An Interview with Ambassador Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic
By J. P. Finley
Stepping out of her stately Massachusetts Avenue office, Croatian Ambassador Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic exudes grace and elegance. Through the course of an interview, she applies the depth and knowledge necessary for a diplomat of one of the fastest developing nations in the world.
Amongst the seven languages Ambassador Kitarovic speaks, her English is flawless, with few hints of an accent. She attended high school in Los Alamos, New Mexico, mastering English, before embarking on a worldwide educational tour. Kitarovic holds a BA and MA in political science from the University of Zagreb in Croatia. In 2002 she received the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship doing pre-doctoral research at George Washington University in Washington DC. While at GW, Kitarovic won the Presidential Medal for her studies on international relations and security. She also studied throughout Europe, attending seminars, conferences and academic retreats in Zurich, Brussels, and Geneva, where she cultivated an understanding of successful democratic and free market societies.
In January 1992, during the breakup of Yugoslavia, Kitarovic began her career of service to her country. Working her way up the ranks of the Croatian Foreign Ministry, she concentrated on relations with the United States. By 1995 she headed the North American Department of the Foreign Ministry, and in 1998 she took her first diplomatic position in Ottawa, Canada.
After returning to Croatia in 2003, Kitarovic was elected to the Croatian Parliament and was consequently appointed Minister of European Integration. She has acted in many roles to help Croatia prepare to join the EU. In 2005 she was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of Croatia. On April 9, 2008 she became Ambassador to the United States.
The Ambassador first spoke with us about Croatia's post war period. On June 25, 1991, Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia and war broke out. After a tumultuous period that wreaked havoc and destruction, the war in Croatia ended in 1995.
Washington International: What were the major issues for Croatia after the war?
Ambassador Kitarovic: During the war almost 1/3 of our territory was occupied, and we had a lot of displaced persons whom we had to take care from the occupied area, along with a huge number of refugees who came to Croatia from the war in Bosnia. Through time, we were able to reintegrate the occupied territory. In 1998 we reintegrated the last remaining portion of eastern Slavonia into Croatia. Over 230,000 people have returned to their homes, 140,000 people of Serbian background. Croatia remains determined to accept back every single refugee who wants to, and has the right to return to Croatia. So after people started returning to their homes, the building of infrastructure was very important. Every person whose home was damaged in the war had the right to apply for assistance.
As people start returning, you have to work on reconciliation at the local level, which I believe was done successfully. Incidents do happen from time to time, but they are immediately sanctioned and are becoming fewer and fewer. The biggest problems now in the return areas are of an economic development nature. I’m happy to say that Croatia has gone through a tremendous transformation. We have really become an exemplary country, not just in the immediate region, but as a country in general -- a country that has been able to successfully overcome the legacy of war, successfully reintegrate and reconcile the population, and foster good neighborly relations.
This was a huge economic challenge because 90 percent of total resources came from the State budget. Today, we have not only rebuilt infrastructures, but we are well on our way to becoming members of the European Union and NATO. Of course, we have been implementing a lot of criteria while conducting numerous reforms in the political and administrative areas toward building and strengthening the economy.
We are progressing well in our EU accession negotiations, and we plan to close them by the end of 2009. I expect that next April, during the NATO anniversary, we will become a member. I’m happy to say that the US was the third country to ratify Croatia’s and Albania’s accession protocol to NATO which sends a very important message to our people. What President Bush said during the ceremony -- that Croatia has undergone and successfully conducted this transformation -- also sends an important message to Southeast Europe -- that we have taken the right path, and want other allies to go ahead with their ratifications as well.
What about the other countries of the former Yugoslavia. How are they doing?
Ambassador: Countries are at different stages of EU and NATO integration, and we support every single country in southeast Europe in becoming members in NATO and the EU, provided they fulfill all the relevant criteria. I believe this will insure a truly lasting stability in the entire region. The prospect of membership serves as an excellent catalyst to go ahead with reforms, and as a blueprint, because we basically have to go through the same transition that other Central and Eastern European countries already went through in moving from a planned economy to a market economy, from a Communist system to a Democratic nation.
How do you assess your relations with Serbia?
