Fifteen-year-old Yane Svetiev left his home in Skopje (now in North Macedonia) with his family in 1991, amid escalating tensions in the former Yugoslavia, unsure of what lay ahead in Australia.
“There was a sense of disbelief among people around me at the news of tanks rolling out, and the potential for serious conflict in the region,” he says.
“There was a referendum for Macedonia’s independence, and we left shortly after that. I remember that a three-month moratorium on the initial war in Slovenia ended on the day we left on one of the last flights of Yugoslav Airlines.”
Even so, he felt a sense of adventure, rather than danger. He had always had an enquiring mind – even as a preschooler, at nap time he could be found conversing with the cook in the kitchen of his kindergarten, rather than sleeping like the other children.
“I was not really sure that the move to Australia was permanent. So it felt like a new experience, not necessarily like I was leaving behind my existing life.”
Fast-forward to 2023 and Professor Svetiev’s enquiring mind has taken him around the world via various academic appointments, from the University of Sydney to Columbia and Brooklyn Law School in New York, Bocconi University and the European University Institute in Italy.
He has also been a visiting professor in Germany, Spain, Brazil and Israel. He worked as a lawyer in New York, after receiving his doctorate from Columbia Law School. Oh, and he speaks English, Macedonian, Italian, Serbo-Croatian and French.
For a kid who didn’t have a valid passport for some years, after the old Yugoslavia ceased to exist, it’s been quite a journey.
“I never thought I would end up in law, because I wasn’t sure that I would be any good at it – particularly [as] someone who had English as a second language,” Professor Svetiev says.
“I came back to study at the University of Sydney, where I felt much more socially embedded and connected with people than in high school. It was clear that this is where I was going to be for some time.
Although he had started learning English at age seven, Professor Svetiev found that to converse and study in another language was not so easy. However, after a brief stint at an intensive learning centre, he slotted into the New South Wales public education system. When he received top marks in the Higher School Certificate, he decided to study a Bachelor of Economics and Bachelor of Laws – but only after he seriously contemplated returning to his country of birth.
"I had a longing to go back, so I flew to Europe and thought maybe I would study in Macedonia. Then I realised that the effects of the war were all around, including border closures and sanctions. My friends thought I was silly to want to leave Australia.
“So I came back to study at the University of Sydney, where I felt much more socially embedded and connected with people than in high school. It was clear that this is where I was going to be for some time.”
Recently promoted to the role of Professor at the University, with a Chair in Market Regulation and Private Law, Professor Svetiev is also the Associate Dean (Research Education) in the University of Sydney Law School. He is currently researching the use of peer review in financial regulation in Australia with colleague, Associate Professor Andrew Edgar (PhD ’07), through an Australian Research Council Discovery grant.
“It is a somewhat unusual mechanism where decisions, rules and regulations in Australian financial regulation are reviewed by committees of officials or experts from other countries. You might ask, ‘Why are foreign committees telling us what we should be doing?’ Actually, when different countries are pursuing similar and difficult objectives, like financial stability, it’s not so unusual for our regulators to look at what others are doing.
"It’s important that we’re aware of where our financial regulation framework comes from, so that we can make more deliberate and considered choices about how and why we draw on the experiences of other countries.”
When SAM talked to Professor Svetiev, he had just returned from Europe where he has ongoing links and collaborations, including co-authoring a book on using private law to regulate markets. He says the transnational dimension to his work reflects both his personal background and the evolution of his research.
“What I have observed is that there are so many similarities in how we regulate markets that I could teach a class in the US, in Europe or in Australia without much problem, even if law is often seen to be national.”
Although most of his work has been in academia, among his career highlights Professor Svetiev includes his work as a litigation associate in New York, and his time as an associate to the Hon. Michael Kirby (BA ’59, LLB ’62, BEc ’66, LLM ’67), then a Justice of the High Court of Australia.
“These experiences gave me a reality check about what you can and can’t do through law and the courts. They also inspired me to go back and continue with research in law. But the exposure to other fields, like economics, means that I maintain an interdisciplinary perspective in my work.”
During his undergraduate studies, he had an almost accidental success in attracting scholarships. Initially, he was awarded an Australian Government scholarship and an E Trenchard Miller Scholarship, based on his school results. Throughout his studies, he was awarded Commonwealth Bank scholarships for Economics and Econometrics, the George and Matilda Harris Scholarship for Law, and various prizes.
“I’m pretty sure that I didn’t apply for any scholarships,” Professor Svetiev says. “It was partly because I just didn’t know what was out there and partly because I didn’t think I would be entitled to any.”
When you’ve just arrived in the country, you face great uncertainty and you’re happy to just be allowed to continue your studies. But when somebody recognises what you’ve achieved, I think the joy is double – it’s very uplifting.
He did, however, apply for a Travelling Scholarship to help him to go on an exchange semester to Cornell Law School, which opened new doors for him in the United States. He says his career wouldn’t have been possible without them.
“When you’ve just arrived in the country, you face great uncertainty and you’re happy to just be allowed to continue your studies,” Professor Svetiev says. “But when somebody recognises what you’ve achieved, I think the joy is double – it’s very uplifting.”
His career has now led him back to Australia. “When I first went away, I thought it would be for a short time. I ended up in New York and then Europe for a total of 15 years. I didn’t think that I would come back to Australia. However, I was always reminded of something Michael Kirby said to me, that I should find a way to give back to the country that offered many opportunities to me.
“When I was offered the position at the University of Sydney, I thought this was an opportunity to see if I can apply what I’ve learnt and share my experiences.”
Professor Svetiev says that he again feels socially embedded in the place where he is living and working. “I really like mentoring researchers and creating opportunities for their future contribution, wherever it may be. It’s a real passion of mine.”
Written by Cassandra Hill for Sydney Alumni Magazine. Photography by Stefanie Zingsheim
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