Home More News Bosnian ex-tennis star Bojan Vujić, now ambassador, fights for respect

Bosnian ex-tennis star Bojan Vujić, now ambassador, fights for respect

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Bosnian ex-tennis star Bojan Vujić, now ambassador, fights for respect
Bojan Vujić, Bosnia & Herzegovina's ambassador to the United States, at the entrance to his embassy in Washington's Foggy Bottom district. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Bojan Vujić made his name on the tennis court nearly 30 years ago, eventually ranking 275th on the 1996 ATP list of the world’s best tennis players. But today, his biggest claim to fame may be that he’s the only ambassador in Washington who openly rails against his own foreign minister.

Since August 2019, the 48-year-old former athlete has represented Bosnia & Herzegovina (often abbreviated BiH) as its top envoy here. Yet in a recent interview with The Washington Diplomat, it was clear that he’s frustrated with the limitations of his job.

“Serbs and Croats are marginalized in our Foreign Ministry,” he complained. “The minister of the Bosniak leadership has consistently bypassed Serbian ambassadors and Croats who are perceived to be loyal to the HZD [Croatian Democratic Union] party. They have tried to create a parallel system.”

BiH is one of Europe’s most complex and dysfunctional nations—from a geographical and religious as well as an ethnic point of view. For starters, the roughly triangular-shaped country consists of two autonomous entities: the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina, which is predominantly Bosniak Muslim, and the slightly smaller Republika Srpska, which is mostly ethnic Serbian.

One of the six republics that comprised the former Yugoslavia, BiH declared independence in 1992 following Yugoslavia’s dissolution and immediately descended into ethnic warfare. A NATO-led attack on Serbia involving 19 countries led to many casualties, though Serbs also committed atrocities against their Muslim neighbors.

By late 1995, when was over, its capital, Sarajevo, lay in shambles. At least 100,000 people—mostly Bosniaks—had been killed, and more than 2.2 million were made homeless, making it Europe’s most devastating conflict since World War II, until, of course, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.

As agreed upon in the 1995 Dayton Accords that finally brought peace to the highly unstable country, Bosnia is governed by a three-member rotating presidency that represents each of the country’s three major ethnic groups: Bosniak Muslims (50.1%); Serbs (30.8%) and Croats (15.4%). Others including Roma, Jews, Albanians, Montenegrins, Ukrainians and Turks comprise the remaining 3.7% of Bosnia’s 3.8 million inhabitants.

“The most important element of Dayton—the essential factor that ended the war in my country—was the idea of a highly decentralized state,” Vujić said. “Yet after four years of war and 25 years of peace, the Bosniaks—with the help of the high representative and some EU countries—has tried to create a centralized state. This violates and undermines the Dayton agreement.”

Ambassador Bojan Vujić in his younger days as a tennis champion.

A life of tennis, tragedy and tension

Vujić was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia (then part of Yugoslavia), in 1974. As a rising tennis player, he won pioneer and junior championships beginning at age 11 and played in the senior championship of Yugoslavia in 1992 and 1993. But 1992 was also the year Vujić lost his father, an army colonel, in combat.

“Serbia was later under attack by NATO, when 19 countries bombed us,” he said. “So many innocent people died. It’s difficult to say how many.”

Despite the war, Vujić played at three Grand Slam tournaments and the Australian Open in 1993 and 1994, the US Open in 1996 and several other international competitions. From 1995 to 2000, Vujić lived in South Florida, where he practiced at prestigious tennis academies owned by both Rick Macy and Chris Evert. During the last two years of his stint in the Sunshine State, he also worked as a professional tennis coach.

In addition, he also coached at Mar-a-Lago Club, which is owned by President Trump—the same man to whom he presented his credentials as ambassador more than three years ago.

Besides his native Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian, Vujić speaks English and German fluently.

He says that having lived and worked with other people in multicultural environments—and in situations where teamwork was essential—gave him the skills necessary to represent his troubled country as ambassador in Washington, where he now lives with his wife, Tatjana, and their two daughters.

Yet even during his athletic career, Vujić, who doesn’t belong to any political party and claims to have never attended a single political event, said ethnic tensions were always present.

“When I was the Davis Cup coach for BiH from 2004 to 2009, they were always telling me that if I didn’t put more Muslims on the team, I’d get in trouble,” he said. “But I don’t care if your name is Mohammad or Igor. I want the best players in the world. What kind of country is this?”

The basic problem, he said, is that Alija Izetbegović—founder of the leading political party in Sarajevo—came to power in the early 1990s after arguing that there can be “no peace or co-existence between Islamic faith and non-Islamic social and political institutions.”

