Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Walter Roberts: U.S. Public Diplomacy in Yugoslavia -- "We Had Quite a Program There"

In 1960, Walter was offered the choice of a promotion to the European area director job at USIA -- or the position of Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.  The latter was one of the most responsible U.S. public diplomacy jobs in the field because of Yugoslavia's unique position as a non-aligned Communist state, and Walter opted to go overseas.  It was not an easy decision, Walter acknowledged (the USIA area director position was viewed as a prestigious one), but he was later grateful he had chosen Belgrade.  As he chronicled in various articles over the years, Walter's tour there turned out to be a rich experience that led to a continuing relationship with Yugoslavia and its successor states long after he retired from the Foreign Service.

Perhaps [the] best [way to] describe the situation in Yugoslavia is by a story that I told a USIA director when he asked me:  “How is it to work in Belgrade?”  And my answer was, at the time,  if you travel from Sofia to Rome, Belgrade looks like Rome.  But if you travel from Rome to Sofia, Belgrade looks like Sofia. 

What I meant is, that in contradistinction to all the USIA programs behind the Iron Curtain, including of course Moscow, we had a large program in Yugoslavia.  At the time I came, I had the distinct feeling that while of course I worked in a Communist country, that in many respects our USIS program in Yugoslavia was more like a USIS program in Austria than in Budapest. 
Belgrade in the 1960s

But I spoke too fast.  Within six or eight months of my arrival in Belgrade, the Yugoslavia government issued a press law.  If you read that press law from A to Z, it meant the end of USIS.  It did not mean the end of the British Council, because as you know the British Council is a non-governmental organization.  They had to register and were there as a Yugoslav incorporated organization.  USIS could never have done that. 

I personally was convinced that my days were numbered.  I had arrived in the summer of 1960, this was in the spring of 1961.   I said this was not the way we could operate, because the press law denied diplomatic status to any foreign information program, or cultural program.  In other words, it denied diplomatic status to the relationship with the Yugoslav people.  It was the view of the Yugoslav government, which adopted this law,  that a diplomat had to deal with the Foreign Office.  Not even with the Minister of Culture.  Not even with the Minister of Information.  You had to go to the Foreign Office, and if the Foreign Office allowed you to speak to the Minister of Information, then you could talk to him.  And of course, we bitterly protested, but in vain.  They told us, “confidentially,” that this was done to rein in the Soviets.  I personally had no doubt they told the Soviets that they did it in order to rein in the Americans. 

Former USIS American Center, Ljubljana
Because we had quite a program there.  We had ten or twelve American officers, we had about one hundred Foreign Service nationals, we published a magazine, we had information centers in Ljubljana, Zagreb, Novi Sad and Sarajevo, to the best of my recollection, and of course in Belgrade.  And a very eager audience.   Literally thousands of people came every day and picked up the news bulletins.  I never quite understood why the Yugoslavs allowed us to do that.  But they did until the press law was published.  We then started negotiations about how to make our program livable.  And in the course of it,  we used certain gimmicks, like putting an American resident in Belgrade in charge of our library.  And as the weeks and the months went by, the Yugoslavs became less interested in enforcing it.  So within a year or so, we were back to where we were before. 

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