“Belgrade is halfway between Berlin and Istanbul,” says Heinz Wilhelm with a smile. Germany’s ambassador to Serbia is waving a post-lunch goodbye to his Turkish counterpart as monocle arrives at the official residence in Senjak, a leafy district of Belgrade favoured by diplomats, politicians and the well-heeled.
It is not just a work connection for Wilhelm. His wife, Zeynep Aksel, is from Istanbul. Turkish tea and coffee are duly offered to visitors, alongside traditional German sweet treats. Belgrade is set to be the Munich-born ambassador’s final post after three decades of diplomatic service that have taken him from Nigeria to New York, Paris to Dakar. But Wilhelm views his presence in Belgrade as far more than a valedictory mission. “I wanted to come here. I have sympathy and understanding with the Serbian position. You cannot treat them as aggressors anymore.”
He agrees that ambassadors from Berlin face a delicate balancing act in Belgrade. Germany is comfortably the biggest international donor to Serbia, both bilaterally and through its considerable contribution to EU-funded projects. But it is also sometimes the most outspoken critic – pushing a pro-independence line on Kosovo that is anathema to most Serbs. Such a bitter pill might be easier to swallow if there was more awareness of Germany’s financial contributions. Wilhelm notes ruefully that while some Belgrade buses are labelled “donation from the people of Japan”, his own country’s aid efforts sometimes slip under the public radar. But he points out that German businesses are a significant presence – the likes of Siemens and Continental, the car and lorry-parts maker, are among almost 400 companies employing a total of 20,000 Serbs. That may increase if Serbia joins the EU – an ambition that Wilhelm calls the main topic for Belgrade ambassadors.
Away from diplomatic affairs, the ambassador’s abiding passion is art. Since taking up his post in August he has been exploring small galleries and connecting with a vibrant creative scene. Wilhelm says the rough edges and low rents in the city remind him of Berlin in the aftermath of reconciliation.
“Gentrification means nothing is left for creative people. The underground becomes the mainstream, and then you move on. So maybe now is the time for Belgrade.”
German embassy in Belgrade
The embassy: Germany is currently between embassies in Belgrade. Its dilapidated former mission on the city’s main diplomatic drag closed in 2011. The new embassy is still in the design stage – temporary digs in the Dedinje district are home for now.
Staff: Accommodation notwithstanding, Germany has one of the larger embassies in Serbia. Eighty people work there, more than half of them German-speaking locals. There is a wide selection: almost half a million Serbian citizens currently live in Germany.
Challenges: Germany’s influence is backed up by considerable financial clout. Since 2000 it has donated more than €1.2bn to Serbia in bilateral aid. It also provides about a quarter of EU funds, which came to more than €200m in the past year.
After over six decades the Greeks have moved back into their elegant Wilhelminian embassy in Berlin’s Tiergarten diplomatic quarter. The villa, with its mansard roof and neoclassical friezes, became defunct (and then derelict) after the Federal Republic moved its capital to Bonn in 1949. It’s the last plot to be spruced up on a street once reserved for Axis powers – Japan and Italy’s grandly restored embassies are neighbours. The cash-strapped Greeks invested €15m in the project but will save on rent in the long-run. Greek diplomats were scattered across the capital in seven rented sites but now have one integrated headquarters.
Although his nationalist views are well-known, Japan’s new prime minister Shinzo Abe (above) has recently adopted a more considered approach to the nation’s tricky foreign relations. He has sought to soothe China, furious over the remote Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which both countries claim, and plans to revise Japan’s 18-year-old apology for wartime brutality have been put on hold. Abe has good reason to play it safe: he needs to win crucial upper-house elections. Professor Koichi Nakano at Tokyo’s Sophia University says success in July could herald a change in tone.
“I don’t think we’ll see the real government of Shinzo Abe until after the election,” he says.