Around Croatia's accession to the EU (the country signed its accession treaty on December 9 and is expected to become a full fledged member on 1st of July 2013), as well as around the news that Montenegro will finally start accession talks in June, with Macedonia there is already a new special high level dialogue in place while the name issue with Greece is resolved, and Serbia received a long-awaited candidate status, the feeling that a new page is opened on the Balkans increased. That the old enmities if not forgotten are at least sidelined in the name of a common European future and economic development for the countries in the region.
A chimera or simply more time is needed?
Everything seemed to be going by the plan and the international community breathed in relieve because right now, when the eurozone crisis is boiling with devastating power, in the EU there are presidential elections to take place against the backdrop of a complex economic situation, no one needs new troubles on the Balkans, which have already consumed a lot of efforts and energy in the 1990s. Until the presidential elections in Serbia, won to some extent surprisingly by Tomislav Nikolic - a former deputy of Vojislav Seselj, a radical and a former ally of Slobodan Milosevic's party, who claims that he had changed, that the past is past, that now Serbia needed successful economic future. And may be the people who were on the verge of believing him were not a few - be it because they wanted it so much or because indeed in the 21st century it is ludicrous that we live with the past.
Literally days after his election as president of Serbia, Tomislav Nikolic made a disturbing statement in an interview for a Montenegrin TV station, denying that Srebrenica was a genocide but acknowledging that after all this was really a big war crime. He also defined Vukovar as a Serbia town, instead of Croatian. He made everyone in the region nervous again and awoke the memories of a not that distant past. Many leaders in the region refused to attend the inauguration ceremony of Nikolic on June 10th. Among them Croatia - may be the country which is hoped to be a role model for the rest of the countries in the region on their path to EU membership. Will Croatia be able to meet such a challenge was the question I wanted to ask Croatia's foreign minister Vesna Pusic. She was in Sofia on June 8-9 to take part in the first edition of the Sofia Forum for the Balkans - an initiative of Bulgaria's foreign minister and the Centre for Liberal Strategies (a Bulgarian think-tank).
It will be able, Ms Pusic told me, because Croatia had done probably the most important thing - it had provided the countries in the region with translation in Croatian of all its accession documents - action plans, legislation and most of all the acquis communautaire itself. As Ms Pusic explained in her interview with this website, the languages in the region are close - Serbs, Bosniaks and Montenegrins will have no problem reading the documentation. Besides, Croatia is offering meetings with participants in the Croatian accession process which lasted more than 10 years (the country has officially started negotiations in 2005), but it makes it clear that it does not desire to preach. On the contrary, it is open for partnerships. It will start with Montenegro, it will make a special Euro-Atlantic cooperation tailored for Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is also opened to Serbia.
But how will relations with Serbia develop against the backdrop of the comments of the president-elect, I asked Ms Pusic. Although the country had decided to send its ambassador for Monday's ceremony, Zagreb claims that it is ready to give time for things to settle down and Serbia to take hold of itself. According to Croatia's foreign minister, this is more about "overenthusiasm" from Nikolic's election as president, which surprised him as well. The Balkans are still a fragile place and there is a risk every day and in every country in the region, Vesna Pusic said, but still she is confident that we can do it, that we can prove that we have grown up. A proof of that, according to her, is an emerging alliance of like-minded politicians on the Balkans. With people like Vesna Pusic and meetings like the Sofia Forum for the Balkans, success is possible. After all it depends on us. (You can see the entire interview with Ms Vesna Pusic in the video file)
Transcript of the interview:
euinside: Croatia is more and more often suggested as a role model for the region of the Western Balkans. Do you think that the country is ready to take up such, I think it's a huge burden, such a responsibility?
