To our satisfaction, the process of resolving open issues picked up the pace in 2018 thanks to the special contribution by the President of the Republic of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, the President of the Republic of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić and their respective teams. We want this trend to continue in 2019 too.
The state and national interests of Serbia and Croatia far exceed the daily politics. Maybe for a long time, we will not be able to build a true friendship in our relations, but it is absolutely necessary to forge a cooperation on a rational foundation – says H.E. Ms Mira Nikolić, the Ambassador of the Republic of Serbia to the Republic of Croatia, with whom we talked about a number of current issues in bilateral relations between Serbia and Croatia.
1. You were appointed Serbian ambassador to Croatia at a very sensitive time when the relations between the two countries were somewhat strained. What is the situation today, four years later?
First and foremost, I would like to highlight that the comprehensive improvement in the relations and cooperation with the Republic of Croatia is especially important for Serbia. Hence, our aim is for our relations to be based on mutual respect, understanding, the principles of good neighbourly conduct and common European values. We should not build our relationships on irrational categories, because they, whether positive or negative, are an obstacle to a rational and unburdened approach. In that sense, we should recognize the evident common interests, given that our two countries rely on each other, as the main pillar of our relations and prosperity for both countries.
Unfortunately, even after all these years, bilateral relations between the two countries are not at the level that they should be and what we would like them to be. These relations are complex, layered, cover different areas and are at different levels. However, we should bear in mind that they are also encumbered with events from the recent and older past, as well as with a series of unresolved bilateral issues.
2. As a diplomat, you served in various countries. What is your view of the challenges that the bilateral relations between the two countries had to endure? Are they given too much or not enough media attention?
As I have already mentioned, the challenges in the bilateral relations between the two countries are still present. Slow resolution of open issues represents a burden for both countries and contributes to the unnecessary creation of a climate of distrust between the two neighbouring countries and nations. We should point out that our state and national interests far exceed the daily politics. Maybe for a long time, we will not be able to build a true friendship in our relations, but it is absolutely necessary to forge cooperation on a rational foundation.
I think it’s time to leave the past in the past and move forward. There are many missed opportunities behind us and we are constantly running around in circles. As soon as we start thinking that we have made a step forward, we make two or three steps back. We have to learn from the past not to repeat the same things over and over again. Also, this past is rife with moments that both Serbs and Croats can be extremely proud of.
The active and constructive functioning of the media is something that certainly contributes to the creation of an overwhelmingly positive atmosphere. However, some media report about certain issues plaguing bilateral relations exclusively in the sensationalist context, not ignoring the negative connotations and not being mindful of the consequences that such reporting may have.
3. Which segments of the bilateral cooperation would you like to single out as especially successful?
Regardless of the current aggravating circumstances, there are areas of cooperation between Serbia and Croatia that are very satisfactory. First and foremost, I would like to single out economic cooperation, primarily in the segment of trade and investments. To illustrate this, I would like to mention that, after a long time of inactivity, a meeting of the Intergovernmental Mixed Committee for Economic Cooperation between Serbia and Croatia was held in 2018.
For the second consecutive year, the value of the external trade between the two countries exceeded a billion euro and is constantly growing. It is our intent to perpetuate this trend. When it comes to investments, we have to say that Croatian investments in Serbia far outweigh Serbian investments in Croatia. Also, Croatian companies are much more represented in Serbia (there are 1,372 active business entities in Serbia that are majority owned by legal and/or physical persons from the Republic of Croatia). Most of them have had positive experiences in Serbia. The reason for this can be found both in the attractiveness and potential of the Serbian market, as well as in its openness which is something that the state can do a lot about. In this context, and especially after the visit of Serbian President, Aleksandar Vučić to Croatia in February 2018, Serbia expects from Croatia to show a higher level of openness to investments from Serbia, as this is something that our business people constantly reiterate. The importance of economic cooperation is also reflected in the fact that Croatia has re-opened the representative office of the Croatian Chamber of Economy in Belgrade after a long time.
Another segment of cooperation that has achieved great results is the one in the culture which, considering the similarities in our languages and the fact that we belong to a similar cultural milieu, is a good example for other types of cooperation. This was also noted during the recent meeting of the Serbian Minister of Culture and Information, Vladan Vukosavljević and the Croatian Minister of Culture, Nina Obuljen-Koržinek. The return of cultural property, as one of the open issues between the two countries, is an area where we made the biggest progress. Politically speaking, there are no open issues in this segment any more with all that needs to be done is to resolve certain technical issues.
4. What open issues have you been working on together with your Croatian counterparts, and what are your priorities?
The process of resolving open issues picked up the pace in 2018 to mutual satisfaction. What is particularly important is that both sides have demonstrated the will to resolve these open issues, such as the issue of the missing persons, the status of national minorities, the state border marcation, the prosecution of war crimes, the succession of the former SFRY, in particular the issues related to the Annex G, and other issues that burden the relations between our two countries. President of the Republic of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarević and President of the Republic of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić and their respective teams gave a special impetus to solving open issues. In this sense, together with our Croatian counterparts, we are working on intensifying political dialogue within existing and new mechanisms and boosting the trust between the two countries. At every single occasion, the Republic of Serbia and its officials underline the need for improving relations and political dialogue. We want this trend to continue in 2019 too.
