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George Baumgarten

Bosnia’s Jewish Foreign Minister Appointed to U.N. Position as Executive Secretary of Economic Commission for Europe

George Baumgarten, United Nations Correspondent, May 17, 2012




Bosnia & Herzegovina’s Jewish Foreign Minister—profiled last year by this correspondent in an exclusive interview-- has been appointed to a critical European economic position…and at a very difficult time. Sven Alkalaj, the descendant of Sephardic Jews, who had been the only known Jewish Foreign Minister of a Muslim-majority country, has been appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to be the Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Europe. He takes over the position at an economically-precarious hour, with Greece teetering on the brink and the whole Eurozone in peril and uncertainty.

The Jewish community of Sarajevo, with which Alkalaj (ahl-kah-LIE) is affiliated, is one of Eastern Europe’s oldest, having been founded by Iberian Sephardic Jews who arrived in the early 16th century, after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal (in 1492 and 1497, respectively). Its most precious treasure, the Sarajevo Haggadah (available in a recently-recreated edition, for 1,500 Euros), is in fact a product of Spain, not Bosnia. An exquisite, hand-colored illuminated manuscript, it is considered part of Bosnia’s national patrimony, and kept in Sarajevo’s National Museum.

Sven Alkalaj was born in Sarajevo, as were his parents and grandparents. He has traced his family roots there, back to at least the early 19th century, and very likely beyond. He tells of growing up in the Bosnian capital, with many Muslim neighbors:

"That’s one of the phenomena of Sarajevo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The people always lived together. Not side-by-side, [but] they always lived together, because Sarajevo is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious city. You would have a Muslim family living next to a Serbian Orthodox or Jewish or a Catholic church".

Alkalaj holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Sarajevo, and has served in executive corporate positions in that city, as well as being Managing Director of a company called Energoinvest in Bangkok, Thailand. Most recently Foreign Minister, he has also served as Bosnia’s Ambassador to Washington and Brussels. He is married, and has a daughter from a previous marriage.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) was founded on March 1947, and its earliest memberships date from that time. It lists among its "main areas of work" Environmental Policy, Gender, Climate Change, the Green Economy, Technical Cooperation, and the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals. Among its recent activities have been the approval of a joint cooperation plan on water quality, the approval of new emission reduction commitments under the UNECE Air Pollution Convention, and a workshop on water and adaptation to climate change.

Alkalaj will—needless to say—have his work cut out for him. The common-currency "Eurozone"--which held out so much promise for the idea of an integrated European economy at its creation-- may be about to come apart. Greece, as well as Spain, Ireland and possibly Italy, are in precarious financial shape. One or more of them may have to leave the Eurozone. Alkalaj will have to tread lightly—and ever so cautiously, between these problems and the need for development and economic recovery. But his appointment signals recognition of an experienced and devoted public servant.




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