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Ivan Vejvoda – the Western Balkans’ ambassador

“Democracy takes time to build.”


Ivan Vejvoda was 18 years old when he moved to Paris to study at Sciences Po. The year was 1968 and the student movement that was to change French and European society had just reached its peak. Though they were to leave a major impression on the young man, the events in Paris were overshadowed by another event taking place the same year: the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. The brutal end of the Prague Spring had a lasting effect on the young Ivan.

“That’s why I have never joined the Communist party. That image of the Soviet Union convinced me that this was all very wrong and that one had to fight it … Of course I wasn’t a dissident. I didn’t do prison. But intellectually and politically all that I did was to follow a path towards freedom, to put it very grandly.”

Ivan was born in Belgrade in 1949, the son of a Yugoslav diplomat. As a child he lived in Rio de Janeiro, Prague, London, Belgrade and Rome.

“Europe has always been very present for me, both in terms of parental upbringing, in the stories of Europe – my father had fought in the Spanish Civil War, so I was imbued with anti-fascism and European history, both the good and the bad part of it … and then there was Yugoslavia as a kind of specific European country that found its way between the West and the East … There was a kind of natural feeling about being a European country.”

Ivan’s grandfather, a Czech from near Prague, came to Croatia to spread the pan-Slavic ideas of Jan Masaryk. After falling in love with Ivan’s grandmother, a Croat girl from Lika, he settled as a carpenter in Karlovac. He always told his children, “You are born here, you are from here.” Ivan’s father always considered himself a Croat, therefore. His mother, the daughter of a Serb from Croatia and a Croat from Bosnia, was baptised as a Catholic (while her brother was baptised according to the Orthodox rite). Ivan’s mother as well as her children used to declare themselves as “Yugoslavs”. With Yugoslavia gone, Ivan says that “following the Czech tradition of my grandfather, I am a Serb now, and although by patrilinear lineage I’m Czech, I like to say I am a Serb of Yugoslav origin.”

Having moved back from Paris to Yugoslavia in 1972, Ivan completed his military service in the Yugoslav People’s Army in the then Socialist Republic of Slovenia and then moved to Belgrade, living a rather Bohemian life as a freelance translator for nearly a decade. In 1984, against the background of the economic crisis in Yugoslavia, he took up a permanent job at the Institute for European Studies, a post he would keep until 1993.

Despite the restrictive political system, there was quite a lot of space for intellectual debate in 1980s Yugoslavia. In 1985 Ivan launched a book series called “Libertas” together with his colleague Trivo Indjic (now adviser to Serbian president Boris Tadic). Ivan recalls that “we were fully imbued with this idea of the need to create greater freedom in a communist society.” In 1989 Ivan and his colleagues were organising a major conference on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the French revolution, with participants from all of Yugoslavia.

“The conference on the French Revolution was an attempt to bring a lot of these people together through the example of the French Revolution. For me it was very helpful to have studied the French Revolution, because in a sense it’s a model of democratic transition, in a different age, but many problems were the same. Confronting the past, how did France cope with the issue of the terror? Do we consider the terror part of our history? Or do we pretend it never happened? This influenced my thinking about the need [to confront] the past. When you have a war, for example, you have to confront it, you have to look at it and say: yes, this is also us, you cannot say this is not us. Or the problem of governance and institutions. France needed nearly 100 years to stabilise. 1870 is really the moment of stability with the Third Republic. Transitions take a long time. The lessons of Tocqueville whom I was reading very much: how the old regime still lives on in the new regime. So for me intellectually and politically this was a very important lesson and precedent to understand: nothing would be easy. It would not be quick.”

The transition in Yugoslavia, Ivan thought, would not mean war.

“We were all brought up in an anti-fascist spirit. In the Yugoslav educational system we were – like other Europeans – told that war must never happen again in Europe. There were all these movies about the war – there were the places where we were taken to as kids like Kragujevac or Jasenovac – to see how the Holocaust was a terrible thing and how these types of ‘projects’ were completely disastrous for Europe’s history … So I didn’t see the war coming. I saw a lot of problems, I saw that the corrosive work of communism had left disastrous results.”

These problems aside, Yugoslavia looked as if it would be a frontrunner for EU accession among the East European regimes. In 1989 Ivan wrote a paper on “the European road of Yugoslavia”, published in the daily Borba. Ivan recalls:

“What I had then seen was that we were the first country, the most qualified country of all communist countries to enter the EU first. Ante Markovic was going to Brussels beginning these talks, and it looked like an obvious thing: this country that was not part of the bloc, that had a very Westernised overall system; yes, the backbone was communist and that’s what broke the country in the end. But then we were hoping that the better side of the country, its openness, its relation with the West, the contacts that existed between businesses, universities, all this, would prevail … Obviously it was an illusion.”

In March 1990, a large group of intellectuals, including Ivan, founded the Democratic Forum. “It was a group who had for the most part never been members of the communist party, who wanted to have a voice in politics, but not do party politics,” he says. When some members of the group, including Leon Kojen and Slobodan Samardzic (who joined later), raised political ambitions, a group of 35 to 40 people left the Forum. Ivan was one of them.

