Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

ICG Row Shakes Serbia-West Relations

The international community may be more cautious about Serbia in the light of a recent diplomatic dispute.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

The honeymoon appears to be over for the international community and the Serbian government, following a period of improved relations after the assassination of Zoran Djindjic.


On July 4, the Belgrade authorities attempted to expel James Lyon, director of the Serbia-Montenegro division of the International Crisis Group, ICG - a move indicating that relations have fallen to their lowest point for several months.


Lyon, an American citizen, told the media that the Serbian police refused to extend his visa and told him to leave the country within three days.


But two days later, following intense pressure from the international community, the authorities decided to extend his visa after all.


While Lyon had said that he was not aware of the reasons behind the threat, he added that it might be linked to the ICG's forthcoming report on the aftermath of prime minister Djindjic's murder in March this year.


He said that the report lists some individuals who had allegedly amassed great wealth during the Milosevic regime, and were later able to find refuge within the political structures which were set up after October 5, 2000.


"These people… are financing the leading political parties, both opposition and ruling ones," alleged Lyon, adding that the report also mentioned "some media company owners as well as individuals running import-export firms".


"[The threat to expel me] shows how great the influence of this financial lobby inside the state structures is - and to what extent they feel threatened by the ICG's work," added Lyon.


He stressed that the apparent turnaround - when the authorities agreed to grant him a one-year visa - was not gained through compromise. "The report will not be published on Monday as previously scheduled, but several days later - which is exclusively due to technical and editing circumstances," he said.


Meanwhile, the Serbian government did its best to play down the whole affair. Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic described it as an "administrative problem", telling the media that Lyon "has so far been registered as a businessman, but failed to provide any evidence that he has been doing any business here".


But one western diplomat - speaking on condition of anonymity - told IWPR that the action taken against Lyon was politically motivated.


He also said that senior officials changed their stance towards Lyon after pressure was exerted by high-ranking European Union official Chris Patten and several of the most senior diplomatic representatives in Belgrade.


These were, he specified, William Montgomery, Charles Crawford and Gabriel Keller - ambassadors of the United States, the United Kingdom and France respectively - as well as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Belgrade office chief Maurizio Massari.


Analysts in Belgrade believe that the Lyon affair will not be enough to prompt the international community to withdraw support for Djindjic's successor Zivkovic and the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, coalition that he leads.


But it can be argued that bilateral relations have been undermined by a so-called "conflicting faction" within the Serbian government, which is allegedly reluctant to compromise over disputes.


The faction is an informal group of politicians, influential businessmen and powerful media owners, headed by close associates of the slain premier. Western diplomats often refer to it as "the business club" because of its financial clout and its often controversial control of the country's economy.


The "business club" first came to prominence following the assassination of Djindjic, when many perceived the group to be using the state of emergency which followed to "settle accounts" with its political opponents.


Relationships with the West began to deteriorate on June 24, when US ambassador William Montgomery became involved in a protracted dispute between the government and the Serbian media.


He then visited the Belgrade weekly news magazine NIN, one of a dozen Serbian businesses to receive libel writs from government communications chief Vladimir "Beba" Popovic. NIN had published an article alleging that Popovic was putting pressure on the media, and claiming that the US had asked Djindjic to replace him.


Montgomery shocked the Serbian government by saying that Djindjic himself had told him that his communications chief had instigated a smear campaign against Veran Matic, the editor-in-chief of RTV B92 - a broadcaster well known for its consistent opposition to Slobodan Milosevic.


The ambassador went on to say that the alleged campaign against Matic had been orchestrated by the powerful TV Pink organisation, once allied to Milosevic, but now working with his opponents.


The remarks caused uproar in Belgrade, with Serbian deputy prime minister Zarko Korac telling the Blic newspaper days later that Montgomery's remarks had been "inappropriate".


"The ambassador of Serbia-Montenegro to the US wouldn't visit [President George W] Bush and demand that his spokesperson be replaced because his behaviour towards the journalists was inappropriate," the deputy premier added.


It is this incident which is believed to have sparked the row over Lyon's visa.


"It would be just too much to expel Montgomery, so the ICG's Belgrade chief may have seemed like a bite they could actually swallow," the western diplomat told IWPR.


Even though Popovic resigned on July 4, the widening gap between the Serbia government and Montgomery was further illustrated by the fact that there was no one from the so-called "conflicting faction" at an Independence Day reception at the US embassy. Zivkovic told TV BK that he had not attended the reception for "personal reasons".


Many analysts believe that the incident does not mark a fundamental shift in the relationship - although it will not be as cosy as it was immediately after Djindjic's murder.


Djordje Vukadinovic, editor in chief of New Serbian Political Thought magazine, told IWPR, "The foreigners have voiced strong support for [the government's] actions - and turned a blind eye to the violations of laws and abuses also committed at the time."


He told IWPR that he believes the international community has not turned its back on DOS, but is instead encouraging the prime minister to change his position slightly. "The West is simply suggesting that Zivkovic solve the personnel problems within his own government," argued Vukadinovic.


But IWPR's diplomatic source said that the West would take a more cautious stance with regard to Serbia from now on, as the reform process was "not unfolding so well is presented to the outside world".


Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor in Belgrade.