SERBIA: Improving Serbia's image
Thomas Cromwell

Representing the Republic of Serbia and Montenegro in Washington is not a task that anyone would embrace without a degree of trepidation. After all, for most of the time since the break-up of Yugoslavia some 13 years ago, Serbia has been an international pariah. But this negative image was due in very large part to just one man: Slobodan Milosovic, who throughout the 1990s loomed large as Europe's modern-day demagogue, a seeming leftover from the unsavory days of brutal authoritarian rule. Milosovic is now incarcerated at The Hague, where he faces charges of perpetrating crimes against humanity at the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal. With Milosovic finally gone, Serbia is working hard to restore its image as a credible member of the international community of nations.

However, it takes time for well-established images, and the behavior that created them, to be left behind, and Ivan Vujacic arrived in Washington as Serbia's new ambassador, in late 2002, just in time to be faced with the latest allegations of international misbehavior against his country: accusations that Serbian companies had sold arms to Iraq in violation of the U.N. sanctions imposed on Baghdad.

His government moved swiftly to limit the damage, firing the senior government officials whose oversight was to have prevented such trade, and drafting of a new law to prevent illegal arms sales occurring in the future. "Both the State Department and Defense Department were satisfied with the actions our government took," the ambassador says, with a smile.

He was off to a very good start, and the resolution of the arms issue proved to be just the beginning of a series of successful developments in bilateral relations. In late December 2002 some $80-90 million in assets of private Serb citizens were unfrozen by Washington. In April 2003, sovereign assets of the former Yugoslavia, amounting to some $225 million, were unfrozen, with $90 million of that money going to Belgrade.

Also in the spring of 2003, military sales were permitted, with a first military delegation visiting Belgrade. Finally, in early November 2003, President George W. Bush granted Serbia Normal Trade Relations status. This status, formerly known as Most Favored Nation, had been suspended in 1992. Without it, Serbian exporters faced very high tariffs on goods they shipped to the United States.

In the meantime, American companies have shown a renewed interest in the Serbian market, with several major investments occurring in 2003. US Steel, Galaxy Tires, British American Tobacco and Philip Morris all made significant investments, making the United States the foremost source of foreign direct investment in Serbia for the year.

For Serbian leaders trying to improve the image of their country, perhaps the most significant event of 2003 was the brief visit of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who in March stopped over in Belgrade on his way back from a visit to Turkey. His visit was to offer personal condolences for the March 12 assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, but taking the time to stop in Belgrade in the midst of the troubles facing Washington over the war in Iraq signaled a strong desire by Washington to recognize the democratic reforms. And, on March 31, Powell signed off on a resumption of aid to Serbia.

On July 22-27, Serbia's premier and foreign minister visited Washington where they held, "very constructive talks," according to Ambassador Vujacic. He says the relationship with Washington "is going up and up."

Serbia has offered 1,000 troops for peacekeeping services in the war on terror, and wants to join the Partnership for Peace program of NATO. The sticking point here is that Belgrade must first deliver to The Hague the notorious commander of Bosnian Serb forces, Ratko Mladic. There are others on the U.N. wanted list, but Mladic is considered by far the most important case.

The ambassador says his government is fully committed to arresting Mladic, and handing him to the U.N. tribunal, but that finding and capturing him is proving difficult. "We still can't find the two main guys behind the assassination of the prime minister," he points out.

The decade of civil wars in the Balkans has had a major toll on the economy. "We have been going down for ten years," Ambassador Vujacic says. Yugoslavia was once the envy of central and east European economies, but today Serbia's GDP per capita is on a level with Bulgaria and Romania, he says.

There are still two major political questions to be resolved for Serbia. First is its union with Montenegro. By February 2006 there must be a referendum for the people there to decide if they want to remain within the Republic of Serbia and Montenegro, or go their own way.

Kosovo, the other major issue, is more thorny. Talks on resolving outstanding issues resumed in October 2003. At issue is the return of 230,000 Serb refugees, and the future status of the place. The ambassador says that Serbia is not expecting to ever return to the situation that persisted during the Milosevic regime. "People in Belgrade have given up the idea of ruling over the Albanians in Kosovo. But the Albanians have not given up the idea of ruling Serbs in Kosovo," he says. Belgrade insists that the Serbs of Kosovo be allowed to return there, and live in safety, before talks on the final status are held.

"We are willing to offer autonomy," he says, but the "real problem is that the Albanians want to discuss only one option - independence." However, Kosovo is a regional issue, and not just a Serbian problem, he says.

Ambassador Vujacic is doing his best to change perceptions about his country. He has given speeches at Harvard, Berkeley, Washington think thanks and elsewhere, where he says he has found a lot of interest. He notes that "there is a huge legacy that has to be dealt with," and that this "will take a long time."

Biography of Dr. Ivan Vujacic, Ambassador of Serbia and Montenegro in the United States
Dr. Ivan Vujacic took up his duties as a ambassador of Serbia and Montenegro to the United States in December 2002. He was previously Professor of Economics, Department of Economics, University of Belgrade, Serbia. He earned his PhD in economics in 1989 at the Department of Economics, University of Belgrade. He did research at the London School Of Economics and Political Science and was a Fulbright scholar in 1983-1984, at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Dr Vujacic joined the Democratic Party at its founding convention in 1990. In the Democratic Party he served as the first President of the Board of Economic Advisors and was a member of the Executive Committee (1990-1992). He was elected to the Federal Parliament (Chamber of Citizens) where he served as a Member of Parliament (1992-1996) and Whip (1994-1996). During this time he was a member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Democratic Party, member of the Political Council of the Democratic Party (1993-1997). He was elected President of the Local Committee of the Democratic Party of the Central Belgrade municipality (1995-2001) and served as the President of the Political Council and a member of the Presidency of the Democratic Party (2000-2002).

Dr Vujacic is one of the founders of the G17 group of independent economists (in 1998) and served on the G17Plus (an NGO founded by the G17 group in 1999) Board of Directors (1999-2001).

He joined the Center for Liberal Democratic Studies (an independent think tank) in 1999. Dr Ivan Vujacic has attended conferences organized by the Aspen Institute, The Chicago Council of Foreign Relations, and the Salzburg Seminar among others. In 2001 he attended the Harvard Executive Leadership Program at the Kennedy School Of Government as part of the Kokkalis program.