The Washington Diplomat / December 2008
By Larry Luxner
Croatia, whose 1991 independence came at a heavy cost in human suffering, hopes its pending entry into NATO will be a prelude to an even more important achievement: admission into the European Union two years from now.
On Oct. 24, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, Zagreb's envoy in Washington since April, looked on proudly as President Bush — in an official White House ceremony — signed a protocol declaring U.S. support for NATO membership for Croatia and Albania.
"The citizens of Albania and Croatia have overcome war and hardship, built peaceful relations with their neighbors and helped other young democracies build and strengthen free societies," Bush said. "Once Albania and Croatia formally join NATO, their people can know that if any nation threatens their security, every member of our alliance will be at their side."
Albania, once a Stalinist dictatorship and the poorest country in Europe, and Croatia, a war-torn former Yugoslav republic, will become the 27th and 28th signatories to NATO when the two Balkan countries are formally admitted next April, on the occasion of the alliance's 60th anniversary.
"This sends a strong message that the United States supports all the reforms we've done," Kitarovic said in a lengthy interview at the Croatian Embassy. "Being a member of NATO means being part of the security umbrella. It also brings more political stability and with it, foreign direct investment, more tourism and better credit ratings.
"But it also brings obligations, which we have been fulfilling all along the way," she explained. "Croatia was the victim of aggression in the early 1990s and we had to defend our own territory. The last UN mandate was completed in 1998, and already by 1999 we had become a security provider — undertaking our responsibilities for security in southeastern Europe and becoming part of the first UN mission in Sierra Leone."
Today, said Kitarovic, Croatia participates in 14 out of the 18 UN-led peacekeeping missions around the world — from Kosovo to the Golan Heights — not to mention Afghanistan, where it has 300 troops.
Kitarovic, 40, speaks fluent, unaccented English, thanks to the one year she spent as a high-school exchange student in Los Alamos, New Mexico, another year in Washington as a Fulbright scholar and her three and a half years posted to the Croatian Embassy in Ottawa. She's also fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and her native Serbo-Croatian, and understands Italian, French and German.
In addition to her language skills, Kitarovic is a shrewd negotiator, having served as an elected member of Croatia's parliament and later as foreign minister, where she headed Croatia's EU accession talks.
She's also one of the few ambassadors in Washington to have visited all 50 U.S. states.
"I've really been to all of them," said the diplomat, who with her husband Jacov has two children, 7-year-old Katarina and 5-year-old Luka. "We've crossed the continent from east to west six times, and driven south to Key West, Fla. One of our most memorable experiences was driving to Alaska."
Kitarovic was 23 when Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, sparking an ethnic war between the majority Croats and minority Serbs, who were opposed to independence. An estimated 11,000 people died in the fighting; another 2,000 are still considered missing. During the 87-day siege of Vukovar, nearly the entire town was destroyed by the Yugoslav People's Army; virtually all the local Croats were murdered or expelled by the Serbs, and Croatia didn't regain full control over Vukovar until 1998.
"A lot of people went through terrible things. They lost their families and their belongings. Vukovar was razed to the ground," said Kitarovic, whose family is from Rijeka, which was relatively untouched by the fighting.
"You have to go through a catharsis, and heal physical as well as psychological wounds. You have to work on reconciliation at the local level to establish trust between neighbors who used to fight and now must live together. And if incidents do happen, you have to sanction them right away."
Iceland was the first country to recognize Croatian independence, followed by international recognition in January 1992 and Croatia's admission to the United Nations in May 1992. Eventually, Croatia established diplomatic relations with all other European countries and breakaway Yugoslav republics, including Serbia. Fighting tapered off in 1993 and stopped altogether in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton peace accords.
"The Serbian minority is now even part of the ruling coalition," said Kitarovic, estimating that Serbs form 5 to 7 percent of the population. "They have all the rights that pertain to minorities and have a guaranteed number of seats in Parliament."
Throughout the past decade and a half, Kitarovic told The Diplomat,Croatia has undergone a tremendous transformation.
