We are important to each other, and it is important for Croatia that Serbia continues and completes its path towards the European Union membership, that we share the same values and that we regulate and develop our relations on mutually accepted principles.
In the fifth edition of the InFocus Croatia special, we spoke with the new Croatian ambassador to Serbia, H.E. Hidajet Biščević, about the relations between Serbia and Croatia, if the political elites are ready to leave the past behind, why it is better to live by building bridges than walls, as well as about his return to Belgrade, which, for him, is a kind of “return to the future”.
“We cannot deny the fact that we are continuing to move in the direction of respect and goodwill, as Momčilo Djorgović said in “The Tragedy of a Nation”, voicing his expectations. I share with him, as well as with countless people who make “a silent majority” that does not want to fall into the traps of hatred and revenge, who do not want to scream profanities in stadiums, and who reject the media propaganda, this fundamental doubt in a constantly transferable thesis that no god or devil can reconcile the Serbs and the Croats,” says Mr. Biščević.
You are the first Croatian diplomat who was in the then secret mission in Belgrade in 1995 when the Agreement on the Normalization of Relations between Serbia and Croatia was signed. Today, you are the Ambassador of Croatia to Serbia. What has changed in the relations between our two countries in these last 25 years?
When I look at that period from today’s perspective, I feel as if my arrival in Belgrade, in Serbia, is almost like a kind of “return to the future”, like closing a circle. Twenty five years ago, I had a huge professional and personal desire to succeed, namely, after all that had happened, I was guided by a seemingly simple thought in this first mission aimed at the normalization of our relations, which people unfortunately find very difficult in life, especially in political life, and that is to forget nothing but to be aware that we need to go forward. At first glance, it may seem that little has changed in those 25 years and that “normalization” still needs to be carried out. You see, even that word speaks for itself! “Sparks” are still flying around, we are still sort of obsessed with each other, there is nevertheless a certain “sociology of generalization” in place, we are still “all Serbs” and “all Croats”, irrational fears and mutual suspicion are still exchanged, new generations are listening to old stereotypes and we are witnessing rejection and rewriting of history.
Yet, we cannot deny the fact that we are continuing to move in the direction of respect and goodwill, as Momčilo Djorgović said in “The Tragedy of a Nation”, voicing his expectations. I share with him, as well as with countless people who make “a silent majority” who does not want to fall into the traps of hatred and revenge, who does not want to scream profanities in stadiums, and who rejects the media propaganda, this fundamental doubt in a constantly transferable thesis that no god or devil can reconcile the Serbs and the Croats
History, geography, religion, the life of the two countries at the crossroads… I know how much weight all of this has. I know how much it has dictated political relations and national characters. Nevertheless, I believe in the aforementioned respect and goodwill, which, as the initial principle of the real, full and deep normalization, can begin to prevail when this part of Europe, after more than a quarter of a century, just once, ceases to be “a powder keg”, where there are the perpetuation of a constant crisis, unfinished conflicts, unfinished peace, frozen conflicts… All this creates an atmosphere of mistrust and tension where there is constantly the search for “the culprits”.
Unresolved and open issues in the region always leave room venting out towards one of the neighbours and this is a never-ending circle. To top it all, these issues somehow make it into “the baskets” of renewed conflicts of interest of the great powers in this area, so “all Serbs” and “all Croats”, mostly unknowingly, become pawns in other people’s games. We signed an agreement on normalization 25 years ago at a time when the relations between the big ‘players’ were almost “normal”. Today, everything has changed in the relations between the superpowers, which makes our task even more difficult, but also more needed because it is always better to live by building bridges than walls.
You were the first Croatian diplomat to become an EU ambassador, and you were also the Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council in Southeast Europe. Serbia is a part of the Western Balkans, as well as involved in various initiatives, like the Berlin Process, the mini Schengen, regionalization… How important is to open borders, in the broadest sense, and leave “the chains of the past” behind in terms of the relations between Croatia and Serbia?
Leaving the past behind means knowing how to live in peace with the world. Leaving the past behind means knowing how to be open. Leaving the past behind means knowing how to recognize the other. It seems to me that, unfortunately, the political elites in this area are largely unprepared or even incapable of thinking and acting in the modernity of today’s world, as well as incapable of recognizing or even understanding the values that govern modern policies. Let me illustrate this for you. Democracy, rule of law, tolerance, and compromise … Just think to what extent and how deeply political elites act according to these value principles? It is more acceptable to “close the borders” because they are afraid of open borders. It is easier to be a charismatic preacher in the countryside than a coherent speaker in Brussels.
