Croatia has to maintain good relations with the US

Croatia was notified last week that the European Commission has approved of the new strategy for Western Balkans that offers the firmest promise of the future membership so far, an indirect acknowledgement from Brussels that it has recognised it cannot apply to Croatia the same models and criteria as it does to other transition countries, and an announcement of some concrete changes. This week, Croatian government has received a different letter in which Commissioner Chris Patten and Greek Foreign Minister Georgios Papandreou remind Croatia that the EU does not agree with the signing of the agreement about the non-extradition of US soldiers to the ICC, as well as with the conditions under which the ICC parties, and Croatia is one of them, are allowed to do that. Croatia has yet again found itself in a delicate position between Washington and Brussels, as before the start of the war in Iraq. We spoke about this with Foreign Minister Ivan Šimonović. Q: What is the nature of Patten and Papandreou’s letter? A: It reminds Croatia about the Council of Ministers’ decision from September 2002 that adopted a set of guidelines on how the states should react to the US demand that its citizens be exempt from the jurisdiction of the ICC. It further states that the Council basically does not object to the signing of these agreements, but only under certain conditions. Finally, it lists all the conditions that the Council thinks these agreements should meet in order for them to agree with the international law and the obligations assumed through the signing of the Rome Statute. Q: What does the EU particularly disagrees with regarding the non-extradition agreements?A: Two sets of problems have occurred in the model agreement, although the US has drawn up other models too. In all the agreements that have been signed so far the main problem is the question of scope of the non-extradition, or who it does or does not include. The US wants this scope to be as large as possible and include all American citizens, as well as those non-Americans that are taking part in US-led operations. The guidelines stated that these agreements should include only those Americans that are taking part in certain operations, not all Americans. The other problem concerns the avoidance of penalty, or the lack of a clear guarantee on the part of the US that it will persecute the offenders if they are brought back home. Q: Has Croatia been offered such a model?A: We have received a standardised model, but we are waiting for the negotiations in June, when we will discuss with the US representatives about the ways for the two countries to protect and harmonise their interests.Q: Does this mean that these agreements can be negotiated, that it is not a “take it or leave it” situation?A: Yes, those agreements can be negotiated and harmonised, but there is not much manoeuvring room. It is highly unlikely that the US will now make some major exceptions in view of what has been signed so far. It is not only a question of relations with Croatia - an agreement signed with one country has a bearing on all future agreements. Apart from the countries that have already signed the agreement, there is a large number of countries that the US are still negotiating with, including countries very close to the US, like Great Britain and Italy. So far, none of the EU members have signed the agreement. The US is still negotiating with the EU about this. Q: What is Croatia’s argument against this agreement? A: There are three sets of problems that define our position as negotiators. Firstly, Croatia is a party of the Rome Statute, which means that it has to fulfil certain international legal obligations. The second problem is of political nature and concerns the EU guidelines. I have spoken recently with EU High Commissioner for Foreign Policy Chris Patten, who literally said to me: “Your aim is the EU, not NAFTA. Keep that in mind when negotiating.” For Croatia and other countries that are in a similar position, it would be much easier if the EU and the US found a common language. But the third and the most serious problem is Croatia’s specific legal and political position as regards its obligations towards the Hague Tribunal. Q: Which element is the dominant one here – political or legal, as the signing of the agreement and co-operation with the Hague tribunal do not legally overlap?A: The key element here is the political one. There is a Security Council’s resolution, in the passing of which the US took part as well, which states that a specific international crimes tribunal will be set up for a specific country and a specific conflict. The resolution obliges under the threat of sanctions that country to co-operate with the tribunal. But at the same time, we have a situation where the US does not trust the ICC for fear that it might be abused, and is asking for the non-extradition of its citizens. Politically speaking, it is very hard to accept that someone is being forced to co-operate with a certain tribunal under the threat of sanctions, while at the same time some other court’s credibility is being challenged. Croatia was asked to extradite it citizens accused of war crimes, while at the same time not only is the US not extraditing its citizens, but is asking of Croatia to do the same and not extradite the US citizens to another international court. Legally speaking, these two are totally different and mutually independent courts, but they do share the same purpose and are therefore in a way connected. That purpose is to ensure that if countries do not process the war criminals themselves, there is an international mechanism that will bring justice to the victims and punishment to criminals. Q: Is Croatia reluctant to sign that agreement out of principle, or because its signing would be difficult to “sell” both to foreign and