H.E. Hidajet Biščević, Ambassador of the Republic of Croatia: Relations between Croatia and Serbia are key to the region’s stability

We have a huge job ahead of us and a huge challenge. Economic relations have been stable, even in a slight upswing in recent years, despite the pandemic. This is indisputably encouraging as it indicates that, in real life and the so-called real sector, there is a kind of energy and discovery of mutual interests that override nationalist and isolationist rhetoric.

We interviewed the Croatian Ambassador to Serbia for the latest edition of InFocus Croatia about current topics when it comes to relations between Serbia and Croatia – diplomatic, political, economic and joint projects that are building new bridges of friendship. H.E. Hidajet Biščević notes that there is a shift in relations and adds: “I have no claim about having a special role in this, but lately, we have put relations on a more organized track. There are differences, occasionally sparks fly, but we don’t have Zagreb or Belgrade sending each other protest notes once a week. We are talking, at various levels, and we are focused on key issues.“

H.E. Hidajet Biščević, Ambassador of the Republic of Croatia

At the very beginning of your term in the office, you stated that, when it comes to the relations between our two countries, it is very important to break the chains of the past. After more than a year of being the Croatian ambassador to Serbia, what is your view of the relations between Croatia and Serbia today?

Honestly, it would be an exaggeration to say that we have broken those chains. Old narratives are still spinning, old slogans are still echoing, old consciousness is still breaking through. What is worrying is something we don’t notice enough – it’s been three decades since the breakup and separation, i.e. almost three decades since the war ended. Thirty years, that is! True, everything that happened in the 1990s, with the collapse of the former state, was the biggest and most shocking change in the geopolitical configuration in Europe after the fall of communism and the Berlin Wall. No region of Europe has gone through such a tunnel and such earthquakes. In addition, this is ethnically, religiously, politically, culturally the most complicated corner of Europe, with a heavy legacy of suspicion, mistrust and open hostility, especially in Croatian-Serbian relations.

Both of these aspects indisputably show that breaking the chains of the past is not easy, but nevertheless, it has been thirty years. If I may, perhaps, give a rather obscene comparison – German tourists spent their summers on the coastline of a country that they had devastated ten years before, at the end of World War II, and it took America and Vietnam thirty years to radically change their relations, not to mention the Germans and French and their history. So, we still have a huge job ahead of us, a huge challenge… But, perhaps most importantly, the challenge of not being a hostage of the past today is aggravated by the fact that in our wider European and global environment, a return to the past, the past as in East vs West, is noticeable. Renewing ‘the Cold War’ can easily restore some historical experiences regarding shaping the security map of this region because geopolitical polarization in Europe casts a shadow on these areas as well. It is very noticeable that this also affects relations in the region, to the extent that it is not easy to predict the future political and security configuration in the region.

How important are Serbia and Croatia to each other, in the region, and then in the European Union, or outside it?

I will repeat the obvious fact: Croatia and Serbia and Croatian-Serbian relations are key to the stability, peace and security of this part of Europe. We are all aware that the region is still burdened with unresolved issues, complex relations, and even frozen conflicts, but none of this can outweigh the importance of the Croatian-Serbian component in regional stability. It is also crucial from the point of view of the EU’s interests because it ensures the stability of this part of Europe.

As for your question goes, which implies the possibility to consider the character of our relations in the scenario where Serbia remains outside the EU, I will say the following – first and foremost, we, in Croatia, believe that the entire Western Balkans, by the nature of historical development, geography and political expectations of the population belongs to the European Union. Secondly, you have certainly noticed that Croatia is one of the most ardent advocates of a clear and consistent policy of EU enlargement and that in this regard, it has been advocating and still advocates the continuation of the accession negotiations with Serbia, with consistent and fair compliance with fundamental negotiating conditions and rules.

„Croatia is one of the most ardent advocates of a clear and consistent policy of EU enlargement and that in this regard, it has been advocating and still advocates the continuation of the accession negotiations with Serbia“

Honestly, sometimes I do not understand how and why such a political position of the Croatian side does not evoke an appropriate response from the Serbian side. We want to see Serbia in the EU because it is our best strategic and security interest. We encourage your accession negotiations and opening of new clusters, and yet, we are still not met with appropriate reciprocal moves. Sometimes, I hear claims that the Croatian side is resorting to blackmail, but it’s just the opposite – it is about the so-called fundamental issues of the negotiation process and, equally important, issues which resolution would relieve a significant part of the burden that Serbia has borne since the 1990s. I am talking, for example, about missing persons. This no longer has to be a matter of responsibility, punishment, tensions over the nature of the conflict and the like. This is simply a humanitarian issue – locating the remains of missing persons and handing them over to their families.