This closed mind mentality, which is coated in “the great care” for the “people” and an even “greater patriotism”, keeps whole societies in a kind of captivity, in addition to the media lobotomy. We simply need to overcome that. Here, in Serbia, you will see this in various examples. For instance, back in the day, there were protests against building railways, i.e. that by refusing to build railways you are “protecting people”. This happened at a time when only a third of the population had a bed to sleep in. Or, in today’s Croatia, being against reconstruction of the railway because it stretches from Zagreb to Belgrade, so we choose to travel on ancient trains, which are an example of civilizational backwardness, only because which that’s “patriotic”. We are talking about trains that smell of roast chicken wrapped up in newspapers, have dirty floors and smoke-filled compartments, while, at the same time, the negotiations on the EU membership are going on; the negotiations that few people see as the final chance to resolve the historically rooted dichotomy between modernity and self-sufficiency.
How important are Serbia and Croatia to each other now, and in the future, when Serbia becomes a full-fledged member of the European Union?
You may think I’m exaggerating, but the example of Croatia and Serbia, along with all other examples in this “world of chaos” and the world of almost open competition between two opposing types of governance, is also a measure of the willingness and ability of countries to anchor themselves in a democratic system, that is the system where rights are expected and which nurtures human and minority rights, i.e. the system of liberal democracy based on a sovereign nation-state, open to cooperation and transformed into multilateralism as a prerequisite for peace and stability. We are so important to each other, so it is important for Croatia that Serbia continues and completes its path to the European Union, that we share the same values and that we regulate and develop our relations on mutually accepted principles. It is also important that, in this way, we validate that the relations between Croatia and Serbia are a pillar of stability in this part of Europe.
This is our fifth edition in which we cover the overall relations between the two countries. It seems that Croatia and Serbia do not have any big open issues concerning today’s relations, except for “the turbulent past”. Where do you see room for improving bilateral and economic relations?
I agree with you. We do not have big bilateral open issues and our political relations are, to say the least, in a kind of “stable stagnation”. What the radically changed international circumstances call for today is precisely the overcoming of this “stagnation” and making a step into such mutual relations in which we will share the same values, standards and principles, so as not to leave this part of Europe to the unknowns of already open geopolitical competitions. Therefore, full awareness of possible scenarios and political will have to replace stagnation with new dynamics and new dynamics require new tools. Thus, a new impetus to political dialogue and new energy for resolving inherited unresolved issues, that are seemingly “small issues” but have a very large impact on mutual relations, are required. I will just mention the example of missing persons. As far as the economy is concerned, the situation is much better and the external trade between the two countries has been steadily growing. It has only declined slightly during this months-long crisis and market closure due to the coronavirus.
COVID-19 and the pandemic are unavoidable topics. They affect the daily lives of all of us, but also the movement in the country and especially the economy. Can you give us some predictions in terms of the impact of the situation on the Croatian economy, especially on tourism?
It is really difficult to make predictions in circumstances when the duration of the corona-induced crisis is unpredictable, when the so-called second wave could happen, when there is no reliable answer about the future intensity of action, when we don’t know which are the most endangered destinations, etc. There is no doubt that this crisis has dealt a severe blow to one of the most important sectors of the Croatian economy. But, on the other hand, a serious, timely, comprehensive and convincing response of the state authorities to the pandemic in Croatia in this sector, which is the most sensitive sector from the point of view of human contacts, travel and isolation, has left open channels for tourists. For instance, there are almost 400,000 tourists in Croatia at the moment, probably more than in any other tourist country in Europe. I can’t talk about the percentages of a possible return to previous incomes. We will be able to do that only at the end of the season, and it all depends on the further development of the situation with the coronavirus, but I suspect that, after the crisis and in light of all human reactions to the crisis, the entire tourism industry will have to start devising completely new strategies, new products and new forms of offers. The mass collective type of tourism based on the “transfer – hotel – transfer” model could easily become a thing of the past.
Is there a chance that something will change, that Croatian tourism will manage to overcome the current crisis, and has Croatia prepared promotional offers and discounts that could contribute to overcoming the situation?
