We will settle the disagreements with the US because we need its partnership

Q: Relations between Croatia and the US have been a little stained lately, especially because of the ICC. After Croatia refused to sign the bilateral agreement about the non-extradition of American citizens to the ICC, you said that the negotiations would continue. What is Croatia going to do with these demands on the part of the US? A: As regards the ICC, we have agreed that it is an ongoing dialogue. Both sides should think about the arguments that have been presented. We expect to have another meeting in the near future, when we will try to reach a compromise that will satisfy both sides. Our differences stem from legal argumentation. We interpret the obligations contained within the Statute of Rome differently than the US, our interpretation being closer to the guidelines put out by the EU, but we do want to reach a compromise with the US. We are well aware of its problems (the US soldiers being scattered all over the world) and of its specific role.

Q: After the talks with the US delegation, you said that a solution might be reached through some other bilateral arrangements. What exactly did you refer to? A: There are two ways in which we can make our different attitudes meet. One of them are the specific agreements on the presence of the US citizens on Croatian territory. We have already made an inventory of all such agreements and realised that a good part of the US citizens in Croatia is already covered by the existing agreements. However, we could go a step further and discuss a wider agreement on legal co-operation and assistance between Croatia and the US, as we have never concluded such an agreement, although we have started the negotiations several times. We should consider whether such an agreement, that can contain also the terms of non-extradition, could protect the US interests on one hand, and Croatia’s legal position on the other, without straying too far from the EU guidelines.

Q: So, these agreements would not run contrary to the EU guidelines? A: We are trying to find a halfway point between the US and the EU, bearing in mind that our legal outlook is closer to that of the EU. I would like to point out something that could be read between the lines from the EU-US meeting in Washington. Although there was no mention of a permanent criminal court, it was pointed out, within the contexts of a joint struggle against terrorism, that the possibility of strengthening legal co-operation and the designing of various agreements on legal assistance should be explored. I think that the idea of the usefulness of such agreements in settling the differences is finally coming to fruition. Of course, we would rather if major agreements got signed, then us having a pioneer role in legal creation, but that is not up to us. Our task is to continue with the negotiations and try to find a solution that will acceptable to both sides.

Q: On 1 July, Croatia lost the right to the US military aid. Will this “sanction” reflect on Croatia’s relations with the US? A: That depends on the US. As regards the $6 million worth of aid for this year, we did not lose it, but the problem is not in the financial aid, but in some other forms of military aid and co-operation that are much more valuable than that. It is important that we maintain partnership with the US, both in military and other fields, and this is something we need to work on. We will work with the new ambassador Ralph Frank on finding the solution to strengthen the relations between our countries. I have not yet had the chance to talk to him, but I did speak with the US ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, in Geneva. From that meeting it was obvious that the US is more interested in Croatia’s role in the region, than its involvement in the war in Iraq, for instance, where our role can be only marginal.

Q: That may be so, but we did raise our voice before the war in Iraq, which did not prove to be beneficial to our relations with the US. It seems that Croatia is trying to choose between one partner or the other, instead of choosing them all. A: Croatia should keep more doors open, as regards both Europe and global relations. Countries like Croatia need allies of different colours and geographic locations. Right now, we have two priorities: NATO and the EU. In negotiations with NATO, the US has the key role, as well as countries like Turkey, which supports our entry into the Union. But Croatia should not restrict itself to European issues only. I just got back from China, which is of no relevance to either NATO of the EU, but the understanding of global processes is important for small countries like Croatia. In this day and age, we are all connected, and that is why it is important to keep our eyes, ears, and mouths open.

Q: Some politicians, including some of those in power, have questioned the validity of entering NATO. Does this mean that NATO is no longer Croatia’s priority? A: There will always be pros and cons about NATO, but as regards our membership, the pros outweigh the cons. It is not just about the importance of entering NATO, but about the importance of NATO spreading to Southeast Europe as well, as that will contribute to the stability in the region. There is also a political and safety aspect to entering NATO. The Southeast is still an unstable region, and not all countries have reached the level of democracy and stability that is necessary for a safe future.

Q: Are you optimistic about Croatia entering the EU? A: We are doing quite well. Our shares at the stock market are growing. I cannot say whether we will enter the EU by 2007, or whether we will enter it by the end of this decade, for that matter, but I can say that the future looks brighter every day. Of course, we will have to play smart in order for things to go they way we want to, both politically and professionally. We can have the positive opinion of the European Commission on our hands, or even get the candidate status, without having started the negotiations. Turkey, for exle, has had the candidate status for years, and has not yet began negotiating. It is imperative that we satisfy the political criteria before we start the negotiations, and this is where we have been making some considerable progress. The situation is not bad as regards the co-operation with the Hague as well.

