Washington – Recently, during a dinner party, a colleague  from The Post was showing interest in “the health of the Serbian news media.” He recently came back from a trip to the Western Balkans, as they call it, spent some time in Belgrade and now he wanted to know whatever became of the scandal “with that Serbian lobbyist from Chicago, Milan Petrovic” that broke out when he was leaving our country.

He was quite surprised about not getting a credible answer in Belgrade when he asked what is happening with Miladin Kovacevic’s trial and those people from our consulate who allowed him to get away from US justice. But now he was particularly interested in the lobbyist from Chicago, intending to get involved professionally in this story, focusing on Petrovic’s connections to the impeached Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who is awaiting trial for abuse of power, numerous frauds and serious corruption (possibly facing 20 years in jail.)

I never explained to my colleague from The Post why the Serbian media has suddenly stopped reporting on the lobbyist scandal with the Chicago-based firm. Thankfully, the dinner was almost finished when we touched on that subject, so the rest of the story had to be left for another time, “when we talk on the phone”.

Meanwhile, the author can offer only some pieces of information he gathered recently. And along with that, some dilemmas, questions and concerns that he is facing (being an  correspondent from Washington for almost two decades) regarding the unusual media silence surrounding this case in Belgrade.

One of the first internal orders issued by Tadic’s protégé Vuk Jeremic in the summer of 2007, when he was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs (at 32 years of age, with a Harvard degree in physics) was to ban Serbian ambassadors issuing statements or giving interviews to Serbian media at home and correspondents around the world without his prior approval. This ban is still in place, only it does not apply to contacts that our diplomats are making with the media from their host countries (on the contrary, this is very commendable, whenever opportunity presents itself.)

Just how much this whole restrictive action is serious could be seen in last year’s annual meeting of Serbian ambassadors in Belgrade, when several of them dared – without prior approval – to tell the press a thing or two about what has been discussed in those two days. The Minister has punished them for this serious breach of discipline by cutting their paycheck 25% that month (in foreign currency, of course.)

The public was informed of their conduct, and the result of this disciplinary measure was as expected. Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but since January 2008, the only officials informing our public of foreign policy matters are president Tadic, his Minister Jeremic and Jeremic’s chief of staff Stefanovic (Borko, not Mirko Stefanovic – although the latter is Secretary General in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the chief of staff’s uncle; but he is not authorized to do that.) In principle, ambassadors and the rest can also say something to the Serbian public – but, as already mentioned, with prior approval of the minister’s office. As far as we can tell, after last year’s punishment, there are no more incidents regarding this matter.

Specifically, this new censorship prevented me from getting an interview last year with Ivan Vujacic, the then ambassador in the US, after he was called back to Belgrade for several months, as Serbia’s response to the US recognition of Kosovo. This also reduced the reporting of our correspondents form the sessions of the Security Council on Kosovo held in New York – where aside from the always present ambassador in Washington and the representative in the UN, as well as advisers and other experts from Serbia – now we can only talk to Tadic or Jeremic.

Judging by my experience as a correspondent, I can safely say that journalists were never treated this way before. Not even when former Yugoslavia was represented in the UN by Miljan Komatina, Leka Loncar, Ignac Golob and the rest, nor when Ante Markovic was visiting Washington and the embassy was lead by Dzevad Mujezinovic. We were not treated this way even in the difficult 90s, during the sanctions, when the Security Council dealt with Milosevic’s envoys Zivadin and Vlatko Jovanovic or Milan Milutinovic. Not to mention the period after October 5th – with Vojislav Kostunica and Svetozar Marovic, with Zoran Djindjic and Zoran Zivkovic and Foreign Affairs Ministers Svilanovic and Draskovic.

Boris Tadic was also initially easy to cooperate with when he came to America. But then times changed, so your correspondent was not surprised when, not long ago, the new Serbian ambassador in Washington Vladimir Petrovic promptly informed him that he had no “approval from persons in charge in Belgrade” for an interview about the American aspects of the scandal with the Chicago lobbyist Milan Petrovic.

Previously, the ambassador was told to expect the following questions in the interview:

Is he related to his namesake , the Chicago lobbyist Milan Petrovic, since it was only two years ago that he emerged from the anonymity of the Chicago diaspora to be directly appointed as chargé d’affaires and then replaced Vujacic in May as the Serbian ambassador in Washington (born in 1977)?

As chargé d’affaires, Vladimir Petrovic was present in august 2008 when Tadic’s advisor Saper negotiated in Denver with Milan Petrovic – governor Blagojevich’s main campaign lobbyist – about lobbying for Serbia. Three months later a judicial investigation was launched against Blagojevich and he was impeached in December – but in April 2009 the Serbian government had still signed the lobbying contract with Petrovic’s firm in Chicago.

US regulation requires transparency in business deals of this sort. What did M. Petrovic agree to do in the contract and what has been done or at least started for Serbia’s benefit since May?

Many countries hire American firms for lobbying in the US. Generally they hire specialized companies in Washington with reliable connections and influence in the administration and Congress. No country hires for its promotion a firm that is not based in Washington. Not to mention the monthly fee of $85.000 (paid regularly to M. Petrovic since May) considered to be a very high price on the Washington lobbying market.

Chicago newspapers suggest that the coming trial of Rod Blagojevich could unearth many unpleasant truths about Milan Petrovic, whom they are calling “one of the ex-governor’s main campaign lobbyists.” If all of this information is well known and available, why did Belgrade go into this business deal at all, and why has it been meeting its financial obligations to Petrovic’s firm since May 1st?

Hopefully, someday all of these questions will be answered. As well as those that will undoubtedly follow.

Slobodan Pavlovic, Washington

Translated by Ivica Pavlović

Peščanik.net, 07.08.2009.