Guys from the Bar Hennessy

It was another one of those small, almost undetectable political news that only few are listening carefully. However, a few days ago, when it was released, it had very attentive readers who heard it almost with disbelief and, for that very reason, with greater attention.
The announcement from the presidential office was short and without expected pomposity. Only that the President of the Republic Croatia, Kolinda Grabar Kitarović, had appointed Nikica Valentić as her economic adviser. The explanation was also as monotonous. That’s why I quote it in full: “I only want to help the president, who has relatively modest powers in the sphere of economic policy, to make better use of them.” And that was all. Undoubtedly quite insufficient.

Nikica Valentić was probably one of the most important presidents of the Croatian government. Also the only one who was forced to resign because of his intention to resolve outstanding issues with Slovenia. One of his successors as a prime minister, Dr. Ivo Sanader, tried to also use this motive as a reason later, on his sudden departure, although the reasons for his resignation were quite different. They were not really connected with finding ways of solving outstanding bilateral relations with Slovenia.

I met Valentić for the first time the first days of July 1994. He brought several members of his former government to the meeting in Slovenia at Brdo near Kranj, in the bus that also had space for a number of their advisors. His host was Dr. Janez Drnovšek, who had prepared for the talks – several official agreements were signed – minutely, repeating, as he was often saying, that it was necessary to have a millimetre strategy because there is serious possibility to be successful. Three major issues were on the agenda: borders, Ljubljana Bank and nuclear plant Krško. Negotiation ministerial groups were also established. Drnovšek and Valentić talked alone in a large room on the first floor of the castle Brdo. And it seemed that it was really possible.

Approximately one year later, also in July, but at the end of the month, some sort of continuation of the Brdo meeting was held, in order to determine the operational conclusions appropriate for consideration by both governments and consequently in both parliaments. It was not a routine visit, as the negotiators from the neighbouring country wanted to show it many years later, in preparing for arbitration before the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague, whose binding decision is expected this fall. On the contrary, the ambition of the meeting was to find solution. But it could not be noticed only on the formal level, because it was one of the rare dialogues that lasted three days, the whole end of the week, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Much more significant were the other two characteristics. First, which I am trying to explain politically as rationally as possible much later, because of its immediacy, because this was the first time that a dialogue was held between two prime ministers who confined in each other. I talked with this with Drnovšek during the first major visit (the meeting was held in Opatija). After finishing all, we were sitting on the terrace of the protocol villa, he ordered beer and was convinced that Valentić was a partner who could make a decision. And that’s primarily because the then Croatian president Franjo Tuđman, especially after his visit to Washington in March of the same year, was concentrated primarily on the more dramatic relations (precisely, it was during the war) with the neighbouring country of Bosnia and Herzegovina and because Croatia was admitted to the support programme Phare and started negotiations on cooperation with the EU in June of the same year, at the meeting of the Council of Ministers of the European Union. Tuđman wrote a personal letter to the President of the French Republic Jacques Chirac on this exactly. He thanks President Chirac in his letter for understanding and emphasizes, and I quote, that Croatia sees in these decisions a confirmation of the correctness of its strategic European political civilization orientation, as well as the recognition of political peacefulness, constructiveness and cooperation with the world community. Drnovšek realized that night, as well as the aforementioned message of Croatian President, that it was possible to look for solutions on outstanding issues between Slovenia and Croatia.

Another sign of the specificity of this Opatija meeting was Valentić’s call to the biggest owners of capital in Croatia to participate in this meeting. All those who were great then and are even greater today had come. Both prime ministers presented them with their solutions and it seemed that Valentić had obtained their support. Solutions were prepared.

This was followed by another meeting, this time in Maribor, several months later. And all the work from the previous several years, and the resulting resolutions of the outstanding questions between the states, on first place the border, were literally erased in a single sentence. The then Croatian ambassador to Slovenia was pretty late. Probably on purpose. When he joined us, he asked for a word. Drnovšek, apparently unwilling, and probably expecting an apology for that sort of arrogance of the ambassador’s arrival, gave him the word. However, there was no apology. There was only a statement that he was delayed because of more important meeting he had at Tuđman’s office that morning and that he had brought a decision. I looked at Valentić. He knew what the next sentence would be. That the further dialogues were unnecessary because the president had decided that they were taken to the wrong solutions. The ambassador Dr. Miljenko Žagar also announced the recent dismissal of the prime minister.

Valentić resigned in November.

The guys from the bar Hennessey, as the influential group of businessmen from the then ruling party, Franjo Gregurić, Zlatko Mateša, Borislav Škegro, Božo Prka, Davor Štern was often called, temporarily lost their strongest position with his resignation. Issues related to the search for solutions of the relations with Slovenia were withdrawn from the agenda at least for some time. However, Valentić’s departure opened in a very binding way a completely new interior Croatian political subject that is still current nowadays in its own way. I think about the relationship between the prime minister and the president of the country.

Let’s get back to the meeting in Opatija. On the last day of the visit, on Sunday, after the end of all dialogues, the two prime ministers were satisfied. The host invited us for a lunch, and as he said, we are going just across the bay, to Cres, We drove there in their national boat. The meal was very good, as well as conversation about everything. On our way back, Drnovšek was extremely cheerful, unusually good-humoured, and they casually touched the subject of relationships with heads of states, Milan Kučan and Dr. Franjo Tuđman, in conversation with Valentić. It is that part of the conversation I recalled so much later when I found that Valentić wrote to Croatian head of state at the end of September of the same year. Such correspondences are almost always politically dangerous, like in the one of the most beautiful post-Hegelian texts, The Seducer’s Diary, written by Søren Kierkegaard. The subject in the famous philosopher’s work was a fateful erotic relationship, one of the most beautiful love texts, a statement on dangers of the beginning of the relationship between Johannes and Cordelia. The letters exchanged are final and fatal.

Valentić’s letter was also final. Valentić wrote to Tuđman in this letter on insolvency, decaying industry, an overstressed state budget, excessive government spending, and on the internal political conflicts and consequently inability of development and strategic agreements. However, somewhere right in the middle of that September letter, we come to the key point. Valentić warned the then head of state, not in not too diplomatic way, that the full autonomy of the Government in the implementation of all its primarily economic policies had to be provided within a unique state policy determined by the head of state and parliament. That is why he warned the head of state that his direct participation in the implementation of planned or adopted government policies was not appropriate, since such approach to many operational problems, could jeopardize the authority of the president of the country.

Valentić had to go. The influence of all those who were advocating for an increase in informal power and mechanisms for national and economic policies governance directly from the then office of the head of state was too strong.

It seemed that his political retirement was final.

The new president of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar Kitarović, has invited him to a new cooperation. The news was surprising. His acceptance as well.