On this September’s Wednesday, at a meeting with the heads of EU states, a terrific opportunity opened up for Zoran Milanović. He could have proven to them that he could handle problems. However, he decided otherwise. Which is all the more surprising, not only because the Croatian Prime Minister knows well the consequences of any kind of aggravation of relations between the Western Balkan states, but because this meeting in Brussels also provided chance for finding some solutions to a massive wave of migrants.
In addition to this all, and regardless of the kind of reasoning and assurances given, Croatia insisted on closing its borders with its neighbour. The Serbian Prime Minister, Mr. Alexander Vucic, wrote a letter to key leaders of European Union stating that aggressive and unacceptable moves of the Croatian government bring harm not only to Serbia’s national and vital economic interests but also to regional stability. Countermeasures and complete freezing of diplomatic and trade relations between the states ensued. This means that consequently all intercountry relations in the region have just turned unpredictable and dangerous.
Over the past years, the states of the Western Balkans have systematically worked on establishing a solid principle of mutual quest for solutions to even the most complexed issues which remained opened. They clang to the principle that their membership in the European Union would not bring new issues and difficulties to an already heavily overburdened Brussels’ table but that it would bring new solutions. This was also a platform used in many diplomatic initiatives from Pahor’s Brdo Process to Berlin’s Forum headed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. These days, all those principles have caved in, at least temporarily.
The question of migrants was not the only reason behind such dramatic aggravation of the relations between the two states. It is, in terms of foreign policy, completely unacceptable to reach a decision such as actual termination of any relations with the neighbouring country only on the grounds of suspicion that it is Serbia’s hidden agenda to direct the migrants towards the Croatian border instead of to Hungarian.
Jelena Lovrić, a commentator for Zagreb’s daily Jutarnji list, wrote that Milanović opted for a different decision than the Hungarian President Orban which is not to install a barbed wire fence but to close the state borders, as a more simple and also less costly solution.
Therefore, on that Wednesday night, Milanović closed the state borders to the Balkan countries. When asked why, a string of diverse explanations was given, ranging from those which are primarily related to refugees and migrants to upcoming Parliamentary elections in Croatia. However, at least one other reason remained unsaid which could be defined in the following question. Was the intention to leave the political region of the Western Balkans the reason for such aggravation of Croatia’s relations with Serbia?
In the first days of March this year, a symposium was held in Zagreb under a non-pretentious and boring name “Croatia and the European Policy for Development by 2020”. The fact is that the meeting was really boring. However, only until the moment when the former Slovenian Prime Minister, Mr. Mikulas Dzurinde invited the future – as he phased it – government of Tomislav Karamarko to accede to the Visegrad Four. Meaning Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland. This would supposedly greatly improve Croatia’s economic and general environment. The only obstacle to such a goal being those politicians, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mrs. Vesna Pusic being mentioned here, who connect the solutions to individual issues with finding the solutions which would be acceptable for other states in the Western Balkan region. That day, to me it seemed some kind of a joke used to spice the conversation. However it was used to make relative Minister’s announced candidacy for the Secretary General of the UN.
Things would stay as they were if only a week or two later I did not encounter the news that Croatia’s President, Mrs. Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, had a meeting with the Vice Prime Minister of the Poland, Mr. Tomasz Siemoniak where they talked about the significance of the Visegrad Four. Well, this could also be a coincidence. But only until the end of June of this year, when the President of Lithuania, Mrs Dalie Grybauskaite, arrived to Zagreb on an official state visit. I found interesting the words spoken by the host, Mrs. Grabar-Kitarovic, her official statement actually, that the Croatian state recognized its obligations to the Balkan states but that it finds that it belongs to the region of Central Europe, in the group with the states of the Visegrad Four, Austria and Slovenia. And, more broadly, in Zwischeneeurope, which includes Baltic states. This surprising statement was followed by a thesis on the significance of connecting the Baltic and Adriatic regions which was seen as the key element of stability in Europe.
In making this statement however, the caution should have been practiced. Also because, in 1991 and 1992, Croatia refused to cooperate with Visegrad Four and refused to sign Central European Free Trade Agreement because the then President of Croatia, Mr. Franjo Tuđman PhD, believed Croatia to be more economically developed than the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. At the same time, as professor from Zagreb, Mr. Damir Grubiša, recently wrote, the late Tuđman was convinced that membership in all European associations was due to Croatia both on account of its defence of Christianity and due to the fact that European Union is the association of states which Croatia had already been a member of. That Croatia had already proven itself with old deserts and that therefore it is not required to prove itself again in respect of the rules of the new European project which is founded on human rights, democracy, peace and prosperity.
It appears obvious that Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović returned to the initial premise. She created a new political definition of Visegrad Four. So, namely, on 8th September this year in Krakow, she met with the Polish President-Elect, Mr. Andzej Dud. The President’s statement issued after the meeting beamed with geopolitical conscientiousness. We are making a joint effort to initiate a strong dialogue between the Baltic and Adriatic regions. I refer to, she said, to a series of connections, traffic corridors, railway infrastructure, energy projects, and to cooperation on the issues of security, including the crises in Ukraine and Southern Europe and the issues of migration. Croatia and Poland, as the stakeholders of this initiative will support the accession to NATO and EU. Immediately after that, the President lists the countries she believes will take part in this initiative. She directly invited the presidents of the states of the Baltic and Adriatic regions, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, states of the Visegrad Four, as well as Austria and Slovenia, to have a meeting by the end of September, precisely at the time of the meeting of General Assembly of UN.
Croatian President’s estimate was that Croatia’s full membership in NATO and EU represents the completion of its key political goal but its foreign policy goals are primarily or only related to Western Balkans. And not to the states that invited her to a meeting in September and with which Croatia shares European history. Grabar –Kitarović also estimated that her presidency gives her great authorisations particularly in the area of foreign policy. Hence, her right to change foreign policy priorities and consequently renounce her support to Pusic and Pusic’s international candidacy.
The last of these was something Milanović could not have missed to hear. Also, may be because he had not forgotten the secret meeting in the end of March 2010 between Vesna Pusić and the then Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor. In this period, Milanović was undergoing preparations for the elections and takeover of power. As the leader of the opposition, he visited European capitals and gathered political support. At the time, he found that the most crucial capital of Europe for furtherance of Croatia’s membership in EU is Berlin. He assessed that Germany is capable of convincing the countries which defended their refusal to grant full membership in EU to both Croatia and Serbia at the same time on account of this being politically unacceptable to change their mind and that this was sufficient and that Pusic alone can achieve this through social-democratic liaisons who, as the President of the Parliamentary Board in charge of European integrations, believed that this last step towards EU can be made together with the Prime Minister. They organised a meeting of key stakeholders in Croatian policy, convinced the newly elected president, Mr. Ivo Josipović to participate and thus consequently, forced Milanović to participate too. Despite upcoming elections, he had to come to the meeting organised around such a significant topic which he understood as his own and to sit next to his election rival – Jadranka Kosor.
For this reason too, Milanović could not have foreseen the new initiative proposed by Grabar – Kitarović. Initiative for leaving the Western Balkan.
A complete break of any relationship with Serbia is not the consequence of refugee disaster. The refugee crisis was just a cause. Cessation or cooling of relationships between the countries in the region is just a part of the shift of geopolitical direction of the Republic of Croatia from the Western Balkans to Central Europe, and toward the relationship between the Baltic and Adriatic regions. It is obvious that Prime Minister Milanović assessed that aggravation of political relations with Serbia would bring short-lived European isolation but which would, in the long run, prove to be fruitful.