In conjunction with the recent launch of the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, we present a series of pieces on embassies and embassy experiences.

'So what did you do to deserve this?'

Australia’s then Foreign Minister, Senator Gareth Evans, put this uncharitable question to me the first time we met at my Ambassador’s residence in Belgrade in September 1989. I was the new third secretary, and frankly I had no idea why I had been sent there. Someone later told me it was because I was deemed ‘self–sufficient’, which goes to show the inadequacy of the DFAT screening process in those days. My mother had already flown in from Sydney to give me moral support.

Streetscape in Belgrade, capital of Yugoslavia, a nation that dissolved in the 1990s (Photo by Flickr user Nikos Koutoulas)

I would have liked to demonstrate to the sceptical foreign minister the profound foreign policy significance, if not the unexpected glamour, of Belgrade, but even on my early acquaintance with the city that didn’t seem very likely. I should have read Lawrence Durrell’s letters rather than his fiction in advance of my posting. 

Durrell went to Belgrade in 1947 with the British Council and developed an instant loathing for the place. It wasn’t just Tito’s communism which was 'so much more horrible than you can imagine'. As his biographer Ian MacNiven recorded, Durrell loathed the situation of the city at the junction of the Sava and Danube Rivers; 'two damnably dirty and moist rivers'. He loathed the ailments you got in Belgrade; 'a sort of flu which makes one angoissie — subnormal temp — aching limbs and head buzzing'. He developed no fondness for Slavic culture, 'The character of these Middle Europeans is dull, self-pitying and Slav — like the Poles; heavy as gunmetal'. He even disliked his own colleagues, complaining that his Chancery was 'full of little socialist vipers accusing me of misreporting and blimping'.

Forty or so years later Belgrade was still a desperate place. I’d had an almost perpetual Durrellesque chest infection since my arrival the winter before due to the poisonous haze of brown coal that cloaked the city most days. Hyperinflation had shocked and impoverished the once relatively prosperous Yugoslavs, and there were signs of the new economic stress in the queues of would-be migrants lined up outside the Australian Embassy. A firebrand politician called Slobodan Milosevic was rousing dormant Serbian feelings of persecution. Meanwhile the northern parts of the country were getting ready to declare their independence, even at the real risk of war.

The country was changing fast and radically, but those of us in the Western embassies were still on an old-fashioned Cold War footing. Life at the Australian Embassy consisted of wrangling innumerable locked doors and safes, and dashing to the ‘secure’ room for conversations of no particular significance. 

Even the Communist party spies on the local embassy staff had become dispirited: one made a perfunctory pass at me, but he was getting on in years and all the fun had gone out of compromising lonely diplomats. Either that or I wasn’t his type.

The Minister was in town on a curious mission: to attend the Non-Aligned Summit and lobby its Commonwealth members on behalf of Malcolm Fraser, who wanted to become the next Commonwealth Secretary General.

During that week, Belgrade was awash with unsavoury military leaders from all over the world, most of whom needed extreme protection, particularly from their own citizens. Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi had his famed women bodyguards to protect him and was rumoured to be sleeping in a large tent in the Libyan Embassy garden. 

The Non-Aligned Summit was to be held in the newly built, terribly glamorous Intercontinental Hotel. Unfortunately but predictably, construction was behind schedule so they just stopped building upwards when it was time for the conference. A thin layer of concrete was smoothed over the top of the edifice and everyone pretended it was meant to be just nine stories high all along. 

We dutifully took the Minister out on the town.

This meant a dusty old restaurant in the old town which served large slabs of meat and no vegetables. Luckily the wine was drinkable. The Minister had quite a party with him and I had my mum with me. He was keen on conversation, but was visibly annoyed by the noise of the colorful and energetic gypsy band. 'Make it stop,' he said. I went over to the band and politely but with some embarrassment offered money. They stopped alright, but 15 minutes later they started up again. I went back and paid again. And again. These people would do well when capitalism fully kicked in. My mum had a hangover the next morning.

The big day came and we all trooped into the Intercontinental. Security was very tight, and looking around at the array of thuggish national leaders I was not surprised. The Minister strode on ahead in his usual manic way. I ran along behind him. Coming up in the rear was my gentle Ambassador Frank Milne, who was carrying the wrapped gift the Australian foreign minister would present to the Yugoslav foreign minister.

Unfortunately that gift had been selected by someone in Canberra who felt the Yugoslav foreign minister would enjoy a silver letter opener, and presumably find it useful. Our minister strode onto the escalator and turned to look for his ambassador. 'Frank?' he said. 'Frank?’ 

'Where the FUCK is FRANK?' shouted Senator Evans as his escalator sailed out of view, just as I turned to witness the Australian ambassador being crash tackled by security guards who saw a knife on the scanner.

It was the start of a tough day. And in the end Malcolm Fraser never got to be Commonwealth Secretary General. Mum drew pretty much the same conclusions about Belgrade as Lawrence Durrell. I bought a one way ticket home at Christmas. And Yugoslavia was about to enter the end of its days. 

Photo by Flickr user Nikos Koutoulas