The Washington Diplomat / February 2004
By Larry Luxner
In December 2002, Yugoslavia got a new ambassador. Two months later, it got a new name.
These days, Ivan Vujacic is preoccupied with cleaning up the tarnished image of his country — officially known for the past year as Serbia and Montenegro — and cementing Belgrade’s rapidly improving ties with the White House.
The turning point came on Oct. 6, 2000, when former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was overthrown by his own people after years of war, ethnic hatred and corruption. Yugoslavia — once a confederation of six distinct republics — was effectively reduced to nothing more than Serbia and Montenegro, and the new democratic government faced the enormous task of rebuilding an economy in shambles.
That economy is now slowly starting to recover, and Milosevic is now on trial for war crimes at the international criminal tribunal in The Hague.
“The day he was toppled from power was the biggest day in my life,” Vujacic told The Washington Diplomat during a two-hour interview. “There’s not going to be a death penalty, so he’ll probably get life in prison. The most important thing is that he’s not coming back, so I don’t really care what happens to him.”
Asked if Milosevic is in any way comparable to Saddam Hussein, who also faces an international war crimes tribunal, Vujacic laughed. “If Milosevic were Saddam, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” he says. “I’d have been dead 10 years ago.”
Vujacic, an easygoing man with a sense of humor, displays little bitterness about the past. For years, he was a professor of economics at the University of Belgrade, where he also earned his doctorate in economics in 1989. The following year, he joined the Democratic Party at its founding convention and was elected to the Federal Parliament in 1992.
Vujacic held a variety of positions within the hierarchy of the Democratic Party, most recently as president of the party’s Political Council. A Fulbright scholar from 1983 to 1984 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., he’s also one of the founders of the G17 group of independent economists and a member of the Center for Liberal Democratic Studies, an independent think tank based in Belgrade.
Since assuming his post as Belgrade’s ambassador in Washington just over a year ago, Vujacic says bilateral relations have taken a turn for the better.
“Basically, the Bush administration and the State Department have a different view of Serbia since the democratic revolution,” he says. “We’ve come a long way, though there are still people in Congress who have a dim view of Serbia, and we’re working on that.”
Vujacic says 400,000 refugees from the former Yugoslavia, mainly Bosnia and Croatia, are still living in Serbia. Most, though not all of them, are ethnic Serbs, and they want to go back home.
“Ethnic cleansing worked both ways. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be there,” the ambassador says. “You’ve got to remember that the Serbs were the bad guys for 10 years in the media. This is justified to the extent that Milosevic was a dictator and committed crimes. But it doesn’t automatically make the others look good. Milosevic may have exploited myths and nationalism, but so did everybody else. [The late President Franjo] Tudjman did the same thing in Croatia.”
After Yugoslavia's breakup, the country’s embassy in Washington went to the Slovenes. The new Serbian Embassy is temporarily housed in the former Ethiopian Embassy on Kalorama Road, but Vujacic is hoping to acquire some property late next year for a permanent mission.
With a staff of 20 (including 10 diplomats and two military attachés), the Serbian Embassy is small by Washington standards—but it is the country’s largest mission in the world, with jurisdiction over a consulate in New York, and new consulates planned for New York and Los Angeles.
It became the Embassy of Serbia and Montenegro on Feb. 4, 2003, when the Parliament in Belgrade proclaimed the constitutional charter that, among other things, dropped the name Yugoslavia forever.
The country’s two states are Serbia, with 8.5 million inhabitants, and Montenegro, with 600,000. That doesn’t include the autonomous province of Kosovo, which had been under Serbia’s jurisdiction but is now being administered by the United Nations. Kosovo — known as Kosova to Albanians — is home to 2 million people, most of them ethnic Albanian Muslims.
In November 2000, one month after the overthrow of Milosevic, Washington restored full diplomatic relations with Belgrade and dropped all economic sanctions.
“Relations with the U.S. have rapidly improved since the October events and especially during the last year,” Vujacic says. “One year ago at this time, OFAC [the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control] released the private assets of Yugoslav companies. Then in April, the assets of the former Central Bank of Yugoslavia were unfrozen, with 38 percent of the total going to Serbia and Montenegro. Then in May 2003, the president dropped the national emergency clause, allowing for weapons sales to Serbia and Montenegro.”