“I remained very engaged throughout that period with a lots of friends. We were very active in political party groups, the ‘Belgrade circle’, as journalists. That helped us survive, but it was very difficult. There was a particularly difficult moment in [the] spring of 1993: a list of people who had to be eliminated was drawn up. It was appearing in tabloids. A lot of these people, when they saw their names on this list, decided to leave. I realised this was one way of the secret services to scare you off. But of course, with the family, a wife and a son, you are responsible for more people, not only for yourself. So what we decided to do was to seek a position abroad.”

In September 1993 Ivan, his wife and their son left for the UK. Ivan taught European studies and East European transition at the Sussex European Institute of Sussex University. The post allowed him to conduct research and to reflect on the fate of his country.

Yugoslavia had made great strides in industrialisation and economic growth, with rising living standards. Its citizens could hold foreign currency accounts. There was artistic freedom, and the social sciences were largely freed from the grip of Marxism. “But it was modernisation without the key institutions of modernity – an opening into the world of consumer goods, foreign travel and media entertainment within the logic of totalitarianism,” as Ivan wrote in a book he co-edited during this time.

“The two key aspects of the totalitarian project, inseparable from each other, are the abolition of the boundary lines between state and society, and of the contours of internal social division … The party became ubiquitous, omniscient, omnipotent. Ideology and terror induced fear and crippled any potentially significant political opposition to the regime. The party was the state, and the secret police, army and transmission organisations (trades union, youth organisations, women’s organisations, mass organisations) were all cast in the role of institutions of militarisation and politicisation – homogenising or, more precisely dissolving, the social fabric, destroying the horizontal and strengthening the vertical links.”

After Sussex, the family moved to the United States, where Ivan began teaching political science at Macalester College in Minnesota and later at Smith College in Massachusetts. In the spring of 1998 he was offered the job of executive director of the Soros Foundation in Serbia. After nearly five years abroad, the family returned to Belgrade “just in time for the NATO bombing of spring 1999,” Ivan jokes. The Fund for an Open Society – Serbia, as it is officially called, was a huge operation at the time. Endowed with an annual budget of about US$ 15 million, it supported virtually every aspect of civil society, from the nongovernmental opposition movement to academia and theatre and cinema.

In the spring of 2002 Ivan was asked by Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic to become his senior adviser on foreign policy and European integration. Ivan accepted. Over the course of the year that followed, he would accompany Djindjic to meetings with the likes of European Commission president Romano Prodi, Commissioner Chris Patten and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

Then, on 12 March 2003, Djindjic was assassinated. His death, leaving a big political void, threw Serbia off its reformist path. Ivan stayed on with Djindjic’s successor Zoran Zivkovic, the former mayor of Nis, until June, and then became the director of the Balkan Trust for Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and other donors.

“The reason for the establishment of the Balkan Trust was very simple: democracy takes time to build, to make, to create. Dahrendorf is the one who reminded us all of it in 1989 when he wrote a book on the revolutions in Eastern-Central Europe, when he said you can change your constitution and make it democratic in six months, you can probably turn your economy from a common to a market economy in six years, but it will take to you 60 years to develop a full blown civil society. That’s the reason for the existence of the Balkan Trust …

And this is where Europe comes in again. I very often say that we are geographically lucky to be on this European continent … We have this very potent project of the European Union, this post-war political peace project that many Europeans – for all the right reasons – have forgotten about: that this is all about how you create and stabilise peace. This is why institutions are so important in Europe, because all the Europeans understood that you can only keep peace by having strong democratic institutions.”

As director of the Balkan Trust, Ivan saw his function not simply as an executive manager of the organisation’s projects, but also as a voice for the region. Serbia and other Western Balkan countries “have absolutely no alternative” other than EU accession, he believes. He thinks it is important to remind people outside South-eastern Europe, both civil society representatives and political decision makers, how much the region has advanced and changed, despite the problems that continue to plague it.

“People don’t understand how intense the relations are today in this micro region. The most recent example of this is the three railroad [companies], Slovene, Croat and Serb, which have realised that they won’t survive if they don’t join efforts. There is a lot of academic cooperation. The economic crisis led to the understanding that we are very dependent on our mutual trade. This interdependence leads to greater ties, not only because Brussels says you must be nicer to each other, but because we realised there is an interest, there is a very practical, even monetary interest …

I recently met Dejan Jovic who is now advisor to [Croatian] President Josipovic. He said, ‘I teach a course on Monday mornings [at the faculty of Political Science in Zagreb] and I have these tired students.’ So he asks them, ‘Why are you tired?’ and they say, ‘We were in Belgrade for the weekend, but we didn’t tell our parents.’ So you have new generations who want to rediscover what Yugoslavia was. Yugoslavia will never be recreated, [but] it will be, in a European sense, a space without borders. It will be a space where there will be a lot of interaction, but we will be our own nation states.”

In November 2010 Ivan moved to Washington D.C. to take up a position as vice-president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.