Merkel’s farewell Balkan tour and the German elections have marked this autumn. Do you think that Angela Merkel’s departure spells the end of the Berlin Process?

As much as the Berlin Process, with its elaborate political and developmental components, was Chancellor Merkel’s “political child”, a kind of personal testimony to her commitment to the Western Balkans at a time of stagnation in the Union’s relationship with the region’s six countries, it has become an integral part of policies related to this part of Europe. So, I do not believe in a stalemate, much less the end of the Berlin process. Besides Germany, there are other serious interested countries involved and there are international institutions and development plans in place. Speaking of the previously mentioned geopolitical trends related to the Balkans, it will be important to see how the relationship, dynamics and energy of German and EU commitment to the region in the context of the visible agenda of Russia, the United States and other global stakeholders will play out.

Economic relations are stable and progressing year on year. The Croatian Business Club is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. Can political relations follow the success of economic relations?

In the political atmosphere, I tried to describe earlier, which is not ideal but is gradually moving towards calm and stabilization, even despite various “mines” that we need to navigate such as the position of a language committee that denies the existence of Croatian language, the games surrounding the so-called Bunjevac language and many unnecessary hardships faced by the Croatian minority and in contrast, the opposite position of the Serb community in Croatia, economic relations are stable, and even experiencing an upward trend in recent years, despite the pandemic. This is indisputably encouraging as it indicates that, in real life and the so-called real sector, there is a kind of energy and discovery of mutual interests that override nationalist and isolationist rhetoric.

When Croatia was stricken by earthquakes, people gathered in front of your office and wanted to convey their support for the victims. Only four months later, the Croatian flag was removed from your residence. What messages do such contradictions send out?

Honestly, as a diplomat, I should not answer that question, as whatever I say could be understood as “interference in internal affairs”, and that is something that diplomats, in principle, want to avoid. But I’ll take a chance. First, I was immensely grateful to the people who gathered in front of the Embassy, the day after the earthquake, and expressed their emotional solidarity. This is what shows that we are and want to be human, first and foremost, that our national jerseys must not be more important than human solidarity. You saw how many initiatives were launched after that and how much the Serbian business community, artists and the Government of Serbia helped with providing assistance.

„Let’s learn to live next to each other, as decent neighbours, who will appreciate similarities and differences. Nothing more, nothing less“

As for the second part of your question, my answer might surprise you somewhat – you know, when the police rang at the Embassy’s door at six o’clock in the morning to tell me how they found the torn flag in the container, I was, for the first half a minute, horrified and angry, but then I looked at their faces and I could see that these police officers were uncomfortable, they blushed and apologized. These are the two faces of Serbia – the face of solidarity and the face behind the torn flag. This is the controversy you are talking about and which I should not talk about, because only Serbia can resolve it, for its own good, for the good of its future.

At the end of your interview last year’s edition of InFocus Croatia, you said that “we are not so different”. Can that similarity be an advantage in our relations?

The paradox of our relations is that, in Europe, it is difficult to find two nations who share so many similar characteristics, and yet so many mutual gaps, doubts, mistrust and repulsion. We use two languages, but we understand each other, we are culturally close, not to mention, our respective national cuisines and so on. Of course, political history has done its thing, leaving consequences that still focus on differences. A long time ago, in a similar conversation, I said: “Well, we didn’t break up just to continue arguing. Let’s learn to live next to each other, as decent neighbours, who will appreciate similarities and differences. Nothing more, nothing less.“

You have been living in Belgrade for a year and a half now. What do you like the most here?

I have always liked the same things in Belgrade, even back when I came here as a young journalist and now a little bit older diplomat and they are openness and joviality. I love it when everyone in my local cafe knows my name and when we spend time together. I like to go to Nišava in Dedinje and split a round of drinks. I love to watch the mist hovering over the river at Joca’s ‘Mala Kolubara’ inn on the Sava River while sipping on good Serbian wine. I love Petrovaradin. But I think that love and appreciate the most the energy and strength of people who surround me, and who, despite their troubles, still believe in being open to other people, decent, mutually respectful and friendly.

We sent out strong messages

Our magazine also wanted to help Croatia affected by the earthquakes, so we organized a charity auction together with you and collected a significant amount of money. How important are campaigns like this?

I am immensely grateful to your magazine and Mr Robert Čoban for this initiative. I am amazed at how quickly, in the matter of a couple of days, we thought out the whole project, gathered over thirty Serbian artists, organized a charity auction and got a fair amount of media coverage for it. I think we sent out very strong messages during the campaign, which were related to the earthquake, but they also had a much broader and deeper meaning.

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