serbian companies to one another. The Serbian participants are hosted by the Serbian Chamber of Trade and Commerce. It is an opportunity to explore business-to-business opportunities between Ohio and Serbian companies.

"This year, the Hannover Messe trade show's focus is on manufacturing, and luckily we learned that Cleveland State University is organizing a trip there -- it should be about four or five not yet identified manufacturing companies from Ohio," Vaclavikova said. "We've reached out to the Serbian Chamber of Commerce and agreed that these companies will have meetings face-to-face and talk about ways they could possibly cooperate in the future."

When first established, the SPP's focus was on developing a military partnership between the Ohio National Guard and Serbian Armed Forces, but the partnership has now clearly gone beyond military training into military-to-civilian and civilian-to-civilian relationships.

"Now it's time for that next step," Harris said. "It's time to leverage the brand that Ohio's built in the Republic of Serbia, the goodwill and trust that we've built there. It's time to open doors for Ohio businesses, to do business there and vice versa, for Serbian businesses to do business here in Ohio. It's time to build those partnerships, and it's not just about business. It's about higher education. It's about culture. It's about agriculture. It's about an industry that may have an opportunity for global expansion. Serbia is right for that."

The Ohio National Guard's SPP leaders believe the prime minister's visit is a key moment in the history of the Serbia-Ohio partnership.

"Her title carries a lot of weight," Ducey said. "It's not too often that prime ministers from any country come to the states. Their business would be primarily focused around the United Nations, the Department of State and those higher agencies. So, having a prime minister visit, who cares about civilian cooperation, is important to the SPP because it's part of our program. We continue to find ways to enhance and build capacity and interoperability."

In 2014, Serbia initiated formal negotiations for European Union (EU) accession. Brnabic has publicly shared the goal of joining the EU by 2025. "She is driving this accession to the EU; she is the key person," Vaclavikova said.

Ohio National Guard leaders said they hope this visit stimulates cooperation and creates an effective platform for continued development/exchanges of business/economic, educational, social and cultural networks.