national public?A: We have international legal obligations that we cannot step down from. These obligations include those towards the Hague tribunal, and those stemming from Croatia’s status as a party of the Rome Statute. Politically speaking, I think that the Croatian government and most of the citizens share the same view. We have not yet reached a decision, but we are willing to negotiate with the US and have a clear negotiating position. Q: In what way could the discontinuation of the US military aid affect the reforms in Croatia, as the military aid also means the financing of the legal reform, for instance, and there are indications that Croatia will not be granted an exemption?A: Media have blown this way out of proportions. I think Croatia will enter the EU and maintain good relations with the US regardless of whether it signs the agreement or not. It is imperative that we keep good partnership relations with the US in spite of our disagreements about certain issues. Partners negotiate and partners respect each other’s opinions. We will try to reach a compromise with the US representatives that will protect the interest of both countries. Even if that does not happen, it will not be the end of the world, and it will certainly not mean the end of the co-operation between the US and Croatia. The military aid will not be discontinued. We might not be able to use the $6 mil. allocated to us this year, but that does not mean Croatian cadets will be expelled from military academies in the US, only that we will have to pay their scholarship for this year. Croatia is far more important to the US as a stability factor in the region and as a constructive member of NATO, then as an ally in war against Iraq or as a signatory of the non-extradition agreement that is far more awkward for Croatia than for other countries. I think it would be tragic if this agreement damaged the relations with the US. It would be best if Croatia was exempt from the signing of the agreement and kept the US military aid.Q: What are the chances of Croatia getting the exemption?A: The criteria for getting it are defined by the US national interest. If the US advocates the acceptance of Croatia into NATO, then I think there is reason to believe that the continuation of military aid is of national interest to the US, as it leads to the regulation of our military forces and the strengthening of our potential in fighting terrorism. Nevertheless, the key argument is Croatia’s specific position as regards its obligations towards the Hague Tribunal, the fulfilment of which is one of US’s chief demands. Q: On the eve of the war in Iraq, because of our government’s unclear and contradictory statements, we barely got ourselves through by saying that we did not have to choose, that both the US and the EU are our partners, regardless of their disagreements. Why is Croatia now using the EU recommendations as an argument against signing the agreement and risking the same situation? A: The fault lines that occurred because of Iraq and are now being repaired by the issue of non-extradition, present a serious problem. These lines are not good for both the US and the EU, but I believe that they are only temporary. The US and the EU share some fundamental values and I believe such problems can easily be overcome. As always, when the big boys are playing, the grass gets hurt, and we want to avoid that at all cost. Q: The European Commission released a document on the new strategy for the Western Balkans that brought something new for Croatia. Croatia plans to become an EU member by 2007. You have recently said that in that way we had limited our manoeuvring space. For what?A: For hesitation, speculation and mistakes. Our road to EU membership has to be as short as possible. There must be no detours if we want to catch that train. We have missed more than a few opportunities the past, and this is one opportunity that we simply cannot afford to miss, for the sake of Croatia’s future and for the sake of our children. The document you have mentioned is a positive one, because it contains two very important elements. First, it unambiguously guarantees all SAA countries a European future. This is important because it contributes to the stability of the Southeast Europe. All of the dilemmas and sensitive issues of this region, such as the borders and minorities, are relativised by a clear European perspective. Such issues lose their importance in the context where the borders are not so rigid and where there are efficient mechanisms for the protection of human rights. Such a step forward for the European Commission and, I hope, the EU members as well, will have a directly positive effect on the stability in the Southeast Europe. Another important element of the EC strategy is the strengthening of the instruments that facilitate the process of approximation of Southeast European countries to the EU standards. First of all, the European partnership, or the joint planning of the European Commission and individual states, taking into consideration individual differences between states, their current level of approximation and the development of a joint programme with control units that evaluate whether we are going as fast as we should. The second important element is the so-called twinning. This means that government officials from an EU member state will come to Croatia to work with their Croatian colleagues and help them in some practical activities. In the same way, Croatian officials will work for the EU member states’ ministries and other state organs to gain experience and learn from the experiences of others. On 10 June we will talk with two directors from the Belgium’s Foreign Ministry about the Belgian experts that will come to Croatia this summer or fall. We already have some experience in this type of co-operation, but twinning is something that is explicitly supported