01 Oct 2002

Banishing Balkan Ghosts

Bozidar Djelic and the Rebirth of a Nation
by Garry Emmons

It's past midnight and the Minister of Finance and Economy is home early from work, fumbling around in the kitchen of his spartan apartment, trying to find something to eat. He's two years into the job, but meals and sleep still occur mostly as afterthoughts. Talking on his cell phone, poking around in the fridge, he cocks an ear toward the snippets of TV news in the background: “Labor unrest...Organized crime...Protesting pensioners.” Welcome to Belgrade and the legacy of Milosevic. Now meet the man who wants to change all that — Bozidar Djelic (MBA/MPA '91), a 37-year-old whiz kid who's determined to revive Serbia's economy and one day see his country join the European Union.

Not so long ago, Djelic, as a partner at McKinsey in Paris, was enjoying what he terms “a charmed and privileged existence” in the French capital. But that idyllic life became increasingly clouded as he watched his homeland's descent into madness and destruction. Recalls Djelic, who counts some thirty family members killed by Croatian and German Nazis during World War II, “The worst was the 1999 NATO bombing campaign. All of my extended family, except my mother and father, were in Yugoslavia. I was scared to death.” Then in October 2000 came euphoria: Milosevic had fallen. Old friends in Belgrade, anti-Milosevic activists familiar with Djelic's talents and experience, pleaded for him to return and help rebuild.

“How could I stay and lead my bourgeois lifestyle when all those people risked their lives for freedom?” Djelic asked himself. That autumn, he resigned from McKinsey and bid farewell to his wife, Marie-Laure, and two young daughters, who stayed behind in Paris. He returned to Belgrade for the first time in a decade, and plunged into the whirlwind. By day, he would deal with the likes of the IMF, World Bank, finance ministers, and ambassadors. By night, he would grab a couple of hours of sleep on his aunt's sofa because he didn't have time to find an apartment of his own. A planned ninety-day stint stretched into many months. Visits to Paris became infrequent. “The hardest part of this job,” he says, “is being separated from my wife and children.”

An only child born to a Serb father and Montenegrin mother, Djelic was raised in Belgrade and moved to Paris when he was 10. There, he says, “I made contact with French culture and went from being a little communist to very much an anti-Communist.” When his parents' marriage ended, his university-educated mother was forced to become a seamstress, and Djelic experienced economic deprivation firsthand. But his obvious talents won him admission to elite schools. With advanced degrees from two prestigious French universities, Djelic was spotted in 1986 by Alain Gomez (20th PMD), the charismatic chairman of the French electronics giant Thomson, who tapped him as his special assistant. In 1988, Djelic went to the United States to help with a new Thomson acquisition, RCA. That same year, he and Marie-Laure, a Harvard Ph.D. in sociology, were married.

While at RCA, Djelic had heard from colleagues about Harvard's first-rate schools in both business and public administration and decided to enroll in the joint MBA/MPA Program. “My time at HBS was a wonderful learning experience,” Djelic says, noting that it included a summer as a Nonprofit Management Fellow at a UN economic institute in Belgrade in 1990. “And with so many international students at the School, one truly becomes a world citizen through one's HBS friends.” Meanwhile, at the Kennedy School, Djelic met economist Jeffrey Sachs, who in 1991 recruited him for three years' service in Poland and Russia as a top-level advisor to those countries' market-oriented reformers. Sachs's methods are often called “shock treatment,” but Djelic begs to differ. “It's not shock treatment,” he declares. “It's being honest with the patient and administering the dose of medicine required for recovery.”

“Those experiences were invaluable for what I'm doing now,” Djelic continues. “I learned that you can't wait for better conditions because they'll never materialize. There's always political risk involved. And you mustn't hide yourself behind Œthe plan' — have the courage to take action and be recognized as the one who did, so that people can either approve or disapprove.”

In war-torn Serbia, whose 10.5 million people live with a legacy of violence, courage is not an empty concept. Djelic has made himself a high-profile crusader against endemic corruption, smuggling, and tax evasion. Armed bodyguards protect him on his frequent travels around the country. During a visit in 2001 to a major automobile factory, Djelic and other officials explained to employees that thousands of them would have to be laid off if the plant were to stay in operation. Outraged, the workers smashed the delegation's cars and surrounded the small group. “It was an extremely tense situation. I thought maybe this was going to be the end,” says Djelic. “I told them violence was no answer, and all we could do was negotiate.” After three days, the confrontation, covered on national television, ended peacefully and boosted the new government's standing.

Djelic cites a simplified tax system, new labor laws, aggressive privatization (“twice as fast as Poland”), and a 5.5 percent annual growth rate as successes to date. Key tasks ahead are creating bonds of trust between citizens and the state (“made manifest in better tax compliance, fewer court actions, and less corruption”), reversing the brain drain (“we must get back the tens of thousands of educated people who left during the Milosevic years”), and strengthening institutions. “Despite all the tough measures we've had to take,” Djelic observes, “our government has more support now than when it took office.”

International community assistance for reconstruction will total about $4 billion, Djelic believes. As for the private-sector side, “We need to attract some big blue chips,” he says. “Our selling points are our turnaround value and potential for wealth creation: Societies find it easier to return to high levels they once held than to achieve them for the first time. And after Milosevic, everyone is open to change.”

With democracy currently holding sway in Serbia and all of the Balkans, Djelic believes there exists a unique opportunity to bring lasting stability to southeastern Europe. Generous international aid and investment in the region, he contends, will benefit the West geopolitically and reward it financially. “We are living a historic moment,” says Djelic. “That's part of what drew me here. We must seize the opportunity.”

— Garry Emmons

Web Exclusive: Bozidar Djelic: Man with a Mission


Post a Comment