Sian MacLeod

Sian MacLeod

UK Ambassador to Serbia

Part of UK in Serbia

5th June 2023 Belgrade, Serbia

Dear Serbia

Dear Serbia,

I first arrived in Belgrade in the mid-1980s by train as a student with a small tent. I caught a number 53 bus to the campsite that used to next to the ‘Kamp Košutnjak’ café. Had I known then what the future held for me, I could have looked across the valley to the British Ambassador’s Residence that has been my home for nearly four years.

Several decades later, I am leaving Belgrade at the end of my posting.

Few diplomatic postings are ever ‘normal’ – world, local or life events are always waiting to interrupt plans and expectations. But few turn out to be so unexpected as this one. Marked by the coronavirus pandemic, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and then unimaginable domestic tragedy, I have not been able to meet as many people or visit as many places as I hoped, but I have got to know you ‘in sickness and in health’.

I had expected to remember my final weeks here for joyful Coronation celebrations and the UK-Ukraine co-hosted Eurovision Song Contest.  Instead, my final memories will be of a nation sorrowing after human tragedy, and a search for answers that risks retreating into recrimination and deepening division.  Unexpectedly, with the Ukrainian Embassy mine has been raising money to help both children affected by trauma here in Serbia as well as by the war in Ukraine.

That war has brought particular challenges for Serbia. You have taken courageous and moral decisions to condemn Putin’s invasion and are providing assistance to those in need.  I hope in the coming months, with the support of international partners, you will align even with the rest of Europe to weaken the Kremlin ability to wage this barbaric war and at the same time continue to reduce your energy dependence upon Russia.   Putin’s interests are not the same as yours.

I hope also that you make swift progress along your chosen European path. My country has left the European Union.  But I understand though the benefits for you of EU accession.  The UK will support the reforms you need to make. To take advantage of the opportunities ahead, you will need good governance and robust, independent institutions to  ensure sound decision-making and accountability. You will need international partners who support modernisation, economic development, stability and social coherence.

Dear Serbia, you are a land of great potential and a rich diversity of culture and human potential. I have met many talented Serbian scientists, students and schoolchildren with ideas and aspirations here – and in the UK.  This modern face of Serbia – like your unique natural environment – deserves to be better known.  I hope that my country can help you build the future through institutions like the Bio4 campus and Amanda Levitt’s beautiful new concert hall.

You have the good fortune to be located in a region that will offer even greater possibilities if neighbours work together to create opportunities, nurture future generations, and find solutions to challenges. I hope that, just as you have built a flourishing new partnership with Albania, you will build close ties with all your neighbours so you can develop a prosperous economic area that is competitive within the entire European market, and a safe, secure future for coming generations.

In our modern interconnected world domestic words, events and actions have international impact.  During my time in Belgrade I have more than once thought of some famous lines by Scottish poet Robert Burns:  O wad some Power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us! [If only some power would give us the gift to see ourselves as others see us!]

Many who wish you well, including partners who provide substantial support and investment, do not understand why a modern European capital would tolerate the daubing of portraits of war criminals on its walls.  Nor why, when you talk about your painful memories of 1999, you do not acknowledge the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe that led to NATO intervention. It is important to remember and learn from the past, but not to make it a hurdle to your future.

We all have to move on.  As I prepare to leave, I express heartfelt thanks to all who have shown me kindness and friendship here, who helped me get to know and understand you. Thanks to my Embassy staff, both British diplomats and Serbian colleagues, and to colleagues from many countries, especially those who shared the experience of the pandemic, doing their best to carry on essential work whilst keeping staff and families safe.

I am grateful to President Vučić and Prime Minister Brnabić for their personal kindness and professional support (especially during the pandemic), and for their readiness to cooperate where we agree and to talk when we do not. I wish them the courage to commit unequivocally to the democratic, European path that will bring sustainable stability and prosperity.  I hope they and their successors will work to build in Serbia a society where freedom of expression, free media, open and tolerant political debate, respect for rule of law and democratic institutions flourish for the common good of the country and all your people.  I extend thanks also to many ministers who served in the Government during my time here, to other friends and colleagues in public life, and in particular to Aleksandra, your brilliant, tireless Ambassador in London.

When I arrived in Belgrade in 2019, my goal was a stronger, forward looking bilateral relationship. I hope that we now understand each other a little better and that Edward my successor will have a good base to build on.  I wish him, and you, well.

My final regret is that I cannot leave Belgrade as I arrived several decades ago, by train. Hopefully, Edward my successor, working alongside EU and other colleagues, can bring UK expertise to help with the modernisation of your rail network and improve connectivity so that coming generations of students and other travellers can get to know you better too.

Yours affectionately,

Sian MacLeod

This article first appeared in Serbian daily BLIC on 3 June 2023.

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About Sian MacLeod

Sian Macleod was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Republic of Serbia in September 2019. Prior to this, Sian was Ambassador and Head of the UK Delegation to the Organization…

Sian Macleod was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Republic of Serbia in September 2019. Prior to this, Sian was Ambassador and Head of the UK Delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Sian joined the FCO in 1986. Her first posting was to Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, she served briefly in the Embassy in Vilnius. Since then she has been posted to The Hague, returned to Moscow 2004-7, where she became Minister (Deputy Head of Mission). Between overseas postings she has worked in the FCO and the Cabinet Office.

Sian was Ambassador in Prague from 2009 to 2013 and then Director of the British Council Triennial Review and FCO Additional Director for the Eastern European & Central Asian Directorate.

Sian is married to Richard Robinson and they have three children and enjoy music, cycling and cross-country skiing.

Before joining the FCO she studied music at the Winchester School of Art and the Royal Academy of Music.