Serbia’s new government is more pro-western oriented, and we hope they will fully realize that joining the EU offers the best future for Serbia. Unfortunately, after Croatia’s recognition of Kosovo and the recent decision of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, that it has jurisdiction over Croatia’s lawsuit against Serbia, there has been stagnation in the bilateral relationship. We have established a diplomatic presence in Kosovo, operating in the status of an Embassy. We hope that the reality of Croatia’s recognition of the independence of Kosovo will not dominate our bilateral relationship with Serbia, and that we will continue working on the relations between the countries in the spirit of mutual respect.
What about Bosnia?
We have a special interest in Bosnia becoming a stable country. We share a long border with Bosnia which is 99 percent determined, however, there are actually two spots that have not been resolved yet. There are a few other open issues which we are leaving to the experts. We believe these issues should not be critical, and we are determined to be supportive and to concentrate on the bulk of the relationship which is very positive. We recently supported and, actually, were the co-partners in inviting Bosnia and Montenegro to become part of the US Initiative in which Croatia and Albania were already a part.
We firmly support not only the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia, but also the constitutional equality of all three nations -- Croats, Serbs and Bosnians -- in the entire country. We hope they find solutions to strengthen the institutions in an emancipated, functioning government and create the mechanism for the protection of national rights in the entire territory.
Before the recent global economic downturn, there had been a lot of investment in Croatia, and visitors saw numerous construction projects in the capital, Zagreb. How has this been affected?
Our financial and monetary institutions have remained quite stable. Croatia is still the most dynamic country in southeast Europe with steady economic growth, relatively low inflation, a stable currency, and a GDP that continues to grow. According to the World Bank, for the past two years we have had a place among the top 10 performers of the world. The regulatory improvements we have made are important for investment in Croatia, especially foreign direct investment.
Our economy is primarily service based, 67 percent of GDP is derived from that sector. We have ship building, food processing, also biochemical industries and pharmaceuticals. The agricultural sector is showing more potential as we grow natural produce free of chemicals. We would like to increase exports without affecting quality. With the increasing demand for organic foods, I think Croatia will have a place in the European Union and many parts of the world for its agricultural products.
But as far as the financial crisis goes, you would expect a slowdown in trade and exports to certain countries, and that is how it could affect Croatia. We have become a huge vacation destination, with 10 million tourists attracted by a small country with a spectacular coast, fine hotels and wonderful cuisine. We receive hundreds of cruise ships along the Dalmatian coast. We have about 1,200 islands off that coast, all different and picture perfect, and great for nautical tourism.
It remains to be seen how general economic trends will affect us, but we hope that the popularity of Croatia as a tourist destination will attract at least the same number of tourists as we had last summer season.
Could you expand a little on the Green Field investment?
We have a state agency promoting investment. The agency works to find the best places for potential investors and helps them to carry out the deal. Opportunities are vast -- from hotels and marinas to the potential opening of a Coca Cola bottling plant. Much depends on local planning and how they view the land's purpose -- whether they want industry, and what kind of industry is in their economic development plan. We want to encourage ecological sensitivity. We offer incentives for this kind of investment and want to make it long term.
What are your goals while in Washington?
Well, you know Croatia has reached the highest level of relations with the US since its independence. Our relations are very good. Of course, we still have a lot of room toward further building of bridges of friendship and working together, particularly in the economic sphere. We would like to see more US investment in Croatia, higher trade figures, and more American tourists.
Right now we are members of the UN Security Council. We have been cooperating with the US in many fields and been a part of the Global Cooperation in combating terrorism. We have 300 of our troops in Afghanistan and have been participating in many UN peace-keeping missions.
We want to continue our cooperation with the US in working for global peace and stability. Our imminent NATO membership will present us with another framework for closer cooperation. We very much appreciate the early ratification of our NATO accession under the leadership of President Bush and also the bi-partisan support that secured early ratification.
One of the objectives for Croatia is to become a part of the Visa Waiver Program. We don’t require a visa for US citizens visiting Croatia, but Croatians are required to have a visa to visit the US. We are currently working on the bi-lateral agreement and other aspects that we must satisfy in order to become part of the program. We are looking forward to continuing our dialogue and cooperation on all these issues with the new administration.
The Ambassador lives in northwest Washington with her husband, Jakov, and their two young children, Katarina and Luka. Her children attend American public schools, like their mother years before.