On my way to work, I observe the billboards showing the faces and messages that represent today’s Serbian political scene and society. It strikes me that the messages haven’t changed significantly over my 35 years at the Swedish Embassy in Belgrade, with each message heralding a better world and future
My thoughts take me back to August 1988, when I first began working at the Embassy; back to that somewhat frightened 23-year-old who had no idea what was implied in the professional life of a local employee at a Swedish embassy in Southeast Europe, in a country that would soon disintegrate into a new war in the middle of Europe.
Slobodan Milošević had just come to power. My summaries of the local media scene suddenly became crucial to the Embassy’s analysis and reporting on the country. As events unfolded, so did the political realities and language. Designations such as “brotherhood and unity” and “executive board of the Yugoslav Communist Central Committee” began to be replaced by political pluralism, freedom of expression and the suspension of verbal delicts.
That development was unfortunately interrupted dramatically, with words like extremism, separatism and nationalism dominating daily life. As the ‘90s entered their third and fourth years, we all began to speak a different language shaped by words like battle, war and suffering, and later shootings, mass graves, snipers, military movements here and there, sieges, paramilitary units and tanks etc.
There were situations in which a poor, young, local employee’s attempts to interpret military concepts correctly provoked great amusement, such as when I translated ‘tampon zona’ to ‘tampon zone’ instead of ‘buffer zone’. It became very clear that something was wrong when the ambassador almost choked on his coffee.
Being in a position to learn all these new words, concepts and their meanings has given me a richness that transcends the boundaries of semantics
When the wars ended, attention again shifted to the struggle to strengthen democracy. Our daily vocabulary again changed, this time to include words like demonstrations, counter- demonstrations, electoral fraud, regime, tyranny, secret police, student resistance, riot police, blockades of the capital, information blockade, murdered journalists etc.
In the late ‘90s, when the NATO bombing became a reality and Milošević lost power, our vocabulary shifted again, this time to include concepts such as projectiles, cluster munitions, downed bridges, depleted uranium, tomahawks, bomb shelters, bombs and collateral damage.
When the Milošević era finally came to an end, it was a delight to witness ordinary people’s hopes for the future. We all started using new EU expressions, such as visa liberalisation, stabilisation and association process, anti-corruption, reforms etc.
Just when daily life was on the verge of achieving normality, something terrible happened again. It was spring 2003, during the visit to Serbia of then Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, that we heard the news of Prime Minister Đinđić’s assassination at the hands of a sniper. Lindh was herself also murdered just six months later, prompting questions about the ever-present violence in society.
However, despite all the events of subsequent years, the language has remained the same: the EU acquis, the opening and closing of 35 accession chapters, the struggle against corruption, promotion of the rule of law, freedom of expression, democracy, gender equality and free media have remained part of the Embassy’s everyday vocabulary for many years. Let’s hope that the language and vocabulary will expand further when Serbia joins the Union.
How do I detail all this when I have to introduce myself to a newly arrived Swedish diplomat, who asks us all how long we’ve been working at the embassy? I know that my answer will prompt raised eyebrows and unspoken questions. All I can do is smile and welcome them most warmly to Belgrade.