Last spring, a group of military officers from the National Defense University visited Belgrade for the first time, and on Dec. 4, 2003, the two countries restored normal trading relations, which had been severed in 1992 through an act of Congress.
Vujacic says he was “against the sanctions from day one,” because they punished the wrong people.
“The rest of the world didn’t have a game plan,” he argues. “Those sanctions didn’t hurt the regime, but instead destroyed the middle class, the private sector, and criminalized society through corruption. And they didn’t bring down Milosevic. We had sanctions for eight years, and he was still here. They didn’t bring down Saddam Hussein either. It’s the worst kind of instrument a country can use against any other country. It also takes a long time to take effect, and there are all kinds of ways to get around them.”
What, then, finally brought down Milosevic?
“We did,” the ambassador says. “We got rid of him. People were upset with everything. By that time, there had been 10 years of war, hyperinflation and rigged elections. The key to our success was uniting, organizing and mobilizing the people to stand up for the election results he was trying to annul.”
Vujacic adds, “People in the street don’t think about Milosevic too much. The trial has been going on for a year and a half. It’s already in the past. The main concern is the economy. People have very high expectations. The economy has progressed in the last three years, and the standard of living has gone up.”
Unemployment currently stands at 30 percent, while per-capita annual income hovers around $1,700. The U.S. Agency for International Development provides $100 million in economic assistance every year, and Serbia also gets help from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.
What concerns many people now is whether Serbia and Montenegro can remain together in a loose federation of two very unequal partners. At the moment, Montenegro accounts for only 5.7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, yet it offers the country’s only outlet to the sea. Without Montenegro, Serbia would be a landlocked country.
According to the constitutional charter, the inhabitants of Montenegro will hold a referendum within the next two years to decide their independence.
“Whatever they decide will be acceptable to Serbia,” says Vujacic, suggesting that “a slight majority may be for independence.”
Yet it hasn’t been decided how much of a majority will be necessary to achieve independence.
“I have Montenegrin origins myself, but I don’t have strong feelings,” says the ambassador. “I think it’s important that this whole process comes to a rational, democratic solution within a three-year time frame. By 2006, we’ll have to know where we are. In the meantime, there’s no reason for us not to work together.”
Vujacic insists that “whatever happens, there will be no violence. If there’s a separation, it’ll be very tidy. There has never been a war between Serbia and Montenegro, and rational people are in power in both states.”
Meanwhile, Belgrade must deal with another problem: the future of Kosovo. Until any final status there is reached, Serbia has no de facto presence in Kosovo, 90 percent of whose population are Albanian Muslims.
“We are now in a process of putting standards on talks before final status. We are participating in a dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina [the capital of Kosovo] on meeting those standards. If the standards are met, then negotiations for final status will get underway.”
Asked what those standards are, Vujacic says, “I don’t think we should speculate on that.”
He did, however, say that around 300,000 Serbs lived in Kosovo before the 1998 NATO invasion that forced Yugoslav troops out of the province; 230,000 of those Serbs were expelled.
“One of the major issues is to provide basic security for the remaining Serbs, who are living in enclaves and are subjected to violence,” he says. “If we are going to live up to Western standards, then efforts should be made so that those people can go home.”
A resolution of the Kosovo issue would undoubtedly pave the way for Serbia to be admitted to the European Union — one of Belgrade’s major foreign policy objectives — although Vujacic himself concedes that admission into the EU is unlikely until 2008. “People are overwhelmingly in favor of joining the EU,” he says.
In the meantime, Serbia is busy trying to make friends with the other former republics of Yugoslavia, many of whom have been at each other’s throats since the 13th century.
“Over 3 million of [former] Yugoslavia’s 23 million people are in mixed marriages,” Vujacic says. “If I had owned all the radio stations in New York and I started pitting Jews against blacks, how long do you think New York would last? I don’t think it’s a natural trait for people in the former Yugoslavia to hate each other. I think this will eventually be overcome, and this process of integration will help a lot. People in Belgium don’t like the French, but they get along.”
