On 5 October 2000 around one hundred thousand people poured into the Serbian capital Belgrade to topple the country’s powerholder Milošević. Our colleague Joachim Schmidt, Head of the “German Interest Section” at the Japanese Embassy in Belgrade, was in the city that day. He shares his memories of poignant moments in the Serbian capital for our series 'On the frontlines of history'.
In September 1999 Joachim Schmidt was not appointed as Germany’s ambassador in Belgrade – instead, he took up the position of Head of the “German Interest Section” at the Japanese Embassy. Although he and his wife moved into the traditional Belgrade residence, no German flag was displayed and no corresponding plaque was visible on the door. For diplomatic relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and what was then Yugoslavia had been broken off with the commencement of the NATO air strikes months before.
“The main goal was to provide support for the democratic powers in Yugoslavia in their efforts to democratise the country,” recalls Joachim Schmidt, now German ambassador in Addis Ababa. After 48 hours of thinking time he had soon packed his suitcases in Bonn and set off for Belgrade with a small convoy of former Embassy staff.
The work of the “German Interest Section”
Before the mission was evacuated in June 1999 his predecessor had arranged for the Japanese Embassy there to keep an eye on the abandoned German premises and agreed that in future it would formally house the new German Interest Section in Belgrade. The Federal Republic’s embassy building and all its facilities were still in use, the difference being that no German flag and no German coat of arms were displayed. The wording on the brass plaque now read “Embassy of Japan” in large letters, and below it in small letters, “German Interest Section”.
We changed the letterheads on our computers. We couldn’t put seals on anything because we weren’t able to use our own seals. So I would initial documents, and the Japanese ambassador would then sign, seal and forward them.
German support for the democratic forces in Serbia comprised four pillars: supporting the democratic opposition and the independent media; helping to build up civil society and supporting local development in the cities that already had a democratic government, including through city twinning.
For example, we provided asphalt for democratically governed cities. Crude oil and crude oil derivatives were affected by the sanctions that had been imposed. I was always present when the asphalt was handed over and tried to explain in interviews with the local media that our policies were not designed to target the people of Yugoslavia but were exclusively directed against Milošević’s criminal regime.
Mass demonstrations against Milošević
After the presidential elections on 24 September, which were to turn into a fiasco for President Milošević, the regime then tried vote-rigging, without success. Mass demonstrations against Milošević had been held in the weeks before, and now even more people were thronging onto the streets of the capital. “The main road passed in front of our chancery, and that morning cars, buses and even a flat-bed trailer drove past on their way into the city,” Joachim Schmidt remembers.
Looking into the eyes of the people streaming into the city, you got the impression that something might happen that day, simply because the determination seemed to be greater than it had done during the major demonstrations of the previous months.
Schmidt and his deputy decided to abandon their office chairs that day. “Today our place isn’t at our desks, we need to be on the streets!” The German diplomats wanted to see for themselves what was happening. On the square in front of the parliament building around one million opposition supporters had gathered.
Revolution was in the air. Yet it was mingled with the fear that Milošević would retaliate again with his security forces and that bloodshed would be unavoidable. The square was so packed, it was almost impossible to move. Then tear gas was deployed.
Further away, some buildings were evidently on fire. A colleague watching the news in Berlin was in phone contact with Schmidt, who was jammed in between protesters, and told him what appeared to be happening in Belgrade. He had a better idea of what was going on thanks to CNN and BBC.
Blue screens as a sign of the successful revolution
In the evening Joachim Schmidt and his colleague managed to get to the “Media Centre”, a single room on the second floor of a building which mainly served as a meeting place for pro-opposition media representatives and journalists. “It was already dark, but through the windows we had a good view of the crowds that were still in the square.” Televisions were positioned in all four corners of the room. The evening news programme was drowned out by the buzz of conversation.
Yet in the middle of these news broadcasts the images on the screens gradually disappeared, to be replaced by a descending blue veil. The programme was interrupted. By this time the screens in all four corners of the room had turned blue. After a while an image slowly appeared from the bottom of the screen. The blue veil rose and disappeared, and the same studio came back into view. But now other people were sitting there, recognisable as belonging to the democratic camp!
This left all the viewers in no doubt that, by gaining control of state television, the opposition had achieved its main goal that day. Joachim Schmidt still has very vivid memories of the atmosphere in the room at that moment:
It was absolutely indescribable, even for partial outsiders like us! Many people had tears in their eyes and were going around hugging one another.
On 6 October 2000 Slobodan Milošević announced his resignation.
New president, old door plaque
“Another few days passed before we as the diplomatic corps were able to congratulate the new President, Vojislav Koštunica,” Schmidt explains. Koštunica was clearly exhausted. Only a few weeks later diplomatic relations between Berlin and Belgrade were officially resumed. In November 2000, after a relevant exchange of Notes at the Serbian Foreign Ministry, another particularly symbolic moment followed:
The exchange of Notes took place late on a Friday afternoon. The working day was long over, but the staff were waiting for me to return, because of course the first thing we did was to remove the brass plaque bearing the words “Embassy of Japan”. I took the screwdriver myself and screwed the old plaque with the words “German Embassy” back on.
Schmidt says how moving it was to see that almost all the staff had waited in the embassy for that moment. At the end of that year Joachim Schmidt was officially to become German ambassador, a post he held until summer 2002, “the first German ambassador in a democratic Belgrade”.