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18 September 2019

Violence and serenity

From Serbia to the Council of Europe - 2003-2016


The Council of Europe was founded after the Second World War in order to eradicate violence on our continent by privileging dialogue and co-operation between the people and states of Europe. It could not prevent the explosion of violence in the Balkans in the 1990s, but, after the Dayton Agreement of 1995, it contributed to the integration of these countries, devastated by the results of civil war, into the democratic European family. The Council of Europe also implemented the mechanisms for fighting against violence in everyday life, especially the kind of violence that sometimes ravages football stadiums.

Early morning – Spring 2003, Norway

We had a long-established agreement, my husband and I, that professional activities were out of bounds during weekends. Family time was sacrosanct. So when my mobile phone began to vibrate, I plunged my hand into my pocket, and clamped my fingers around it to stifle the sound.

It was a beautiful spring day. We were enjoying our morning walk through the Norwegian forest on Bygdøy peninsula in Oslo, on a path that bordered the fjord, and I could see gleams of the blue sea between the dark green of the fir trees. Our little son was skipping blithely on the path ahead, dancing, in and out of the patches of sun and shade. I was happy to be there, for a moment free from obligations at the embassy, with my husband at my side. And now the phone was ringing.

An SMS message! Being a diplomat and a civil servant does not necessarily mean one knows how to be a spy, and if the ability to check a mobile phone without being seen to be doing it is a job qualification for the latter, I probably failed the test, right there.
The message was brief and in Norwegian. It said: “It’s confirmed!”

A middle-aged couple was advancing towards us on the path, dappled with light and shade and my excitement increased with every step they took towards us. I don’t know if it was the brilliance of the light or my own tears that dazzled my eyes, as they passed by, but I found myself gazing into their faces, thinking, “Do they realise what has just happened?” Our son came forward and gave me a casual hug. “Does he realise?” I wondered, but he continued peacefully and innocently to doodle on the ground with a large tree branch he had found on the edge of the path.

I peeped down at the phone again, surreptitiously, to be sure of the words. Yes, I had read it right. The message was from Haakon, a personal friend and the head of the Norwegian delegation at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He had been most helpful and supportive of our endeavours all this time. He understood how much it would mean for Serbia, with its chequered history, its dubious legacy of violence, to become a member state of the Council of Europe. And now, it was confirmed!

Since I knew he would understand, I showed my husband why I had broken our family agreement. And rather to our son’s frustration, we sat on the nearest bench for a moment, so that I could immediately contact the Director of the European department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Belgrade, confirming the great news.

I was overjoyed and at the same time overwhelmed with grief. We had finally been granted membership into the Council of Europe. We were going to play our part in the single institution in the world with a mandate to promote democracy and the rule of law. But had we been granted membership because we had finally met the criteria and qualified for membership? Or was it due to the terrible blood sacrifice our country had just sustained, on 12 March of that same year, when our Prime Minister, Zoran Đinđić, had been assassinated?

My husband helped me find my feet. Whatever the reasons and in spite of the losses, he urged, what mattered now was to go forward. The waiting game was over and the real one had begun. As we continued along the path, my mind was surging with questions. I had been very active in obtaining support for our membership of the Council of Europe; it was my professional task and my personal mission. Would this change really influence my country? What difference would it make to my own life? And how would it affect my little boy? Was this really so important for our future? The sound of the waves splashing on the stony shore below filtered through the trees, an invitation to continue our usual walk towards the beach. But at that moment, the buzz of my mobile broke through the silent serenity of our private lives again.
It was the message from the Director in Belgrade, responding to the news. His answer was a single word: YES!!!

Midday – Spring 2010, Serbia

When I became the Minister of Youth and Sport for Serbia, in May 2007, we had already been a member state of the Council of Europe for four years. We had been working hard during that time to meet the new standards of democracy, participating in activities organised by the Council of Europe, developing youth strategies to meet the criteria set by its experts. Indeed, we seemed to be making reasonable progress.

But one day, after attending several meetings outside the office, I arrived at the ministry late to find the place in an uproar. I had hardly settled down with my papers when there was an abrupt knock at the door. It was very surprising to see my usually calm chief of staff bursting into the room after a barely polite pause. He was in the company of the head of communications and they were both clearly worried. Journalists had been calling all morning. What on earth could we say? There had been a bad case of hooliganism in Belgium, I was told, a violent clash between Red Star football fans and some locals. And the press wanted to know what we were going to do about it. 

If you wish to continue your reading, you may buy the book "Europe: a human enterprise".

Before joining the Council of Europe Snežana worked at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Serbia, and subsequently became Assistant Minister of Defence from 2005 to 2007 and Co-President of the Serbia-NATO Defence Reform Group. She was a member of the Foundation Board of WADA, Minister of Youth and Sports from 2007 to 2012 and President of the Fund for Young Talents of the Republic of Serbia. Since 2012 Snežana has been Director General of Democracy at the Council of Europe, in charge of major policy areas such as the protection of human dignity, gender equality, children’s rights, and the rights of minorities, anti-discrimination, and the promotion of education, culture, youth and local democracy.