Complicating the situation is the ongoing trial of a group of snipers accused of murdering Serbia's reformist prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, on Mar. 12, 2003.
According to The Washington Post, Djindjic, 50, "was a rarity in the Balkans — an ambitious pragmatist who escaped the embrace of political ideology in favor of a flexible deal-making style that brought him to power after repeated setbacks. He was committed to Serbia's integration with the West after its isolation during the ethnic wars of the 1990s."
His death at the hands of multiple snipers came six months after false reports of his assassination were planted in regional media — presumably as a warning.
Vujacic said he had been friends with Djindjic for over 25 years and was outraged when he learned of the killing.
Even so, he said, "Suspected assassins cannot get the death penalty."
He added that "the criminal elements under Milosevic were also tied in with the police and the regime’s security forces. Actually, when they shot the prime minister, they thought they’d end up in The Hague. It wasn’t just motivated by the fact that he had started planning a large crackdown on organized crime, but also the idea that this would be presented as a political assassination."
Vujacic thinks the 21st century will usher in an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity for the bloodstained region.
“For the first time in history, the Balkans in general have democratically elected governments, are going through the transition to a market economy, and have the common goal of being members of the EU,” he notes. “In order to do all that, we have to establish good-neighbor relations. The people have realized that this is the only way.”
Vujacic says that despite lingering hostilities over Kosovo, Serbia even has good relations with Albania, and that its relations with Macedonia are “excellent.”
“We don’t see Albania as a source of instability, and we’ve never had a problem with Macedonia,” he says. “I don’t see any large-scale violence occurring. Obviously, we had a flare-up with the Albanian population in Macedonia, and small-scale terrorism is still possible. But all the governments are making efforts to approach this problem in a positive way.”
Serbia has also offered to send 700 troops to Afghanistan to help keep the peace there, although former President Vojislav Kostunica, leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia, warned recently in a Montenegrin newspaper that “our soldiers will come back in metal coffins, like the Americans.”
Vujacic doesn’t see things that way. “This was an offer made so our military could gain international experience and make a contribution to peace,” he says. “This is a way to help reform the military at home. All the people who go there are professionals. They will be vetted so there will be no individuals suspected of committing atrocities or engaging in war crimes. This will be a disciplined force, and the Afghans are not raising an issue over this.”
In addition to politics, Vujacic is pushing tourism and investment in Serbia. Philip Morris recently bought a tobacco factory, and other privatizations have generated investment by U.S. Steel and Galaxy Tires. Americans no longer need visas to travel to Serbia, although the only direct flight between New York’s JFK Airport and Belgrade is offered by Uzbek Airlines, through an arrangement with JAT, Serbia’s flagship airline.
“Montenegro has a lovely coast, and Serbia has ski resorts, hunting and Byzantine monasteries.
Much of that tourism will undoubtedly come from the United States, including the 1 million Americans of Serbian origin living in places such as Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Gary, Indiana.
Right now, however, the ambassador’s biggest headache centers around efforts to form a new government in Belgrade. Kostunica, leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), has proposed to form a government of national unity and is currently talking with all parties in Parliament.
That includes the Serbian Radical Party and the Socialist Party, whose leaders — Vojislav Seselj and Milosevic, respectively — are both in detention in The Hague on charges of war crimes.
Kostunica’s moderately nationalist DSS came in second place in the early parliamentary election on Dec. 28. The ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party won nearly one third of all seats in Parliament but has been unable to form a government, even with the support of their former allies, Milosevic’s Socialists.
Kostunica said the priority of a national unity government would be to draw up Serbia’s new constitution to ensure political stability. The current constitution dates from Milosevic’s authoritarian rule.Most parties, including the Radicals, immediately rejected the idea.
The Democratic Party — the one Vujacic belongs to — says the plan is unacceptable, as it would bring back to power Milosevic’s Socialists and their Radical Party allies.
Asked if he has further political aspirations of his own, Vujacic responded politely, “I learned one thing under Milosevic: not to plan my life."