Croatia is far from being as isolated in its attitude towards Serbia as it was depicted in Croatian and Serbian press until recently. Bulgaria backed the Croatian veto on the opening of Chapter 23 of the negotiations with Serbia. This became clear after the meeting of Bulgarian Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov with his Croatian counterpart Miro Kovač in Zagreb, where several important messages were conveyed. The first one is that the two countries will from now on coordinate their positions on an European level, including the highest one possible – the European Council – as well as in NATO. The second message is addressed to Serbia and the countries in the enlargement process in general. The third one is directed at Russia, and there was a lot in common between the former and the latter. Both ministers pledged strong support to the enlargement process, especially towards the Western Balkans countries, provided criteria and standards are strictly respected. They both reminded that Croatia and Bulgaria had to fulfil difficult conditions as well.
Answering euinside’s question on whether Croatia sought Bulgaria’s support for the veto on the opening of the key Chapter 23 of the negotiations process with Serbia, the Croatian foreign minister answered that it is both in Bulgaria’s and Croatia’s interest that Serbia progresses and “reach the point when the famous Chapter 23 can be opened”. He did, however, underline that it is named “Judiciary and fundamental rights” and that it is the most important chapter in the negotiations process. Minister Mitov, in turn, stressed that the fulfilment of criteria is extremely important, and that Chapter 23 is linked to a certain set of criteria, which need to be fulfilled. He named Croatia’s blockade legitimate. “Our Croatian friends have a legitimate right to demand the fulfilment of these criteria and to, of course, as well as we, aid the process, so that the required parameters can be covered as soon as possible and in the best possible manner”.
Minister Mitov reminded that the Bulgarian side also has unresolved issues with Serbia, related to the Bulgarian national minority in the country “and these issues should, too, be resolved in the scope of this discussion”, further said Daniel Mitov. Bulgaria has not placed a veto on the opening of Chapter 23. His statement in Zagreb, however, signals for a strong support to the Croatian efforts. Zagreb blocked the opening of Chapter 23, which usually goes together with the other key chapter – 24, which covers the rule of law - because of Belgrade’s refusal to return to The Hague Vojislav Šešelj, who was later acquitted in absentia from the charges of war crimes and genocide. Zagreb placed a total of three conditions for lifting its veto, only two of which are standing – respecting minority rights and amending of the law for universal jurisdiction, which allows Serbia to prosecute for war crimes, committed on the territory of other former Yugoslavia states.
Daniel Mitov sent yet another very powerful message to Belgrade. The sooner Serbia aligns its foreign policy with the Union, the quicker will its European integration be. This means implementing sanctions against Russia, which does not enjoy a lot of support in Belgrade. Awhile ago Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić announced that this may happen around the year 2018, but did not commit to a specific date.
NATO will deter Russia
The Russian subject surfaced also because of NATO’s plans to station four thousand troops in the Baltic States and Poland. Answering a question by the Croatian RTL television, the Bulgarian minister stated that the increased military presence along the whole NATO Eastern flank does not exceed the parameters, which had already been agreed on with Russia and in no way is it a provocation or an act of aggression. “This is a natural process of demonstrating capabilities for the protection of the Eastern flank of the Alliance, of preparedness for action. This is, however, a defensive and deterrence process”, explained Minister Mitov. His words were fully backed by his host Miro Kovač. The two of them demonstrated very warm relations and understanding, even on a personal level. The Croatian minister congratulated Daniel Mitov on the birth of his daughter, whom he called a “princess”, and the Bulgarian minister, in turn, explained that he had personal friendship with Miro Kovač, stating that this was very important for international relations as well.
Croatia and Bulgaria are getting closer to the Visegrad front
The two ministers agreed to strengthen cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as to coordinate their positions in the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC), the European Council, as well as in NATO. According to them, there is a good foundation for this in the success achieved by several mid-sized and small states like Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia in the solving of the refugee crisis. “Based on this cooperation, a reduction of the migrant flow within the EU has been achieved”, stated the Croatian top diplomat. The two of them demonstrated closeness in their ideas on how the crisis is to be resolved. Miro Kovač, who comes from a right-wing government, expressed his admiration of the manner in which Bulgaria protects its external border, regardless of the fact that the country is being heavily criticised by human rights organisations for mistreatment of refugees.
While they were still in opposition, Miro Kovač and his party Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) did heavily criticise the previous centre-left government of Zoran Milanović for its way too open policy towards the refugees. Daniel Mitov announced that he and Minister Kovač shared the opinion that there must be a clear distinction between refugees and economic migrants. The former should be aided, while the latter must be returned to their home states.
Miro Kovač found many similarities between Bulgaria and Croatia. “We are two friendly people, two Southern Slavic people. We have a lot in common. We have both been in Communism. We exited it, transformed into democracies, based on the principles of freedom and the rule of law, and we managed to join both NATO and the EU. We are so close, that we could even talk without the aid of an interpreter if we so wished”, he said, reminding in this way that his party had a strong anti-Communist profile, which is a key orientation on the Croatian political scene. The party, which the Bulgarian foreign minister originates from, is also right-wing oriented and with a clear anti-Communist profile.
Translated by Stanimir Stoev