Interview with Bojan Glavašević, vice-president of the Committee on European Affairs of the Croatian parliament and an MP of the Socialdemocratic Party of Croatia (SDP). Glavašević is also the former chief of staff of the Ministry of Croatian veterans and assistant to the Minister of Croatian veterans. He was awarded the Krunoslav Sukić peace prize in 2014. for his contribution to building a “tolerant and peaceful society in the Republic of Croatia”.
European Western Balkans: What do you see as the major benefits of Croatia’s entry into the European Union and which are currently the major challenges for Croatia in terms of further integration into the different structures of the Union, primarily into the Eurozone, or any potential deepening of the integration in the EU?
Bojan Glavašević: There are certainly a lot of benefits. If we look chronologically, I think that the pre-accession process itself had brought many benefits to Croatia. So, no matter how complicated this process was and how hard it was, Croatia, through its accession negotiations, became a better and a more just place to live by harmonizing its legislation with the acquis communautaire. In that period, we really “adjusted” our judiciary and the rule of law, and introduced a better system of what is called “checks and balances”.
There were also pre-accession funds, which enabled us to make great things for some parts of Croatia that were less developed, and when we became a member of the EU, the funds available to us increased. Of course, academic mobility and freedom of movement, which are immanent to the European Union, have a share in that as well.
Indeed, the benefits are quite abundant and I think that, if we talk about challenges, the real challenge for countries like Croatia is that they are new in democracy. Personally, I see a huge difference between countries that have had a real democracy for over sixty years and those who, in fact, have not developed a democracy after the Second World War and this particularly has left its mark.
Furthermore, there has been a change in the paradigm of the European Union as an element of foreign policy to thinking about the European Union as something we are all part of. So, European politics and the European level are above the national level, but they are no longer part of the foreign affairs. Adopting this way of thinking and the supranational awareness that we are part of a single Union, which, if federal someday, I will be content, because I think that deeper integration in Europe will be a great thing. But the difference in perceptions towards the EU and the way this affects the participation in the Union is, in my opinion, a great challenge.
EWB: A significant role that EU member states adjacent to the countries of the Western Balkans can play in terms of using the European integrations of these countries to resolve some of their bilateral disputes has been often discussed. We had a case of Slovenia blocking Croatia, we had last year’s Croatian blockade of Serbia’s accession talks, and there is an array of topics that can appear on the agenda. Croatia has open bilateral issues with both Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina when it comes to countries that are striving for EU membership. What is your opinion on that? Is it a serious threat and is it something that is legitimate to be used at all?
BG: The first and the most important thing to say is that Croatia’s strategic interest is that the neighbouring countries enter the European Union as soon as possible. This applies to both BiH and Serbia. Of course, as I said, the pre-accession process has its own benefits. The European Union has very high standards of democracy, the rule of law, the freedom of the media, and when time comes to talk about it, for example through chapter 23, with Bosnia and Herzegovina and with Serbia, Croatia will certainly not use bilateral issues as a lever in the pre-accession process of these countries.
The fact is that a good part of what Croatia’s and Serbia’s bilateral issues are, if we talk about missing persons, Croatia’s concern about Serbia’s freedom of media and the rule of law, the rights of minorities, are all these things that will be dealt with in accession negotiations.
We complained that Slovenia blocked us because of bilateral issues. Croatia will certainly not act in this manner, but part of what bilateral issues are, in fact, are the issues that Serbia will have to solve, not because of us, but because of itself and its ambition to be part of the European Union.
I really think that the strategic interest of the Republic of Croatia is for the neighbouring countries to enter the EU as soon as possible and, after all, Croatia has been acting as a partner all the time, starting with the fact that we have given the complete documentation from the pre-accession process to Serbia. Therefore, Croatia has always been there for neighbouring countries, regardless of the fact that our relations have occasionally been very tense. For example, I think that the current relationship with Serbia is at its lowest point if one observes the last decade and at one of the lowest points since the war. I also believe that there is plenty of room for improvement and our bilateral relationship will not affect our will to realise our strategic interest and help the surrounding countries enter the European Union as soon as possible. For example, the border on the Danube will not be something over which we will block Serbia.
EWB: Do you think that this Croatian government, which shares an ideological affiliation with the central governments in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, provides sufficient support to these countries in the accession process?
BG: I would assess the policy of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) towards Bosnia and Herzegovina as not particularly good, because its policy towards BiH is exclusively a policy towards the Croatian component, and not towards BiH as a comprehensive state. This is my remark. I think it would be much better for BiH if Croatia had a different approach to this country. On the other hand, although this is not an excuse, the fact is that Serbia is approaching the Republic of Srpska in a very similar way. I think that the entire region should change its approach to BiH so that things in Bosnia and Herzegovina change for the better.
