Former Ambassador, a Center Fellow, Recounts Yugoslav Experience

Spotlight on Geert-Hinrich Ahrens

Feb 05, 2003

Months before arriving at the Wilson Center, Geert-Hinrich Ahrens was immersed in his work in Albania as head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) mission there and he did not have the opportunity to do academic research for his book.

Now, as a Wilson Center fellow, he can concentrate fully on conducting his research, specifically on Yugoslavia, to supplement his field experience. The culmination of this work will be a book on mediation efforts in Yugoslavia's ethnic conflicts. Ahrens had chaired the Minority Working Group of two international Yugoslavia conferences from 1991-1996. His forthcoming book will focus on the preventive diplomacy efforts in the former Yugoslavia, particularly in Kosovo and Macedonia, during the period in which he was a participant. He also will draw from existing literature to analyze these efforts and offer his own policy recommendations for preventing possible future crises.

Ahrens spent a great deal of time in Yugoslavia, as a student in Ljubljana and Skopje and then as a diplomat in Belgrade. Fluent in Serbo-Croat and having traveled extensively throughout Yugoslavia, he has an intimate knowledge of the region. In 1991, Ahrens became a founding member of the European Community Monitoring Mission, the first international operation sent into the Yugoslavia conflict. What he envisioned to be a temporary assignment became a five-year experience.

"[This experience] often was characterized by the horrors of war, danger, defeat, and desperation," said Ahrens, "but also by manifestations of human decency, solidarity among internationals of very different backgrounds, some success, and stubborn pursuit of our main aim-peace."

Following the fall of communism, he said, "Yugoslavia was foremost in development and in its relations with the West." Ahrens believed that a common state for Serbs, Croats and other southern Slavs was a healthy idea but soon the country would split into five smaller nations. Slovenia and Croatia are on a good path, he said, but Macedonia, Bosnia, and Serbia-Montenegro all confront serious problems.

Ahrens, born and raised in Germany, was a young child when World War II ended, and grew up witness to the brutal Stalinist system. His diplomatic career then moved him from one communist system to another. He was a China watcher in Hong Kong from 1967-1972 and also was stationed in Beijing. He then went to Belgrade where, despite its reputation as a liberal communist regime, Ahrens said he always was followed by secret police when traveling. He also served as German Ambassador to Vietnam from 1984-1986.

Ahrens has had experience in Latin America as well, where he held posts in Brazil and Colombia. But one of his greatest passions remains Chinese culture. After taking the Foreign Service exam, Ahrens had studied the Chinese language for two years, before China and Germany even had diplomatic relations. He then spent 22 years working on or in East Asia.

He reflected on a report he had written in 1979, while serving in China, in which he asserted that, for military, political, and economic reasons, it was highly unlikely that China would invade Vietnam. He sent out that report on what became the eve of the Chinese invasion. "I learned, you can't be too self confident on what you report," he said. "Big developments are seldom predicted."

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