Vesna Pusić: The country is ready to form partnerships with the other countries in the region on this topic, on the topic of transferring the experience of accession, which is a little bit different in this part of the world and especially for countries with a European perspective, because for us it's also a state building exercise and in that sense our experience is probably ... Certainly we are not the most advanced country in the EU but precisely because of that it's an experience that's probably the most usable for the countries in the region, both because we are the first post-conflict country after the founding members entering the EU, and also a country which actually built the institutions of the state in the process. We don't intend or assume that we will here and now be some kind of teachers or go around and tell people how to do things but we first understand that it's absolutely in our own interest our neighbours to go through the reforms as soon as possible because it makes life easier and more stable for everybody. Secondly we are ready to share the documents, the experience of the people who participated in the process which lasted over 10 years in our case.
euinside: Do you have any particular partners in mind - countries from the region?
Vesna Pusić: Well, we are most probably next Tuesday signing a bilateral agreement with Montenegro on Euro-Atlantic partnership. We have in the pipeline a similar but tailor made for BiH agreement also дх Euro-Atlantic partnership. We are prepared to go in this direction with Serbia and with Kosovo in the future. We have already given our translations of the acquis communautaire into Croatian because the difference between Croatian, Serbian, Montenegrin and Bosnian is like the difference between English and American so they can understand the news, all of our action plans, legislation and all of these things but also the translations of the acquis communautaire and we've already have given them that.
euinside: You've mentioned Serbia but now it seems that there's a little bit awkward situation with the latest comments of the new president of Serbia. How do you see the relationship with that country?
Vesna Pusić: The new president-elect made a few comments that are completely unacceptable for Croatia or for any country for that matter if you had territorial aspirations. We see this as maybe a result of the over enthusiasm of the election campaign. I think that the fact that he was elected came to some extent as a surprise to president-elect Nikolic himself. We think that it is for Croatia obviously important to see the new government of Serbia but that for Serbs and Croats on both sides of the border they will always stay neighbours. For our societies it's important that we as governments and as leaders of our respective countries can work together because this makes life easier for the people. So, we are prepared for that, we are expecting president-elect Nikolic to make things easier for us.
euinside: Who's going to represent Croatia at the inauguration ceremony in Belgrade?
Vesna Pusić: Our ambassador.
euinside: Do you see a risk, you say that you are prepared but still do you see a risk that the relationship might not turn out as we all wish?
Vesna Pusić: There is always that risk. In this region there a risk everyday and with every country that we have but if there is something that we have experience in this is something that we have experience in. So, we are not rushing. We are prepared to let things settle down. We have decided in advance for the first time to break the vicious circle of always getting involved in each other's election campaigns and reacting to some of the outrageous things that are being said in the campaigns, precisely because we think that it is time to say that we are not going to worsen our relations because there is an election campaign. So, I think we have very good chances to be successful but whether there is a danger of course there is a danger. It shows how still fragile this part of Europe is.
euinside: You said in your panel that it's up to us, that it's finally time to take our own destinies in our own hands. Given now the situation and the experience of Bulgaria as well - we had quite a lot of failures some successes but in general it's been hard - do you that we are capable, the region to take hold of ourselves and to do without the external help now that everyone is preoccupied with the eurozone crisis, the US also, of really it's up to us?
Vesna Pusić: The fact is that there will not be any external help in terms of somebody else making decisions for us, somebody else leading us. The external help is the fact that there is this European union, this is almost as a reminder for institution building, for stabilising our institutions, so there it is, there is the common market. This is great external help. But in terms of somebody else making external political decisions, leading us, the famous international community owes us to do something or will do - this is something that simply will not happen. So, our success as countries and as a region depends on our really on our own capacity to take responsibility for ourselves and I think that there is an alliance not formal but through working together, through having met at different occasions. There is an alliance of politicians throughout the region who understand responsibility, who understand self-reliance, who understand that nobody can help you if you first cannot help yourself and who are prepared to support each other within the region. And I think that this is the nucleus of the potential treasure that we have here and also a potential base for actually starting to behave as grown-up countries.
euinside: Thank you so much for your time.