More than 30 years later, he said, Izetbegović’s political disciples “still control most of the levers of power in Sarajevo and refuse all attempts to compromise and cooperate” with Bosnia’s Croats and Serbs.

Ambassador Bojan Vujić, his wife Tatjana, and their two daughters at home in Arlington, Va.

Ambassador criticizes OHR, the EU and his own foreign minister

Vujić has been particularly critical of Bisera Turković, Bosnia’s foreign minister and herself once Bosnia’s ambassador to the United States.

“Every time she comes to DC, she tries to avoid the embassy and make direct contact with the State Department, the White House and the Pentagon. But according to our rules, every meeting—it doesn’t matter with who—has to go through the embassy,” he complained. “That’s why we’re here.”

He added: “She wants to say bad things about Serbs. That’s why she doesn’t want me in the meetings. On Dec. 11, 2020, she said on TV that the Serbian member of the presidency is a Hitler.”

In 2005, former Rep. Trent Franks (R-Arizona) voiced opposition to Turković’s nomination as the Bosnian ambassador in Washington due “to her close relationship with Islamist mujihadeen” extremists, said Vujić. “Her party, the SDA, declared in 2019 that it wanted to abolish Republika Srpska. But that’s against the Dayton accords. They want to have a Muslim country, and nobody is talking about it. Why was there no reaction?”

In any event, Vujić will not have to deal with Turković much longer, since she will likely step down in coming months as a result of the country’s Oct. 2 elections; it is still unclear who her replacement will be.

Those elections have resulted in three new members of Bosnia’s presidency: Zeljka Cvijanovic, Denis Becirovic and Željko Komšić, effective Nov. 16. In addition, Bosnian Serb hardliner Milorad Dodik has been confirmed as winner of the presidency of Republika Srpska. Dodik, a pro-Russia ally of Vladimir Putin, has long advocated seceding from Bosnia and merging his republic with neighboring Serbia.

Six people work at the modest Bosnian Embassy, situated along E Street between the State Plaza Hotel and the headquarters of the American Foreign Service Association.

“I’m here as the ambassador for everybody,” he said. “I have a great relationship with the State Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council.”

Another problem, he said, is the continued existence of the Office of the High Representative, which the ambassador calls “a neo-colonial institution” that severely damages and distorts inter-ethnic relations and political dynamics in BiH.

“Bosnia & Herzegovina is the only European country in which a foreign bureaucrat—whom our citizens had no role in electing or appointing—can overrule the democratically expressed will of the people by removing elected politicians from office, overturn laws passed by our own legislatures, and even overturn decisions made by our own courts,” he said.

He added that the European Union’s own Venice Commission has argued that the country cannot move forward on EU membership as long as the Office of the High Representative remains in control.

Bojan Vujić, the Washington-based ambassador of Bosnia & Herzegovina, explains his country’s complicated ethnic and geographic makeup. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Bosnia watches Ukraine invasion warily

Vujić also said he’s frustrated that the 27-member EU has failed to come up with a coherent plan for countries like his hoping to join the club. A good example is North Macedonia, which in 2005 was offered candidate membership status; 17 years later, accession talks have yet to begin.

On Nov. 3, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to extend the mandate of the EU’s peacekeeping force in Bosnia for another year. Russia had previously warned it might veto the decision, but in the end, all 15 members of the council approved the measure. At present, nearly 1,200 soldiers from 20 participating countries are stationed throughout Bosnia; that number was raised by 500 in March following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

And even as the EU recently rejected Bosnia’s latest application, it granted similar status to Ukraine and Moldova, which, he says, “reveals how these decisions made in Brussels are more political than they are procedural.”

Nevertheless, he said, all Bosnians regardless of their ethnic or religious background want to see an end to a war that has already dragged on more than eight months and led to the deaths of some 75,000 Russian troops and more than 15,000 Ukrainian civilians—with the likelihood that thousands of war crimes have been committed in the process.

“Everyone in my country is sad and heartbroken over the violence in Ukraine. Many of us have personal memories of the horrors of war, and we hope and pray that peace will be established as soon as possible,” Vujić said. “All part of the country have agreed to accept Ukrainian refugees, and to provide any aid we can to other victims of the war.”

In the end, Vujić knows that Bosnia is “too small a player” diplomatically and militarily to have much impact on what happens in Ukraine.

“Our best course is to allow the major powers to resolve this quickly. There’s little we can do to influence events far away from our country,” he concluded. “We have a saying in the Balkans: When elephants fight, it is the grass that is destroyed.”

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.