August 28, 2020
The following interview is part of the European Studies Council’s Alumni Spotlight series. This series features graduates from Yale’s European & Russian Studies (E&RS) Program.
Mato Meyer graduated with an MA in Russian and East European Studies (REES) in 2002. Mato has held positions with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and United Nations for more than 15 years.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My father is American and my mother Croatian. I grew up in both the US and what was then Yugoslavia and later, after independence, Croatia. As such, I always felt completely at home in both places and yet not fully from either – a kind of outsider’s objective view. Perhaps that’s why I always wanted to work for international organizations and move from place to place. After starting off at Zagreb University I transferred to Georgetown University from which I got my B.S. from the School of Foreign Service, and from there on to Yale. I have been working for the UN and the OSCE for over 15 years with posts in New York, Belgrade, Vienna, Pristina. My wife is a Greek Diplomat and currently serves as a Diplomatic Adviser to the Prime Minister. Before the pandemic I regularly traveled throughout Europe, the CIS, and Asia to meet with governments, prosecutors, and law enforcement on anti-money laundering and anti-corruption issues. Now I spend most of time on Zoom drafting laws, advising on corruption cases, and trying to amuse my six year old son.
How was your time at Yale? Can you share a few memories that you think might encapsulate your experience?
Yale was truly an exceptional time in my life. I tried to take as many courses outside of Russian & East European Studies (REES) as possible, and I loved the experience of studying law and finance and economics from the other departments. But mostly I loved the REES seminars by Ivo Banac. We were a small class of 4 people (the year after us 0 were admitted), and we spent a lot of time together in class and outside of it. Professor Banac was extremely demanding and strict. I remember him giving us texts to read in slav Macedonian (which I had never heard or read before) and Serbian Cyrillic (which I had to teach myself in one day so as not to fall behind). But every Wednesday after one of our seminars, Banac would take us to Yorkside pizza and we would continue our discussion for a good two hours in a laid back and fun atmosphere. I also recall a conference he organized in 2001 or 2002 in which he brought all of the leading political dissidents from Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina to discuss the state of the Balkans and the legacy of the war. I was enthralled by this conference and made lasting friendships with all of these dissidents. Years later, I ended up working with a number of them in Serbia and Croatia and am still in regular contact. And finally, I really loved my time working the night shift at the Slavic Reading Room. I would just explore all of the books and newspapers and I taught myself the names of months from all of the periodicals from Slavic speaking countries that I had to categorize by dates. Pretty much the only time anyone came into the Slavic Reading Room at night was when they were lost and I would help them find where in Sterling they were looking for.
What made you decide to come to Yale for your European & Russian Studies (E&RS) MA degree? Was there anything in particular that you were interested in?
Professor Ivo Banac. That is the simplest answer. He was huge star in academia and his groundbreaking book National Identities just really struck me. I wanted to learn more from him. And frankly, I knew that a degree from REES would help me pursue a career in the UN. And it really did. Mostly from what I learned – I have from Yale a very deep knowledge of the history, politics of Eastern Europe, but also from the contacts that I made.
How has your E&RS MA degree influenced your life, professionally and/or personally?
Mostly it has influenced me in the way I think, observe, and understand Eastern Europe. It’s a region flooded with made up, manipulated history and warped national identities – an ever evolving narrative that doesn’t try to understand the past but to mold it to present day desires. REES gave me such a deep understanding of it that it is easy to unmask and understand from where politicians and people craft these false narratives and misconceptions of identities. It makes casual conversations though a bit difficult, because people are so often entrenched in these false nationalistic narratives. The degree itself perhaps opened some doors initially, however after so many years no one ever asks you where you went to school. Though recently I was in a meeting with two other diplomats and somehow the topic of school came up and we realized that all three of us went to Yale! That was quite something.
Can you describe your salient points in your career after Yale and to where you are now?
Like many, immediately after Yale I went to New York in search of a job. I ended up briefly at an NGO lobbying for the creation of the International Criminal Court. Through meetings with delegations to the UN I met the Liechtenstein Ambassador who offered me to join the Liechtenstein Mission to the UN and work on human rights and economic affairs in the General Assembly. And from there my career just took off. I accepted a job with the UN in Belgrade, Serbia working on anti-corruption, anti-money laundering and war crimes. I spent four years traveling back and forth to The Hague to liaise with the ICTY and ICC. I was part of numerous meetings about judicial cooperation and ongoing cases involving Milosevic, Seselj, Haradinaj and others. After this I joined the OSCE also in Belgrade, to work exclusively on anti-money laundering and anti-corruption at a time when Serbia was reeling from countless affairs. I helped set up the Anti-corruption Agency and drafted more than 10 laws and national strategies. By the end of my post, Serbia had become a regional leader in anti-money laundering and had several successes in large scale corruption cases. Sadly, since then this has significantly deteriorated (not connected to my leaving).
After this I was seconded to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Secretariat in Vienna where I served as the officer responsible for anti-money laundering/counter terrorist financing and anti-corruption and served as representative to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), Council of Europe’s Moneyval, the Egmont Group of Financial Intelligence Units and the Eurasian Group (EAG) and worked on global anti-money laundering standards and dealing with emerging trends. I traveled throughout much of the 56 OSCE participating States coaching missions and governments on how to improve anti-money laundering and anti-corruption standards.
I then left the OSCE and became the Chief Technical Adviser on Anti-corruption for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Kosovo. Since 2016 I have served as the senior UNDP official advising the government, prosecutors, courts, police, financial intelligence on anti-money laundering and anti-corruption on the largest anti-corruption project in Kosovo. I advise senior officials on how to establish effective corruption prevention and suppression instruments through legislative and policy drafting and establishing institutions to seize stolen assets and return them to citizens.
If you could go back and give yourself advice when you were a student, what would it be? If you could pass on a piece of advice to current undergraduate students looking to further their graduate studies in European Studies or a current E&RS MA graduate student, what would it be?
REES for me was even more than I expected. The wealth of topics I learned from classes and seminars was just unparalleled. And though academia can be removed from the real world of policy making, what you learn there is incredibly important in forming the way you make decisions and negotiate with confidence on topics. My advice would be to really invest in making contacts with other students, faculty, speakers. There is hardly a place in Europe in which I do not have a friend or acquaintance that I somehow met through or thanks to Yale. Obviously, what you learn gives you incredible advantage over others you will interact with in your jobs, but it’s the personal contacts that are priceless.