„Croatia remains committed to bolstering good neighbourly cooperation and developing biletaral relations. I will personally continue to invest a lot of effort to that end,“ says H.E. Gordan Bakota, Ambassador of the Republic of Croatia to Serbia. Among other things, we have also talked to Mr. Bakota about the development of bilateral relations between Serbia and Croatia last year and the priorities of the Croatian Presidency of the EU which will take place in the first half of 2020, which are closely related to this region and its European perspective.
What characterized the bilateral relations between the two countries in 2018?
– Last year was dynamic, with ups and downs in our bilateral relations. During the visit of President Vučić to Croatia, both sides stressed the importance of further improving the relations and expediting the work on unresolved issues, especially addressing the issue of missing persons. The importance of the status of national minorities has also been underlined. The dialogue has intensified and a certain dynamics was established in a number of areas. As far as our relations go, we can surely do more and better. In order to do that, we need to constantly invest in creating a positive atmosphere that will facilitate the improvement of our relations. Unfortunately, we have witnessed a series of events and incidents that do not contribute to this. On the contrary, they adversely affect our relations. Regardless, Croatia remains committed to bolstering good neighbourly cooperation and developing relations, and I will personally continue to invest a lot of effort to that end. Despite the fact that, in the past year, we were not able to achieve a significant growth in the external trade between our two countries, to the extent it had been in the past years, economic cooperation remains one of the bright points of the bilateral relations between Croatia and Serbia. Last year, the Republic of Croatia’s Chamber of Economy re-opened its office in Belgrade, adding to the synergy in the bilateral economic cooperation. Also, the Joint Committee for the Implementation and Facilitation of Economic
Cooperation held its first session. The Committee’s main task is to identify the obstacles faced by companies and small businesses, and suggest appropriate solutions for their removal. Furthermore, we have signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation on Promoting Effective Railroad Traffic. I would also like to point out that 2018 was the year of excellent cultural cooperation with numerous concerts and theatre plays taking place.
Considering what you have just said for 2018, what is 2019 going to be like?
– In 2019, we must continue to invest in creating an atmosphere of trust, dialogue and cooperation in order to find common solutions to unresolved issues from the time of war and the collapse of the common state that are still a burden to our relations. Early 2019, when Romania starts its EU presidency, also marks the beginning of the EU Trio Programme sessions that will be completed when Croatia takes over the EU Presidency beginning of 2020. Croatia strongly supports the European Union’s enlargement process for all countries in South East Europe, including Serbia’s accession negotiations, and we are going to continue in that direction this year too. Economic cooperation could certainly be far better because there is a great potential for intensifying activities in agriculture, tourism, IT industry, as well as industry as a whole. In this regard, it is extremely important to ensure the most favourable conditions for doing business, and to resolve, among other things, certain problems such as the non-compliance of certain regulations and procedures with the view of achieving a more equitable and more efficient flow of goods and services. I find that cooperation in tourism has particularly good prospects, primarily through numerous specialized forms of tourism, such as adventure, oenological-gastronomical, cultural, health and conference tourism. If we linked the tourism offers of our two countries, we would become more competitive and appealing to guests from distant destinations, who usually want to visit more countries at once and as many tourist attractions as possible during their prolonged stay. Despite the fact that economic relations have their own development logic, which primarily includes economic and financial factors, their evolution has a significant influence on the political environment, and it is therefore extremely important for the messages that will come from that direction in the near future to be as positive as possible.
How does this complicated situation in the region affect the relations between the two countries?
– As an EU member, Croatia plays an important role in this part of Europe and we strongly advocate enlargement. This is one of the major challenges in this part of Europe. The efforts that all countries here are investing in the resolution of bilateral issues, strengthening of good neighbourly cooperation, acceptance of European values and fulfillment of the EU accession obligations all affect the relaxation of political relations in the region.
Are you satisfied with the pace at which unresolved issues are being dealt withž considering that the relevant negotiations have been going on for years?
– I have to say that we cannot be satisfied with the pace of resolving these open issues, especially the issue of missing
persons. Croatia is ready and willing to talk to the Serbian side on resolving all open issues, in good faith and in a rational manner. The overall bilateral relations, however, need not be assessed solely through the filter of historical or political disagreements.
Considering the current situation, what would constitute an important diplomatic success in 2019 in your opinion?
– As I have already pointed out, that, apart from working on resolving open issues, we want to intensify our activities in many areas of inter-state cooperation that are in our common interest and benefit the citizens of the two countries. The cooperation in the European context and the negotiation process are of particular importance.
Bearing in mind Croatia’s role in encouraging regional countries to expedite their respective European integration processes, what will Croatia’s presidency of the EU bring?
– It is in our national strategic interesst to have neighbours that share the same European values and standards. I think there are very few countries in the European Council that advocate cooperation with Southeast European states and enlargement in such a systematic and honest manner as Croatia. Hence, the relations with the SEE countries and EU enlargement will be one of the main priorities of the Croatian presidency over the EU in the first half of 2020. At our initiative, following the Sofia summit, a new EU and Western Balkans summit will take place in Zagreb. Twenty years from the summit also held in Zagreb, which opened the European perspective to Croatia and other SEE countries. This is a powerful message that we want to send our neighbours while helping them on their way.
How challenging is this task for Croatia considering that ambitions of certain other countries that presided over the EU, like Bulgaria, did not bring any historically important shifts?
– The task is certainly challenging because both the EU and the SEE countries are facing issues that often turn their attention away from what is the most important, namely integration of this part of Europe into the EU. This year, the EU will have elections and a new convocation of the European Parliament and the European Commission. It is, therefore, even more important that Croatia immediately shifts the focus back on the enlargement and the SEE countries in general in the beginning of 2020.
Are you satisfied with the treatement of the Croatian community in Serbia? It seems that there have been some positive developments regarding this lately.
– When it comes to Croats as a national minority in Serbia, we expect the Serbian side to fully meet the assumed international commitments, as well as the obligations that stem from the European accession process. In the past year, after three years of interruption, the Intergovernmental Mixed Committee for National Minorities continued its activities. Also, there was the establishment of a dialogue between the representatives of the Croatian community in Serbia and the highest government representatives. As the representatives of the Croatian community point out, this dialogue has yielded concrete results in terms of meeting some of their requirements. Both minorities, the Serb
minority in Croatia and the Croatian minority in Serbia, should be given the same opportunities to exercise their rights in everyday life. Croatian representatives, as well as the representatives of other national minorities in Serbia, should be actively involved in activities related to the definition and implementation of minority rights in various areas. In Croatia, there is a very high level of political representation of national minorities both in the Croatian Parliament and locally. I am convinced that full implementation of minority rights only enriches our respective societies.