"We really have become an example of a country that's worked toward full reconciliation. We're determined to accept back every single refugee who has returned. We've restored and rebuilt properties, and all the citizens whose homes were destroyed or damaged have the right to special loans from the government," she said. "Croatia learned a lot from other countries, and we're more than willing to share our own experiences with others."
One of those lessons is punishing war criminals, and Kitarovic said Croatia moved quickly to set up its own war crimes tribunals to punish those guilty of atrocities during the 1991-95 War of Independence.
"There were prominent cases of highly ranking Croatian army officers tried for their crimes," she said. "That's really a big test for any judiciary to conduct these trials, and it's important for the future so that it never happens again."
Yet hatred between the two ethnic groups still simmers, especially in the inland towns and villages away from the Dalmatian coastal resorts so popular with foreign tourists.
Of the former 350,000 Serbs in the area, only 123,000 have come back, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). But those are mostly older people; the younger Serbs tend to stay away because they don't see a future here.
"The West regards the return of Serb refugees as an important indicator of democratic progress in the ambitious Balkan country. Prime Minister Ivo Sanader wants to lead his nation into NATO and the EU as quickly as possible," according to a recent article in Germany's Der Spiegel. "The European Commission isn't in so much of a hurry. Croatia must prove its reliability as a stable democratic country before it can join the bloc says Brussels, and attacks on national minorities aren't helping its cause."
In late January, unknown attackers set fire to a Serbian orthodox church in Koprivnica, north of Zagreb. Serb cemeteries are routinely desecrated and Serbs are often insulted or spat upon in public by Croats who remember the tortures and massacres inflicted on them by Serb paramilitary forces during the war.
Relations between Serbia and Croatia suffered a further setback last year, said Kitarovic, when Croatia recognized the newly independent state of Kosovo.
"Serbia pulled ambassadors out of all the countries that recognized Kosovo. However, there is still an embassy in Zagreb, and we have an embassy in Belgrade, and we continue to work at a decreased level, to our regret," she said, noting that the Croatian Embassy in Belgrade — like the U.S. Embassy — was attacked by angry Serbs in the wake of Kosovo's declaration of independence.
Kitarovic insisted that Zagreb's recognition of Kosovo, which is 90 percent Albanian Muslim, should not be seen as an endorsement of fragmentation and has little bearing on the current ethnic tensions between Russia and Georgia.
"We always claimed Kosovo was a case in itself, that it should not set a precedent for anywhere else," she said.
Kitarovic, noting that the United States has up to one million citizens of Croatian lineage, says "there are no issues, just cooperation" when asked to describe the current state of ties between Washington and Zagreb.
"Our relations are currently the best since Croatia's independence," she said. "We very much appreciate this early ratification of the NATO protocol. One of our next ambitions is go get into the visa waiver program. Croatia's refusal rate is below 10 percent, so I believe we have a pretty good chance."
Kitarovic said she'd love to see more Americans visit her country, which is famous for its spectacular Dalmatian coastline and the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to one of the world's oldest synagogues.
Croatia's ultimate ambition, of course, is to become a full-fledged member of the European Union. How quickly that happens, however, is anyone's guess.
"Our ambition was to conclude negotiations and become an EU member by the end of this decade. However, that doesn't depend only on Croatia but on the EU as well," she said. "I do believe we will be an EU member by 2010. Just like NATO membership, this will mean a lot of opportunities, especially in the free movement of goods, people and capital. So that will open up educational and other opportunities for Croatian citizens. There will also be increased perception of Croatia as a stable country for tourism."
In the meantime, Croatia has another problem: declining population. The West Virginia-sized country now has only 4.4 million citizens, and like the Mountain State, it's losing people at an annual rate of 0.2 percent. If present trends continue, Croatia will have fewer than 4 million inhabitants by 2020.
"In order to boost the population, the family has become part of our official policy," explained the ambassador. "If you have a child, there's a six-month, fully paid obligatory leave so that no employer can force you go to back to work. And for the third and each child after, you can take three years off."