Foto: Linda Håkansson

Interviews Ilija Batljan. Committed to Baltic Sea issues

Södertörn University, where Baltic Worlds is published, now has a chairman of the governing board, a Swedish former Social Democratic career politician, who grew up the Montenegro of Yugoslavia: Ilija Batljan. Here he is profiled in an interview

Published on on June 14, 2012

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Ilija Batljan’s background as a Social Democratic politician who was seriously considered as Mona Sahlin’s successor, confirms that former high-ranking politicians are sought-after by university boards of directors. Last spring Batljan’s fellow party member Margot Wallström became the chair of the board of Lund University while the board of Stockholm University is led by former Social Democratic minister and justice of the Supreme Court Sten Heckscher, and Social Democratic industrialist Carl Bennet is chair of the board of the University of Gothenburg.

But the center-right government does not, of course, appoint only former Social Democrats to these positions. Bengt Westerberg, former head of the Liberal Party, is chair of the board of Linköping University.

These days, that political work is considered a merit is more self-evident than controversial. Successful politicians have invaluable networks, for example. In Ilija Batljan’s case, he has also been active in the university’s community as a municipal and regional politician.

“Of course I accepted when I was asked to serve as chair. As a resident of Nynäshamn and as a politician, I was very familiar with Södertörn University’s operations.

“With its unique orientation toward Baltic Sea issues, it is part of the development of all of Södertörn, a development that I have been very committed to.”

Batljan is now vice president of the housing company Rikshem, formerly Dombron. He left politics in 2011 after a year as councilor for the opposition on the Stockholm County Council. He was a municipal councilor in Nynäshamn between 2005 and 2009, but also made an impression outside local government circles, as a possible party leader for instance. And in the autumn of 2009, he was ranked fifteenth – and first among politicians – in Veckans Affärer magazine’s list of ”101 Super Talents.”

That was sixteen years after he first came to Sweden. Born in Montenegro, he and his wife left the former Yugoslavia in 1993 due to the war. The year after the family arrived in Sweden, Batljan was a student at Stockholm University, where he studied economics. 

“It took a few months to acquire adequate Swedish skills and upper secondary qualifications. I worked hard and I’m proud of that. Studying at the university gave me a great deal and helped me put down roots in Sweden very quickly.”

When he arrived, he had an upper secondary diploma in engineering and had studied at university in Bosnia. He earned his Swedish bachelor’s degree in statistics and economics in 1996.

“One specific difference between higher education in Sweden and my native country is that in Bosnia, you took most of your exams at the end of the term. Taking exams at the end of every course like we do in Sweden is more advantageous, it’s better suited to the university level.

“And in Stockholm I benefited from well-reputed lecturers like Professor Assar Lindbeck.”

The plan was that Batljan would go on to postgraduate studies, but an internship at the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs led to positions as an analyst, then first secretary, and finally assistant undersecretary.

As a politician and as a scholar, he became increasingly interested in geriatric care and demographics. He started his postgraduate work in 2001 at Stockholm University and continued while also working as a full-time politician until 2007 when he defended his doctoral dissertation, Demographics and Future Needs for Public Long Term Care and Services among the Elderly in Sweden: The Need for Planning. “I still teach,” he says, “and up until last year I was still managing to publish one article a year; being a scholar is part of my identity.”

A BSc in economics and a PhD in social work represent more academic gravitas than usually found, nowadays, on the CVs of Swedish politicians. “This is very good experience to have in politics.”

As far as research and higher education in general, Batljan believes they are becoming increasingly important for Sweden and Europe: “That is our competitive advantage, not low wages and not high populations. We must set priorities in order to strengthen Sweden’s role as a research nation.”

The Baltic Sea Cooperation makes perfect sense, according to Batljan, who says this realization is unusually clear and simple for people who live in Nynäshamn, where boats depart daily for Poland and the Baltic countries. “We are physically connected,” he says. He has personally closely followed economic and statistical developments in the Baltic countries.

“Development in the Baltic Sea region also brings opportunities for Södertörn University, such as various partnerships with other universities.

“The university is a relatively new institution that has managed to make a name for itself with high quality and, not least importantly, the orientation toward Baltic Sea issues.”

The challenges ahead include the institution’s financial situation, but Batljan notes that “Money is always a problem, everywhere.”

Asked to name something specific he would like to achieve as chair of the university board, Batljan says that Södertörn University must get much better at communicating the quality it has already achieved and the potential found in the Baltic Sea focus: “Södertörn University must try and cut through the media clutter.”