New Envoy Steps Out of U.S. PoliticsAnd Into New Role as Serb Ambassador

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Vladimir Petrovic, Serbia’s new ambassador in Washington, landed in the post at a pivotal time for his nation’s relations with the United States.

The 32-year-old diplomat, born and raised in Belgrade but educated at Georgia State University in the United States, presented his credentials to President Obama in May. After serving as deputy chief of mission at the Serbian Embassy in Washington, Petrovic is now the country’s main man in charge of smoothing over any lingering diplomatic turbulence with the United States — a country whose politics he understands more intimately than do most foreign ambassadors.

That’s because Petrovic worked for many years in U.S. politics — including, perhaps serendipitously, in Chicago — serving on the campaigns of several prominent American politicians in recent years.

Until 2002, Petrovic worked for the U.S. wing of the humanitarian group Care as well as two law firms in Atlanta, Ga. He then became involved in fundraising efforts for various democratic candidates and campaigns in the United States. In 2002, after finishing the Democratic Campaign Management Program, he worked on the campaign of Joseph Moore for Chicago alderman, in addition to being the field director of the David Fink for Congress campaign.

Petrovic was also a member of the coordinated campaign that included Jennifer Granholm for governor and Carl Levin for senator, both from Michigan, as well as campaign manager for the Joseph Mario Moreno for Cicero town president mayoral race.

In 2003, he moved onto the Illinois Capital Development Board, later becoming deputy director of the Illinois Trade Office. After his U.S. stint, Petrovic returned to Serbia in 2007 to become a part of the newly elected government before coming to Washington as minister counselor and deputy chief of mission at the Serbian Embassy.

Petrovic said that being U.S.-educated and having worked as a political organizer in Chicago — where he met some up-and-coming politicos who now work in the Obama administration — has been a big help in his own campaign to hit the ground running in Washington.

“It’s much easier for me to do what I do when I know the processes, the political processes,” Petrovic told The Washington Diplomat. “It’s a big plus.”

He added: “It helps in terms of being in a position to know people, but I don’t think it helps in terms of U.S. policy toward Serbia.”

Indeed, it will take a lot of political savvy to overcome some of the mistrust between the two nations in recent years. Although the two countries share a 100-year history of formal diplomatic relations, tensions have simmered over the last decade since the war in Kosovo and the NATO bombing of Serbian forces in 1999, led by American Gen. Wesley Clark.

More recently, Serbs were outraged by the U.S. decision to embrace Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008, and a massive street protest in Belgrade culminated with rioters breaking into the U.S. embassy and setting it on fire. One man — believed to be a rioter — was burned to death.

The Serbian government swiftly denounced the attack and moved to douse the flames and restore order, but the incident was a public relations disaster for a nation seeking to soften its international image and repair its ties with the United States.

“That was an unfortunate case and we have apologized on numerous occasions that it happened,” Petrovic told The Diplomat in an interview at the Serbian Embassy near Dupont Circle. “It was at the same time that Kosovo unilaterally declared their independence and emotions were running high. It was a group of thugs — like soccer fans — that literally got out of control. And it can happen anywhere with crowds.”

The broad-shouldered diplomat also suggested the melee was a one-time incident. “I don’t think it will happen ever again, and I don’t think it really affected our relationship.”

Vice President Joe Biden made no public mention of the attack on the U.S. Embassy during his recent visit to Serbia in May. The vice president’s trip — the first by an American dignitary of that rank since President Jimmy Carter’s trip to Serbia during his administration — marked an important turning point in U.S.-Serbian relations.

It was also an important reminder that parts of the Balkans remain fragile long after Yugoslavia’s violent dissolution. In addition to ongoing hatred between Serbia and Kosovo, tensions have been high in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the delicate tripartite multiethnic presidency has produced nationalist friction between Bosnian Serb leaders and their Muslim-Croat counterparts. In addition, with the economic slump, enthusiasm has dampened among members of the European Union to admit Balkan countries, including perceived shoe-ins like Croatia, whose EU candidacy is being blocked by a territorial dispute with Slovenia.

In a speech in Belgrade, Biden said Serbia’s success and security is vital to the entire Balkan region, and that the United States supports Serbia in its bid for EU membership.

“The United States wants to, would like to, deepen our cooperation with Serbia to help solve the problems of the region, to help Serbia become a strong, successful democratic member of the Euro-Atlantic community,” Biden said in Belgrade.

The vice president added that he didn’t expect Serbia to recognize Kosovo’s hotly disputed independence — and does not expect that to be a precondition for Serbia’s EU accession — but he hopes that brutal armed conflicts in the Balkans fueled by nationalist sentiment are a thing of the past. “We look to Serbia to build peaceful, positive relations with all its neighbors,” he said. “Simply put, the region cannot fully succeed without Serbia playing the constructive and leading role.”

Of course, some international observers — mindful of the region’s history — remain wary of the possibility of violence.

Beginning in the late 1980s, Yugoslavia began to crumble under Serb President Slobodan Milosevic’s demand for control of Kosovo, viewed by Serbs as the cradle of their heritage. Milosevic reasserted that claim after the Bosnian and Croatian wars of secession ended in the mid-1990s, and the Serb military cracked down hard on Kosovo rebels, killing approximately 10,000 people and forcing an estimated 800,000 ethnic Albanians from their homes. A NATO bombing campaign brought an end to the worst of the ethnic violence, as roughly 200,000 Serbs and Roma fled.