5. Considering the current situation, what would you consider the biggest diplomatic success in 2019?
Bearing in mind the overall relations between the two countries, as well as open issues that have been going back years, it is rather unfair to give forecasts or to expect that some things can be solved overnight. However, our expectations are that the existing mechanisms continue to actively pursue open issues this year too, along with the bilateral official visits at the highest level that would give an impetus to the entire process. As I have already pointed out, we expect to finalize the issue of the return of cultural property, with a special accent on further efforts to solve the issue of missing persons and the improvement of the status of national minorities, as well as talks on the drafting of agreements on issues of war crimes prosecution, plus on other issues that are the subject of the dialogue that takes place between the relevant working bodies.
6. One of the issues that were being dealt with on the bilateral level and under the framework of the EU integration process, is the issue of the position of the Serbian national minority in Croatia and the Croatian national minority in Serbia. What is the current situation in this area?
The issue of national minorities is high on the agenda in the relations between Croatia and Serbia and is part of the dialogue that is being held under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Mixed Committee for Minorities, which is supposed to meet in late February this year in Zagreb. Both countries have a good legal framework that regulates the position of minorities, which is a good basis for continuing the dialogue on the improvement of their position, which is something that Serbia has always been open to and ready.
When it comes to the rights of Croats in Serbia, the majority of the things that were agreed are implemented, as confirmed by the President of the Democratic Alliance of Croats in Vojvodina, Tomislav Žigmanov.
As far as the Serbs in Croatia are concerned, this issue is much more complex and more difficult to resolve due to a sheer number and nature of issues. As far as I can see, according to the Serbs living in the Republic of Croatia, a number of key issues such as education issues, official use of the Cyrillic alphabet, sustainable development, re-electrification, etc. have not yet been adequately addressed. Unfortunately, as we have been informed, a big obstacle is the denial of crimes committed in World War II, as well as an increase in hate speech and intolerance.
We are aware that the issue of the position of minorities is very important also in the EU integration context. We have a very ambitious Action Plan for chapters 23 and 24 concerning the rule of law, which implementation, or progress, is closely monitored not only by the EU but by the Member States too. I want to underline that Serbia is using all of the most important international mechanisms related to the promotion of minority rights, and we hope that our efforts in this context will be recognized by Croatia.
8. In contrast to politics and somewhat stagnant economic relations, cultural exchange is emerging as an example of good cooperation. What particular events would you like to highlight as contributing the most to the cultivation of good relations?
Of course, cultural events are always a good way to bring countries and nations together. I would like to single out the guest performances of theatres and cultural and artistic societies (especially the excellent cooperation between Lado and Kolo ensembles), the exchange of museum collections and exhibitions, the cooperation between film artists, as well as the individual artistic performances. Also, I would like to highlight popular gatherings especially of young people, such as concerts and festivals. Among the numerous projects, I would like to also single out the cooperation between the cities that have both been declared the European capitals of culture – Rijeka (2020) and Novi Sad (2021). It is certainly worth mentioning the Day of the Serbian Culture organized by the Serbian National Council and the Prosvjeta Serbian Cultural Society in cooperation and with the help of the Embassy and Consul General of the Republic of Serbia. Also, with the help of the Serbian National Council and in cooperation with the Croatian Film Union, the Serbian Film Centre and the Yugoslav Film Archive, the Embassy has been organizing the Days of Serbian Film in Zagreb for two years now which proved to be quite popular with the audiences.
Furthermore, bilateral visits by state and local officials at all levels give a good impetus to the cooperation which keeps the dialogue alive and encourages the resolution of open issues. This year we already had a visit of the Serbian Minister of Culture and Information and Minister of Justice, Vladan Vukosavljević and Nela Kuburović respectively, but we also expect visits by other officials.
Also, I would like to emphasize the importance of holding meetings of mixed committees and other bodies for resolving open issues, since we should not allow this process to stagnate or die out in any segment, despite being well aware that some topics are not pleasant for either side.
9. In the first half of 2020, Croatia will assume presidency over the EU and during that period, the question of EU accession of the Western Balkan countries will be at the forefront again. What are your expectations from this presidency in terms of Serbia’s integration into the EU?
First of all, I would like to use this opportunity to wish Croatia a successful presidency over the Council of the EU which comes at the time when the EU is facing serious challenges and visible enlargement fatigue. I would also like to express our appreciation and support that Croatia provides to the EU enlargement in SEE and especially the fact that Croatia will treat enlargement as a priority issue during its presidency. Plus, we welcome Croatia’s plan to hold a high-level summit dedicated to the enlargement, 20 years after the first summit in Zagreb.
In regard to Serbia’s accession process, our government has underlined several times that it was willing to continue serious and important reforms that are closely tied to the EU integration process and are in the best interest of our citizens. From Croatia, as a neighbouring country, we mostly expect a constructive approach, neighbourly support and the support in sharing their experiences with us. It is important to underline that Serbia is investing a lot of effort internally in order to create prerequisites for opening of the remaining accession chapters and that Croatia, once it assumes its presidency over the EU, will do everything in its power to help us with our accession path, in the context of promotion of European values.