While past issues make our bilateral relations delicate, I believe that at this moment we should focus our energy on current and future aspects of our cooperation. This is especially important in light of the fact that Croatia is a member of the European Union today, and Serbia is on the path of becoming a member, which should be used as a platform for boosting our cooperation
We are talking to the Croatian Ambassador to Serbia, H.E. Gordan Bakota about the complex relations between Croatia and Serbia.
How would you rate the current bilateral relations between Croatia and Serbia?
― I think we need to view the relations between Croatia and Serbia in a wider context. We are talking about two neighbouring countries that share a common past, which relations are very layered and intertwined, and which, despite everything aforementioned, are trying to build good neighbourly relations. In many respects, we have good and substantive cooperation, which shows that overall bilateral relations need not be assessed solely through the prism of historical or political disagreements. All in all, we need a realistic approach, goodwill and commitment. Particular emphasis should be put on cooperation in the European context and the accession process where respecting European principles and values should be the priority.
To what extent do different interpretations of the past are hindering the development of good relations between the two countries?
― It is not easy to come up with a common view in terms of issues that we have a different standpoint on. However, there is no need to run away from the fact that the history of our relationships, especially the most recent ones, was complex. We cannot change our past. I believe that, at this moment, it is more important to focus our energy on the present and the future. Today, Croatia is a member of the European Union, Serbia is on the path of becoming one, and that is what we need to recognize and use as a platform for enhancing our cooperation and feeling optimistic about the future. Issues from the past should not be ignored, but they must be left to the historians to deal with in a manner that is conducive to science. In that sense, dialogue and respect should create space for comprehensive research. Positive examples of other countries that have had conflicts in the past could be useful to us in doing so.
How far have the talks about open issues of minorities, missing persons, the return of cultural treasures, succession, and other progressed?
― Croatia is ready and willing to talk to the Serbian side about resolving all outstanding issues, in good faith and in a rational manner. We are convinced that time has come for this, and that there is mutual will. Over the last few months, we have intensified dialogue between relevant institutions with the aim of revitalizing the work of several intergovernmental commissions which have been discussing the ways of resolving these issues at an expert level. However, I would like to underline that, apart from working on solving open issues, we would like to intensify our activities in many other areas of bilateral cooperation that are of common interest.
What are the most important minority issues at this time that you think should be addressed?
― I believe that the most important now, would be to ensure that both of our minorities – the Serbian minority in Croatian and the Croatian minority in Serbia – have equal opportunities to exercise their rights in everyday life. I would like to recall that that the constitutional and legal framework in Croatia guarantees extensive rights for all national minorities who have systematic representation in the Croatian Parliament and in representative bodies at the local level. Furthermore, the representatives of the Serb minority in Croatia are a part of the ruling majority, support the work of the Croatian Government and are actively engaged on minority agenda, as well contributing to addressing issues that concern all citizens in Croatia. On the other hand, we expect Serbia to fulfil its commitments from the bilateral treaty with Croatia as well as obligations stemming from the EU accession process. This pertains to securing guaranteed political representation of Croats in Serbia at all levels – state, provincial and city levels. We also expect Croat representatives to be involved in activities related to adoption of legal solutions related to the implementation of minority rights. I would like to particularly underline that I am convinced that both minorities can have an invaluable and positive role in building the overall relations between the two countries.
There has been more talk about disagreements between the two countries in public, and very little talk about Croatia’s assistance to Serbian in the European integration processes. In which areas are the Croatian experts currently engaged the most?
― First and foremost, I would like to point out that enlargement policy and Southeast Europe will be in our focus and among the priorities of the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2020. Croatia has been always emphasising its readiness to help Serbia on its way to the EU. As the youngest member of the EU, we have the most relevant knowledge of the accession process, which is known in all the countries of the region which we are supporting in this process. The most successful cooperation was achieved with the Office for European Integration of the Government of Serbia which became the Ministry for European Integration. Since 2012, Croatia has carried out over 60 different activities and programmes through which close to 1,050 participants took part – officials at the national and local level, representatives of the civil sector and the media.. Following the successful cooperation with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), within the framework of the Open Regional Fund project and in cooperation with the Ministry for European Integration, Croatian experts will continue to participate in regional programmes intended for the countries in Southeast Europe. Emphasis will continue to be on concrete experiences in harmonizing legislation in certain negotiation chapters, with the special attention given to Chapters 23 and 24.
Could you evaluate the cooperation on cross-border projects? What does the European framework offer in this respect, and how can we use it, especially when it comes to involving minorities in their implementation?
― The Interreg IPA cross-border cooperation programme for the period 2014-2020 is currently in force. This programme covers 4 counties in Croatia and 5 administrative districts in Serbia. The priorities of the programme relate to improving the quality of services in healthcare, environment and nature protection, tourism development, cultural and natural heritage, boosting competitiveness and development of the business environment. The total value of the programme is just over EUR 40,000,000, most of which comes from the EU funds. Given that the main objective of these projects is improving the quality of life of the population in the border areas, such as the development of a system for protection of people and natural resources from flooding, the Croatian minority, who live in the border areas in the Republic of Serbia, will also be benefiting from them.
We have witnessed that the politics has often been meddling in the economic cooperation between the two countries in the last few years. On the other hand, we can see positive trends such as the opening of the Croatian Chamber of Commerce in Belgrade. To what extent are economic ties immune to political challenges?
― As you know, the economic cooperation between Croatia and Serbia has its own development logic that is primarily based on economic interests. Nevertheless, the political atmosphere continues to play a very important role in the development of economic relations. Every change on the political front, whether positive or negative, reflects on economic relations and cooperation, and specifically on activities of Croatian companies in the Serbian market. Economic matters, unfortunately, often seem to be unnecessarily politicized and inappropriately presented in the media, ultimately affecting the creation of the overall atmosphere in the relations between the two countries and in the economic sphere. I believe that the reopening of the Croatian Chamber of Commerce’s representative offices in the Republic of Serbia and the synergistic work with the Croatian Embassy in Belgrade, the Croatian Business Club and the Serbian Chamber of Commerce will provide for a better environment for advancing bilateral economic relations. Let me also add that the Joint Committee for the Implementation and Promotion of Economic Cooperation will meet in Zagreb soon. This will be an additional opportunity to talk not only about preventing any obstacles from arising, but also about improving the cooperation. The two countries have good cooperation in the field of science and culture.
Can you single out best examples or directions that will lead to the cooperation developing even further this year?
― The scientific cooperation is carried out in accordance with the provisions of the Memorandum on scientific and technological cooperation. Over the last two years, the Joint Commission has approved a total of 52 projects in areas of biomedicine, biotechnology, social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and engineering. An agreement was also reached on having a joint Research Day which would be alternately organized by the relevant ministries and where the presentation of the approved projects will take place. The cultural collaboration is very intense, also based on an intergovernmental agreement, and is operationalised through direct agreements between cultural institutions, associations and individuals. It gives me a great pleasure to have frequent opportunities to meet and welcome outstanding Croatian artists at their performances in Serbia. Also, I am confident that the European projects “Rijeka – European Capital of Culture 2020” and “Novi Sad – European Capital of Culture 2021” will further enhance the cultural links between Croatia and Serbia