by the EU.Q: Most of the discussions about Croatia and the EU end with the conclusion that Croatia has not yet developed a favourable political mentality, the so-called “European reflex.” The main proof of that is the co-operation with the Hague. The European Commission says that it will closely observe the Croatian government’s behaviour once the indictments arrive, because so far the government has not shown enough determination as regards the Croatian public. Is this Commission’s impression correct? A: Croatia’s progress in dealing with war criminals has often been underestimated. For a country that was a victim of aggression, it is not easy to accept the fact that members of its own military forces have committed war crimes that deserve punishment. Croatia has successfully crossed that road and now almost all relevant political parties agree that war crimes should be punished, no matter who committed them, but that at the same time Croatia’s history, dignity and the War for Independence should be respected. I doubt that co-operation with the Hague tribunal will sidetrack us from our road to the EU. There have been some difficulties on our side, but there have also been some mistakes on the side of Hague prosecution, namely some formulations in the indictments that blatantly disqualified the character of Croatia’s War for Independence. It is a great shame that this has happened, as it seriously undermined the development of a legal consciousness in Croatian people about each crime being a crime and therefore deserving punishment. Domestic war crimes trials are a proof of that development. Such legal proceedings serve to prevent black spots in individual histories from spilling over the entire War for Independence, which is something Croatia has the right to be proud of, so that it could enter the EU and be greeted with an applause. Q: If Croatia’s public consciousness is so developed, why does the government in all delicate situations explain its moves as being the result of the “pressures from the outside”? A: It is difficult to say whether it is always pressures from the outside. Every government reacts to a whole range of circumstances, based on its values, goals, on what it might win or lose... Sometimes these things are hard to distinguish. Q: In its visions of regional co-operation, the EU has gone as far as the idea about creating a free trade zone in this region. Are such predictions realistic, since some basic issues like the borders, the return of refugees and the visa policy have not yet been settled? A: The last document of the European Commission talks about the free trade. Croatia has signed the free trade agreements with the countries in the region, so for us it does not present a political or legal problem, but there should be some clear borders. A customs union is out of the question. The idea of regional association is economically beneficial to Croatia because Croatia, unlike other SAA countries, will profit from it directly. On the other hand, it would be unacceptable for us if the regional association became a substitute for entering the EU, if it was about creating a mini-union instead of preparing these countries for accession. The deeper we enter the EU, the more intensive our regional engagements can be. Regional co-operation is useful to us both politically and in the sense of security. When talking about visa policy, Croatia must bear in mind Schengen. We support the liberalisation of visa policy for the purposes of facilitating the movement of people and goods in the region, so long as it does not impede the communication between Croatia and the EU member states. The solving of the refugees issue is the most important political condition for entering the negotiations with the EU. Croatia can get a favourable opinion form the European Commission, we can even get the candidate country status, but we cannot start negotiating before all political conditions are fulfilled, and here the refugees issues plays the main role. The government immediately has to define the possibilities of the refugees return, not just their nominal rights. Persons who lost their right of tenure, but wish to come back, must also be dealt with. There must be a way for these persons to find at least a temporary accommodation in Croatia. We should establish regional co-operation with both Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia and Montenegro, for the purposes of a joint stepping forward, the implementation of a joint programme for the return of refugees, and the integration of persons that do not wish to return to the new states. We could use this programme to organise an international donor convention that I think would prove very successful. I took advantage of the yesterday’s talk with the Norwegian Foreign Minister to present that idea. The reaction was more than favourable, as it was the first time that all three states came forward as one and offered a joint framework for the solution of a problem that is both of a humanitarian nature and safety-related, as it is precisely the unsolved refugees issue that is feeding the nationalistic extremism in all three countries. Q: Is the Zagreb summit of the three governments going to take place?A: We shall see, it is still to early to talk about that. We has some problem with harmonising the declaration. There are still some issues we have yet to reach an agreement on. I believe we should continue in that direction, and that Croatia’s main contribution should be a clear definition of our government’s programme and of what we can offer to the returnees at the moment. After that, we should define the deadlines, provide incentives for those that will return within those deadlines, and see whether the three states can harmonise their national programmes, as I believe a joint appearance would mean a greater international help, both politically and economically.