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Heads up – Embassy 15 – February 2009

Back in the family

Dejan Popovic, Serbia's new Ambassador to London, has arrived in the capital with a message.

"My primary task here is to send a message that there is a new Serbia which is doing its best to erase the legacy of the 1990s," says the one-time deputy finance minister and former rector of the University of Belgrade.

An expert on international tax and public finance, he jokingly refers to himself as the "divorce lawyer" of Yugoslavia, having been involved in drawn-out negotiations on the division of assets among the federation's successor states.

Today, Serbia sees Britain as a strategic partner in achieving its ambition to join the EU and Popovic sees as his main job here to "revitalise relations" with the UK.

Last February, Serbs voted for a pro-European president, in May a pro-European coalition won the majority in parliament and a Stabilisation Association Agreement was signed with the European Union last April.

The interim trade arrangements have yet to be implemented due to a veto by the Dutch government, which is holding out for the delivery to the ICTY of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general accused of war crimes who is still at large.

The Ambassador stresses that the new government is committed to full cooperation with the tribunal. "The arrest of [Bosnian Serb leader] Radovan Karadzic sent a clear message that we are cooperating with the ICTY," he says.

Nevertheless, Serbia has pressed ahead with reforms and has invited an EU fact-finding mission under the auspices of Serge Brammertz, the chief prosecutor at The Hague. But with no movement on the European side, the Ambassador fears that the enthusiasm for EU membership may wane as Serbian living standards decline in the financial crisis.

"The promise to voters that we would open the European road made it possible for us to win these important elections under difficult conditions, after Kosovo declared independence. But if the government does not deliver, it could have some negative consequences. So we are hoping for some understanding from their side," says Popovic.

A second, important objective is to explain Serbia's position on Kosovo, he adds. Popovic was part of the team negotiating the final status of Kosovo under the supervision of Martti Ahtisaari.

Speaking to Embassy a day after Kosovo celebrated its first anniversary of independence, the Ambassador reflects on his country's new focus.

Far from sending in the tanks, the Serbian government instead persuaded the UN General Assembly to pass a resolution to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legality of the declaration.

"This is a very important step," explains Popovic: "For the first time in Balkan history a territorial dispute is being resolved through the courts rather than with force. It is our desire to transfer the issue from the political domain into the legal domain."

The Kosovo case sets an important legal precedent for the world too, he adds: "There are a dozen other ethnic groups that could follow the Kosovar example. It took less than six months to have a repetition of this scenario in Georgia."

Nobody in Serbia wants a return to the sanctions and hyperinflation under the totalitarian regime of the early 1990s when President Slobodan Milosevic was printing money to fund his wars, he says.

"In January 1994, the inflation was 314 million per cent per month - the second largest inflation of the history of the world. Our real average wages went down to two or three German Marks. All the shops were empty. Our most talented people left in their droves."

At the time, Belgrade University was at the centre of the opposition to the government. As Dean of the Law Faculty, the Ambassador remembers spending four months on the streets of Belgrade in the freezing winter with his students protesting against the rigged elections of 1996.

But Milosevic survived and clamped down on academic authority. Popovic, along with many other professors, was toppled, and replaced by apparatchiks.

Milosevic then turned his attentions to Kosovo. "It took a bombing campaign to get rid of him," says Popovic.

The Nato campaign was terrifying, even though the bombing was "allegedly targeted," he says. "But the worst was the idea that the people behind the bombing were supposed to be our friends because the majority of us were against Milosevic. So that was a paradox."

When Milosevic tried to steal the election again in 2000, Popovic took to the streets with his fellow students and this time Milosevic was toppled. "It was the Serbian voter who eventually opened the door of democracy," he says.

Speaking on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Kosovo War, Popovic predicts that some "nationalistic groups" will try to use the occasion to "raise their voices" but that the majority of Serbs will remember those tragic days but remain committed to their new future.

"People feel that they are now part of a new project, of a reformed Serbian society which wants to become a full member of the European family," he concludes.
HE Mr Dejan Popovic

“For the first time in Balkan history
a territorial dispute is being
resolved through the courts rather
than through force. It is our desire
to transfer the issue of Kosovo
from the political domain into the
legal domain.”

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