Former Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović (2015–20) argued that the security and stability of Southeast Europe depends on the capability of the region’s diverse segments to coexist with one another. Grabar-Kitarović was featured in the most recent episode of Battlegrounds, a Hoover Institution broadcast hosted by Fouad and Michelle Ajami Senior Fellow H. R. McMaster, which is intended to inform US foreign policy making from the perspectives of allies and security partners.

Grabar-Kitarović was born in the northwest Croatian city of Rijeka, which was then part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia comprised six ethnically and religiously diverse political entities that were held together for nearly thirty years under the authoritarian rule of Josip Broz Tito. Following Tito’s death, in 1980, the republic began to disintegrate as these entities each sought self-determination.  

Grabar-Kitarović was a university student when Croatians and Bosnians fought for independence from Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army units (renamed the Bosnian Serb Army) launched a campaign to carve out territory dominated by ethnic Serbs. In this effort to establish a “Greater Serbia,” more than two million Bosnians and Croats were driven from their homes, and over 250,000 people were killed on all sides. Most egregiously, in what amounted to a crime of genocide, Serbian forces slaughtered 8,000 Bosnian Muslim males in the town of Srebrenica.

Fighting ended after NATO forces conducted air strikes on Serbian positions in 1995. In November of that year, the Dayton Accords were reached, establishing a peace framework between Serbians, Croats, and Bosnians. It also preserved Bosnia-Herzegovina as a single state, consisting of two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, composed with a Bosnian Muslim majority, and the Republika Sprpska, dominated by Serbs. To this date, Serbia, Croatia, and the entities of Bosnia-Herzegovina contain ethnic minorities from one another’s nations.

“[I thought] there was no way that we and our Serbian neighbors would live with each other and by each other for decades and decades to come,” said Grabar-Kitarović, who also recalled frequently seeking refuge in a bomb shelter during the Balkan Wars. “Fortunately, I was proved to be wrong.”

Grabar-Kitarović added that when she was president of Catholic-dominated Croatia, she focused on protecting the rights of Serbian Orthodox and Bosnian Muslim minorities. A policy of inclusion, she explained, was meant in part to influence the leaders of Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to do the same for their respective Croat minorities. She held that these actions cost her politically among Croatia’s nationalist bloc but were absolutely crucial in helping to reduce tensions and preserve peace in the entire Southeast European region.

In particular, Grabar-Kitarović asserted that a policy of inclusion also bore fruit in her country’s Bosnian Muslim community. She explained how her administration forged strong ties with Croatia’s Muslim leader, Mufti Aziz Hasanović. As a result of this engagement by Croatia’s national government, Muslims in Croatia have remained committed to moderation and experience low rates of jihadist extremism within their ranks.

“From Croatia, in contrast to other neighbors not just to our southeast but to our northwest, we have very few people, you can really count them on your fingers, who joined ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant],” she maintained.

Grabar-Kitarović worries, however, that the European Union has invested too much money in the relocation of more than one million refugees from Muslim-majority countries ravaged by war, climate change, and economic decline. She argues that subsidizing these large migratory flows not only puts great strains on populations of Southeast Europe, particularly Croatia’s Muslim community, but also assists in ethnic cleansing of the migrants’ countries of origin and creates environments for nefarious activities such as human trafficking.

Grabar-Kitarović also addressed concerns about Russia’s and China’s influence in Southeast Europe. She believes that Russia’s efforts to sow dissension in the region, such as in backing the 2016 coup in Montenegro, are based on a fear of NATO’s expansion in Europe. However, she contended, the rise of populism and Euroscepticism can’t be solely blamed on the backsliding of democracy or on Russian disinformation campaigns aimed at eroding cohesion among EU member states.

She maintained that members of the EU parliament, who possess enormous political power, are largely viewed as unaccountable to the populations of their respective countries from which they are selected. Furthermore, European disunity is further exacerbated by regional disparities. In contrast to Western Europe, the continent’s Southeast lacks quality infrastructure and its population experiences relatively lower standards of living.

“I have been concerned about the trends in the European Union for a number of years before the recent crisis. I’ve seen an erosion of values. I’ve seen young generations forgetting why we got together at all. It’s not just an economic project, it’s a peace project as well,” she said.

Grabar-Kitarović also explained how China has stepped up as a financier of infrastructure projects in Croatia. Such arrangements, she argued, have not exposed her country to a debt trap that permanently ties it to Beijing’s global ambitions.

She maintained that Croatia is focused on reducing dependence on any larger economy, whether it be Moscow or Beijing. To that end, in 2015 she launched the Three Seas Initiative, a partnership with Polish president Andrzej Duda that supports the development of transportation, energy, and digital infrastructure projects in countries surrounding the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas.

She said that Croatia would be open to an expanded economic partnership with the United States but has largely been ignored by Washington. For example, she mentioned that Croatia is the only NATO member, other than Albania, that doesn’t have a treaty with the United States permitting companies participating in bilateral trade to pay taxes only in their country of residence.

“I really can’t remember the last big investment from the United States into Croatia,” Grabar-Kitarović said. “[Croats have the feeling that] if you are not a problem country or bringing big money to the table, you don’t have an entrance to the White House.”


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