Concerning the participation of the Serbian Progressive Party in the European People’s Party (EPP) and Croatia’s support for it, I think it is just an illustration of what I said earlier, that Croatia and the HDZ will not use bilateral misunderstandings to block the progress of Serbia and some other countries towards the European Union.
EWB: If we are talking about reconciliation and the process of reconciliation that was at its peak, at least when it comes to Serbia and Croatia, during the mandates of President Josipović and President Tadić, it seems that the process has been regressing ever since and that everything that had been achieved in the last twenty years has been somehow endangered by the media titles, appearances of some politicians in the public sphere, etc.. How do you see the state of the reconciliation process, is it jeopardized to such an extent, or is it a temporary crisis that will be overcome?
BG: The question is how to define reconciliation. For instance, tourists from Serbia are normally spending their holidays on the Adriatic, though with periodic incidents, but the reaction of the Croatian police and the judiciary is very prompt. On the other hand, a lot of my friends were now at the concert of Nick Cave in Belgrade and it was certainly not their first time in the city. Grabar Kitarović and Vučić met at the bridge on the Danube, and she practically spoke about him as a friend of hers.
Reconciliation in this real-political sense actually took place in ancient days, I would say. What remains are the open bilateral questions. For example, Croatia and Serbia have sorted out some things much better, at least temporarily, than have Croatia and Slovenia. So, we still have with Slovenia an open border issue on the Adriatic and the land borders, and for years we have had incidents. On the other hand, the border with Serbia on the Danube has for years been an exclusively diplomatic issue, not a daily political one.
The real issue between Croatia and Serbia, in my opinion, is the issue of missing persons from the Homeland War. So, this is the most painful issue in Croatia’s relations with Serbia and where the cooperation between Serbia and Croatia is absolutely unsatisfactory, and I can say that from the perspective of a person who dealt with it as Assistant to the Minister in the Ministry of Croatian Veterans, who was in charge of missing persons. Cooperation does exist, but we consider that there is a lot of room for improvement.
Of course, Serbia has its own interpretation of that. Now I’m speaking from a position that I can represent. There are also things that Serbia will resent to Croatia, but I say, these are things that can be resolved bilaterally and which, once they are no longer the potential material for daily political debates within Serbia and Croatia, will open the way for much better mutual relations.
EWB: Lately there have been talks about the Russian influence, both in the Western Balkans and in Eastern Europe, as well as in the rest of Europe, and recently we even had a letter signed by seven EU members about the threat of Russian influence in Europe, which was also signed by Croatia. How do you see the influence of Russia and the danger of Russia’s influence particularly in Croatia and in the wider region, bearing in mind the visit of President Grabar Kitarović to Moscow? There have also been more talks about a certain level of Russian influence on the Croats in BiH.
BG: I think it is really no longer a dispute whether the Russian influence in the region is strengthening or not. This region has always been interesting geopolitically to Russia and it still is today. But, following the withdrawal of US policy from the region – of course, it did not completely withdraw – we face Russia’s will to occupy that space.
In general, in the European Union, Russia’s influence is strengthening. In Croatia, it is at the moment mostly visible in the issue of Agrokor. So, this is a question that relates to some estimates to 16% of Croatia’s GDP and one of the largest creditors is VTB iSber Bank, a bank owned by the Russian state. The very fact that these Russian banks wanted, and we know what the structure is in those banks, to offer credit to this company when nobody wanted, I think it is perfectly clear that someone has made a calculation that does not have to be only financial. At the moment, this is a major question for us, as there is an objective danger that, in some way, a huge percentage of our GDP can be influenced by some foreign power.
Nevertheless, Russian influence in Croatia is somewhat smaller and it is in connection to some political options. For example, Tomislav Karamarko, the former president of the HDZ, was in a conflict of interest, and in this story, the funding from Russia was, among other things, quite transparent.
In Serbia, of course, this influence is stronger, owing to a willing cooperation and the fact that there are many powerful Russian companies there, starting with Gazprom. We saw in Montenegro that this Russian influence and the attempt of a political intervention failed. The impact remains, but to a much lesser degree.
Regarding the thesis that brought the Russian capital in relation to the Croats in BiH, the strongest political options in BiH are, in fact, tied to the HDZ. If the HDZ in Croatia, at least part of it, was in some way tied to the Russian capital, especially this radical power within the HDZ, it is very likely that such a link would exist within the HDZ BiH. I think that the struggle against the influence of any foreign force that we do not consider as an ally in the region must be comprehensive. There must be a consensus on countering a foreign force.