H.E. MIRA NIKOLIĆ, Ambassador of the Republic of Serbia in the Republic of Croatia: We Don’t Have To Go Around The Same Circle

Bilateral relations between the two countries should not depend exclusively on resolving the open issues, which are politicized and they obstruct the work. On the contrary, we need to move to the phase of cooperation in areas of mutual interest, strengthen mutual trust and create a better atmosphere for resolving open issues

Responsible politics and open conversations are more necessary today than ever, having in mind the current circumstances in the world,” says H.E. Mira Nikolić, Ambassador of the Republic of Serbia to the Republic of Croatia, whose mandate will soon expire in Zagreb. Unfortunately, Serbia and Croatia have not made much progress in building such a dialogue.

What were your impressions when you came on duty here, and what impressions are you taking with you back to Belgrade?

After almost five years of my term, I’m leaving Zagreb. I believe that I’m not wrong to say that I worked here in challenging times, trying to represent my country in the best way possible. What determined me was my will to carry out my term in the best possible way, and not to give up or back down before problems. Of course, I would have loved to see at least one of the open issues resolved during my term, at least the matter of the return of cultural treasures which is de facto resolved politically, and there are only some technical details left to be resolved. This would contribute to the paving of new roads in relations of the two countries, where we could see mistakes being corrected, and the past not being repeated or looked back to.

It seems that relations be-tween the two countries range between hot and cold, going one step forward and two steps back. In your opinion, what are the biggest issues between two countries and are there some new and different ways to resolve them?

Relations between Croatia and Serbia – and I’ve emphasized this several times – are layered dynamic and burdened with a series of unresolved issues. Many times, Serbian officials have pointed out our interest in improving relations with Croatia, and that it is difficult for anyone to deny this. Serbia has not been a hostage of the 1990s for a long time and has shown readiness to face the crimes of individuals committed during this period. It is up to Croatia to accept the offered hand or not. We don’t believe that relations should depend only on the resolving of open issues, which should cease to be politicized and used as a political brake against the development of cooperation. On the contrary, we believe that it is time to show courage and move from the phase of open issues to the phase of cooperation, due to interdependence and common challenges, and a closer cooperation in many areas of mutual interest will strengthen mutual trust and atmosphere in the resolving open issues as well. If Germany and France had conditioned their cooperation with the resolving of open issues, especially after World War II, the European Union would not exist today. Instead, they bravely embarked on a phase of cooperation, growth and development, aware that the stability and prosperity of Eu-rope depended on them, just as the stability and prosperity of our region depend on our two countries. Both Croatia and Serbia should focus most sincerely on finding a common denominator, a common basis on which to build future relations. We should not build these relationships on emotional categories, because they were positive or negative, an obstacle to a rational and unencumbered approach. A responsible politics and open conversation are more necessary today than ever given the current circumstances in the world.

What are the open issues and do you expect additional conditions from the authorities in Zagreb on Serbia’s European path?

Let me remind you that interstate mixed bodies/com-missions have been established to resolve all open issues – for determining the state border, missing persons, position of minorities, return of cultural goods, succession, economic cooperation, list of persons accused of war crimes, execising the right to pensions) and that results variable. Thus, for example, resolving the is-sue of the return of cultural treasures is the one in which we have advanced the most and it is de facto politically resolved. Although the work of these bilateral commissions has been stalled since 2015, positive progress was made after the appointment of national coordinators of the two countries to resolve open issues in 2017, and it was especially intensified after the visit of the President of the Republic of Serbia to Croatia in 2018. However, their work has slowed since mid-last year, first due to preparations for the European Parliament elections and then for the presidential elections in Croatia, and after that due to the corona epidemic. We are ready to continue the work of these bilateral commissions, whose work is very important for us. Take, for example, the matter of the missing persons, which is often presented as a priority in Croatia. Do not doubt that this is primarily a humanitarian issue, and it is of the same importance for us as it is for the Croatian side, bearing in mind that almost half of the missing persons are Serbs, whose fate we want to shed light on, for their families, for the future and for the reconciliation in the region. When it comes to additional conditions on Serbia’s Europe-an path, I honestly hope that this will not happen. I will remind you that the Croatian Parliament, taught by Croatia’s negative experiences on the path to European integration, adopted the Declaration on the Promotion of European Values in Southeast Europe in October 2011, pledging not to condition the European integration of countries in the region with bilateral issues. Although I sincerely believe that the Croatian side will stick to its own decisions, I repeat that everything depends on the economic situation and the political actors in pow-er and their assessments of whether conditioning and raising tensions are in Croatia’s interest. I don’t have to repeat that countries that develop the well-being of all their citizens are satisfied countries, which are aware that the improvement of growth and development depends on the best possible relations with all neighbours.