Q: What makes you think that? A: On one hand, it is surprising that the prosecutor apostrophised General Ante Gotovina on the same level as the notorious war criminals like Karadžić and Mladić, as it is clear that we are talking abut two different categories here. The investigations that are still going on, and will be going on until 2004, do not include the persons ranked higher than General Gotovina. This means that the co-operation with the Hague should not present a political problem for Croatia. Things are starting to look more positive, progress is being made, and by this time next year, I think we will be in a better position. As regards the return, the government has made a wise decision, as the international community perceived the prime minister’s appeal as a step forward.

Q: Croatia still has to answer the 4000 questions that Romano Prodi is bringing to Zagreb next week. A: Yes. It is important to answer these question before the deadline, because it will show that we care and that we are capable. Of course, it is not just about answering these question, but answering them in the most complete and precise way, as the quality of our answers may speed up the process of writing the avis. The more complete our answers are, the less subsidiary question we will get later on.

Q: What do you think of the fact that Italy is now presiding over the EU? A: I think of it as a positive thing. Italy has always been explicit about supporting Croatia’s EU candidacy. Is important for us to negotiate with Italy about how to implement some of the elements of the Thessaloniki document. We plan on consulting the countries in the region and some multilateral organisations as regards our common foreign policy issues. It think it is an important element. It is questionable whether Croatia will get a special treatment here as a country whose application has already been processed. I have spoken about that with Italy’s Deputy Foreign Minister Roberto Antonione and we agreed to have special consultation about that. Italy agreed to include Croatia in the consultations, which changes our status in numerous ways.

Q: The Thessaloniki summit clearly stresses the importance of individual approach, but Croatia still fears the so-called “regional package.” A: For Croatia, the individual approach is important for several reasons. It guarantees us what we have always wanted, and that is to enter the EU when we are ready, regardless of the others. At the same time, it gives us more manoeuvring room for stronger regional engagement. This suits us perfectly, as we are economically more developed than others in the region, and according to that economic policy, this kind of co-operation suits better those that are more developed. Regional co-operation suits us both politically and safety-wise. Politically, because we are talking about neighbour countries, and safety-wise because it reduces tensions. Co-operation in fighting organised crime and drug trafficking is also extremely important.

In co-operation with Italy and Slovenia we will set up an economic zone in the Adriatic

Q: Will the Italy’s presidency of the EU speed up the solving of the remaining issues between our countries, such as the Italy’s property in Croatia? A: Italy is Croatia’s commercial partner number one and has a special importance for us, regardless of its presidency of the EU. Its is clear that we need to solve all of the remaining issues, and we on our side will do everything to solve them as soon as possible. We have every reason to be pleased with the Greece’s presidency of the EU, but the Italy’s presidency came just at the right moment and we expect some positive dynamics.

Q: When will Croatia and Italy solve the issue of managing the Adriatic? A: This is an important issue for relations with both the EU and Italy. The EU asked of the Mediterranean countries to consider the setting up of a protected fishing zone. This is a very interesting idea and we plan to continue negotiating about that. We also need to consider protecting the ecological resources of the Adriatic and setting up an economic zone. We are ready for that, but this is a sensitive political issue that requires negotiations with all of the interested parties.

Q: It was precisely because of this sensitivity that the Croatian government postponed the unilateral declaring of the said economic zone. Are you saying now that it is going be done after all? A: Legally speaking, Croatia is in a position to do that, yes. But of course we are not going to do that unilaterally and hastily. About whether we should do that or not we will discuss with all of the interested states. But this does not mean that it will hurt the interests of Italy or Slovenia. We could, for instance, offer them guarantees through the possibility of a limited fishing in areas that would fall within that zone. The idea is to protect the national interests through partnership relations with all of the parties involved. Right now, the atmosphere in the EU is much more favourable for such enterprises. The idea is for the common resources not to be monopolised, but protected in the best way possible. The moment Croatia enters the EU, that economic zone becomes the EU economic zone. This might motivate the interested states, including Italy and Slovenia, to want to see the Croatia in the EU as soon as possible. Therefore, this is indeed a multi-faceted issue, but one that is very interesting for Croatia.