John D. Scanlan; U.S. Diplomat in Eastern Europe

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 25, 2007

John D. Scanlan, 79, who was U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia in the late 1980s, before the country erupted in civil war and broke apart into ethnic enclaves, died Nov. 20 at NCH Healthcare System in Naples, Fla., of complications from a fall.

Mr. Scanlan was a veteran diplomat who had spent most of his career in Eastern Europe after being named ambassador to Yugoslavia in 1985. He arrived in Belgrade when independence movements were spreading across the communist bloc, and each of the six republics of Yugoslavia was seeking greater autonomy.

Mr. Scanlan, who spoke fluent Serbian, was popular in his host country, especially when he abandoned the ambassadorial limousine in favor of a Yugo, a small car built in Yugoslavia. When he drove his bright yellow Yugo throughout Belgrade, he was considered a "folk hero," according to news reports of the time. Yugoslav newspapers referred to him as "our ambassador."

When Mr. Scanlan left Yugoslavia in 1989, Slobodan Milosevic was consolidating power in the country's largest region, Serbia. Mr. Scanlan faced criticism in some quarters for appearing to ally himself too closely with the Serbs and for failing to recognize Milosevic's dictatorial zeal, which led to brutal ethnic cleansing.

By 1993, when Mr. Scanlan had retired from the State Department and was advising one of Milosevic's political opponents, Milan Panic, he was no longer under any illusions.

"The regime is self-serving," he said in an interview with the International Herald Tribune. "It serves the interests of Mr. Milosevic. The regime preaches militant activism and creates an atmosphere of fear to stay in power. Power is the name of the game. They will hold onto political power as long as they can, whether for another year, another month or another day."

John Douglas Scanlan was born in Thief River Falls, Minn., and served in the Navy in the mid-1940s. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, he received a master's degree in Russian studies from the university in 1955. In addition to Serbian, he spoke Russian and Polish.

He joined the State Department in 1956 and was assigned to Moscow in 1958. While en route, he and his wife were asked to stop in Warsaw to pick up a shipment of five tons of beef, packed in dry ice, and deliver it to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow as part of their "personal luggage."

When he arrived in Moscow, thousands of demonstrators were in the streets, protesting a U.S. incursion in Lebanon. Eventually, the newly minted diplomat -- and his truckload of beef -- reached the embassy safely.

From 1961 to 1965, Mr. Scanlan was a cultural affairs officer in Warsaw. After a brief tour in Uruguay, he returned to Poland in 1967 as a consulate officer, then served as the U.S. Embassy's political officer in Warsaw from 1973 to 1975.

Between overseas assignments, Mr. Scanlan was a State Department liaison to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and held a top position in Eastern European affairs with the U.S. Information Agency. From 1979 to 1981, he was the State Department's No. 2 diplomat in Yugoslavia under Ambassador Lawrence Eagleburger.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan nominated Mr. Scanlan to be ambassador to Poland, but the Polish government -- then under martial law imposed by the Communist government -- refused to approve his appointment. Mr. Scanlan spent a year as diplomat-in-residence at Tufts University in Massachusetts and served in other diplomatic capacities before he was named ambassador to Yugoslavia.

He retired in 1991 after serving two years as deputy commandant for international affairs at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. He then became an executive with ICN Pharmaceuticals Inc., a company started by Panic, his old friend from Yugoslavia.

Mr. Scanlan was Panic's foreign affairs adviser in 1992 and 1993 when Panic served as prime minister of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro). When Milosevic forced Panic from office, Mr. Scanlan returned to the United States and held executive and consulting positions with ICN Pharmaceuticals for several years.

Mr. Scanlan often spoke at seminars and on television as a commentator on developments in Eastern Europe. He also participated in various organizations seeking to rebuild post-communist Europe.

He served on the Falls Church City Council in the 1970s and divided his time between Washington and Florida before settling in Naples last year.

His wife of 48 years, Margaret "Peggy" Scanlan, died last year.

Survivors include four children, Kathleen Scanlan of Vienna, Malia Scanlan of Fredericksburg, Michael Scanlan, a U.S. Foreign Service officer in Kiev, Ukraine, and John Scanlan of Atlanta.

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