In the years since, Kosovo has lobbied the international community for recognition of its independence with limited success. The U.N. Security Council has not resolved Kosovo’s independence because Russia, which wields veto power, has sided with Serbia in the dispute (also see “Envoy Seeks Legitimacy for Kosovo on Its First Year of Independence” in the March 2009 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

So far, 62 U.N. states have recognized Kosovo’s independence, including 22 of 27 nations in the European Union. But key international players, including Russia, China, India and Spain, have withheld their recognition, worried in part that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration could set a precedence and trigger more regional separatism in their countries.

Ethnic violence in Kosovo has largely abated, but there isn’t much reconciliation either. Most Serbs live in Mitrovica in the north, which is tied more closely to Belgrade than to Pristina.

Meanwhile, Serbia continues to challenge Kosovo’s independence.

“We feel we are in the right,” Petrovic declared. “Kosovo has been historically always a part of Serbia and it is the birthplace of the Serbian nation. We are going to consider it ours whatever happens. Nothing is going to change that.”

But the Serbian government is now looking to a courtroom instead of a battlefield to bolster its argument. The Serbian government is anxiously awaiting an opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague. As of April, the ICJ had received legal arguments from Serbia and Kosovo, as well as written opinions of 35 U.N. members, including 21 that support Kosovo’s independence. The court’s ruling is expected in about year, and although it would not be legally binding, it would greatly influence international opinion on Kosovo’s status.

Petrovic said Serbia has “decided to move this issue completely to a legal arena” to avoid becoming mired in potentially explosive international politics.

“This is a really unique situation, and the ethnic-territorial dispute needs to be resolved in a peaceful, legal and diplomatic way,” he said. “It’s a simple question — is the unilateral declaration of Kosovo’s independence according to international law or not? That’s how we decided to deal with this — no fighting, no war, no guns, no sanctions, nothing of that sort that was common in our part of the world. “Just diplomacy and international law,” the ambassador added.

The case marks the first time the ICJ has dealt with the question of secession and its non-binding advisory opinion will be closely watched around the world, but especially in states with potential breakaway republics of their own.

“It’s going to have a really big implication around the whole world,” Petrovic explained. “We are going to accept whatever the opinion is but I don’t think there is a way for them to rule [against Serbia’s position] because it would be against the U.N. charter and the Helsinki Act … so I don’t think there is a way for them to rule against us.”

Petrovic disputed the contention of Kosovo’s foreign minister at a recent Washington luncheon that Serbia has not tried to negotiate in good faith. The ambassador retorted that Kosovo’s attachment to Serbia is nonnegotiable.

“The fact of the matter is that no one, not a single Serb politician or community leader, in Kosovo or any other part of Serbia, has raised his or her voice in support of Pristina’s attempt to forcibly partition Serbia,” he argued. “That’s the indisputable reality on the ground. We’re not playing political games. We are defending our integrity peacefully and diplomatically. As a result of our measured response, the unstable equilibrium on the ground has largely been kept in check.”

He also said the foreign minister’s assertion that Belgrade is to blame for the economic and social plight of Serbs in Kosovo — who make up roughly 7 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million Albanian majority — is “preposterous.”

“It is true that the Kosovo Serbs are suffering,” the ambassador said. “In my view, they are the most endangered community anywhere in Europe. But this is not due to any manipulation on behalf of Belgrade. That’s preposterous. Pristina is once more trying to blame the victim, the Kosovo Serbs, who are systematically being discriminated against. Our centuries-old churches get burned, our businesses get usurped, our homes get seized, our people get ethnically cleansed. That’s the sad reality of Kosovo today. Belgrade cannot be to blame.”

Meanwhile, Petrovic downplayed lingering news reports that suggest his government has not been diligent enough in bringing Serbian war criminals to justice — a key demand if Serbia is to ever join the EU.

“Out of 44 people indicted by the International Crimes Tribunal [for the former Yugoslavia] in The Hague, 42 have been brought to justice by Serbia, including two former presidents of Serbia and including the former president of the Serb Republic in Bosnia,” Petrovic asserted, referring to fugitive Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader who was captured in Belgrade last summer.

But Karadzic’s evasive former general, Ratko Mladic, remains at large, hampering Serbia’s bid for EU membership. Mladic is wanted for genocide of Bosnian Muslims and other crimes in the Balkans wars of the 1990s.

“We are doing everything we can to bring the two [fugitives] that are left to justice but sometimes it’s hard,” Petrovic said. “In this country, some of the terrorist fugitives are nowhere to be found. It doesn’t change the fact that we are doing everything in our power to bring them to justice.”

But when the discussion turns to Serbian culture and current events, Petrovic’s face instantly brightens. Serbia’s reputation has been damaged by two decades of war and division, but Petrovic said the world should know his country is finally on the upswing, having so far weathered the international financial crisis. He said one of his goals as ambassador is to tout Serbia’s rich culture to an American public that may only associate his country with tragic strife and conflict.

Investment is beginning to trickle back into Serbia, he added, and CNN recently named Belgrade one of the top party cities in Europe.

“It really is,” the ambassador, a bachelor, said with a big smile. “It’s more than 1,000 years old but it’s new in the sense that there are a lot of young people, good places to go out, etc. There is a lot to see.”

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 7, 2014