As I said earlier, the state is doing everything in its power to help overcome this truly extraordinary and completely unexpected blow. At the same time, profiling Croatia as a country that responded to this blow in a timely and responsible manner has helped stabilize the economy, ensured that there was no dramatic rise in unemployment and that general social stability is still intact. All this creates the country’s image and affects decisions to travel and visit. Furthermore, just as the crisis has reached its peak, Zagreb and its surroundings were hit by a terrible earthquake. However, the way we responded to that problem did not jeopardize the idea of Croatia as a stable and safe country, and therefore a safe travel destination. We have launched bilateral talks with several countries regarding “safe channels”. For example, we have launched the so-called “train to coastline” project with the Czech Republic, which will help tens of thousands of Czech tourists to arrive safely and directly in the Adriatic.
The parliamentary election in Croatia has just ended. What is your view of the election results and what can they bring to Croatia?
As you know, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) had a landslide victory in the election. Now, Prime Minister Plenković, as party president, will be in a position to secure the required majority relatively quickly so the President of the Republic can give him the mandate to put a new government together. I think that this process will go very quickly, not only because of the convincing election victory by the HDZ, but also because this landslide victory shows that the vast majority of the Croatian citizens recognized that societies want security, stability based on democratic inclusion and that citizens want seriousness and responsibility and that they value expertise in these difficult times, rife with huge challenges which are our country is facing, and not only our country, because the pandemic, insecurity and confrontations have all become global problems. In other words, the Croatian citizens largely do not want to support populist, ultranationalist or similar options. The election result confirms that most of the voters see political future in a stable, capable democratic option of the pro-European centre-right, which will protect national interests and at the same time, remain open to European values. On a pragmatic level, the results will enable the rapid formation of a stable government, which will be very important for facing the upcoming challenges – from the economic response to the consequences of the pandemic to dealing with a possible second wave of the pandemic. Last but not least, at the regional level, our neighbours will now definitely know what kind of political identity Croatia has opted for and I hope that they will recognize this and accordingly shape their policy towards Croatia.
We can’t resist asking a diplomat with such a long journalistic career about his opinion of today’s media image and journalism, not only in Serbia but also in the region.
It is not difficult to answer this question, if a person has even a shred of education, decency and self-respect left in them. I will not succumb to nostalgia, but in “those” times, the media were, of course, an instrument of the ruling ideology. But, at the same time, they had an educational function – they opened the world to readers and news channels had correspondents worldwide. But, as it often happens not only in Serbia and not only in this part of Europe but in the whole former world of socialism, the roar of freedom brought a change in social and economic relations in a way that everything ended in “wild capitalism”, so the media world ended in “wild commercialism”. The former newspapers of the communist parties or socialist alliances suddenly became the newspapers of the secret services or new tycoons. The Bulgarian communist daily “Trud” has become a hotbed of tabloid reporting. This is just one random example.
But that’s not the worst…. The worst thing is that, in this part of the world, print media were never divided into tabloids and serious newspapers like in the West where the reader has a freedom of choice and is not exposed to a political commentary next to which there is a picture of one of the Kardashian sisters. How can I trust a political assessment of an event in editorial politics that tries to convey a political message to me with nudity in the comic book style? In short, the media have become more dependent on party policies than in the worst ex-Socialist times. Plus, a kind of media pornography has been added to this equation to make it easier to eliminate all meaning and understanding. As many people have said – these are the times of infotainment and mediocracy.
What are your first impressions of Belgrade and Serbia?
Truth be told, I think there may be two Belgrade’s and two Serbian. Sometimes, when I observe people, talk or just listen to them, I feel a certain fatigue, anxiety, worry, sometimes even depression in the air. It’s as if too much history has rumbled through barely a couple of generations, and it’s as if that history has yet to be “digested.” But, on the other hand, there is also energy in the air, a new will for progress, for new relationships, for new values… It seems to me that this is nothing new in Serbia. Parallels could easily be drawn between today’s social and political phenomena and various earlier stages of social and political life in Serbia. I hope that, in the context of relations with the EU, Serbia and Belgrade will increasingly take on the face of a modern, advanced, developed state and its capital city. Quite honestly, I feel great here. I feel like I am at home. In other words, we are not that different.