On the other hand, the two countries and nations are very knowledgeable about each other and well connected. What are the good things you would point out in relations between Serbia and Croatia?

Our nations are directed at each other and imbued for centuries, and I would mention the middle of the 19th century and the period of the struggle for national liberation from foreign rule as a period of the closest possible cooperation, support and help. The fact that we have different understandings of the role and our position in the common country, Yugoslavia, as well as during the period of its disintegration, which remain different, should not prevent us from developing a pragmatic cooperation in mutual interest today, when we have nation states and mutual minorities as bridges of cooperation. At the same time, we need to resolve the remaining open issues and achieve specific legitimate interests, including, on our side, the return and realization of all the rights of Serb refugees from Croatia, as well as care for improving the position of the Serb minority in Croatia. In any case, there are increasingly stronger positive examples of good cooperation between the two countries, i.e. niches for improving cooperation, that are not so visible to the public, primarily in the fields of economy, education (scientific research) and culture, especially theatre and music, the media, participation in joint cross-border cooperation projects, strengthening the civil society cooperation. There is also police cooperation and cooperation in the field of emergency situations. All this additionally encourages and justifies our expectations that the level of political relations will be raised to a higher level.

How much do the political elites in the government, which are changing, affect the improvement or deterioration of mutual relations?

Of course that the political elites affect the relations of the two countries, they set the public tone and steer these relations. However, I am glad to see that there are more and more young people who are networking, who are fed up with the narratives about Ustashas and Chetniks and who primarily want a better life for them-selves and for their families. At the same time, I am saddened by the fact that an increasing number of people primarily see their future abroad, also due to economic difficulties. This is why we could work together on resolving this issue, which is a priority for both countries. When it comes to political relations, I might be an idealist, but I do believe that the time will come when both Croatia and Serbia will find some minimum common denominator on the confronting truths”. Until that happens, we will have to get used to coexistence and cooperation with such “truths”. What we need is a dialogue focused on improvement of relations on all levels and the future. We are wiser that we might appear to ourselves sometimes, and precisely this is why it is high time to show that we are capable of solving problems in a practical way and striving to achieve betterment for all our citizens.

Economic cooperation seems to be taking its course, beyond the political one. Al-though, at first glance, Croatian companies invest more in Serbia than vice versa, Serbia is recording a deficit in cooperation with the other side. What are the obstacles for stronger economic cooperation and possibly joint access to third markets?

If we were to look at the level of Croatian investments in Serbia amounting to over EUR 800 million with 200 Croatian companies registered in Serbia, against the EUR 8 million of Serbian investments in Croatia, one might thing that Croatia’s primary interest is to develop good relations with Serbia, one of the most significant investment destinations for Croatian capital. With this, Serbia has demonstrated that it is open to reliable foreign capital and that it doesn’t count the investors’ blood cells or develop conspiracy theories about someone else taking control over the country. Serbian investments in Croatia are low, on the other hand, even though there is great interest in them, which is normal when it comes to two neighbouring countries, but every attempt to carry out these investments is still faced with distrust towards companies from the Republic of Serbia. Is this good in a situation where nobody believes anymore in fairy tales that an investor from “a desirable country” is in any way better than an investor from some other country, because everybody’s common denominator is only the profit? It’s not up to me to answer this question, I’ll leave it up to others, with hope that things will change.

What are you taking with you as the best memory from Zagreb and what will you tell your friends and colleagues about your stay here?

Zagreb, or Croatia, the country I was born in, where I finished elementary school and grammar school, where I started my studies, is not unknown or foreign to me, although I am aware of the risk that someone might interpret this maliciously. I came to Zagreb with a completely realistic idea of the country where I was to spend my term and the problems I would face. Although I worked here in a period that could be described as more than dynamic and complex in relations between the two countries, I want to take this opportunity primarily to thank the representatives of the competent state bodies of the Republic of Croatia, especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Croatia, for their good cooperation, which was especially evident in these challenging times of dealing with the COVID-19 epidemic. As for my stay in Croatia, I will forever bring with me the experience of working in a beautiful country, and the wonderful people and new friends I made during my term. I will bring with me Zagreb’s open spirit, the feeling that I’m not a foreigner in this city and that it will always welcome me openly whenever I return, with its specific sense of humour that breaks the monotony of everyday life.