Articles - November 2018


An interview with H.E. Pjer Simunovic, Ambassador of Croatia to the United States
By Roland Flamini

A Heroic Soccer Team “Uplifted the National Spirit,” Says Ambassador Simunovic

The 2018 FIFA World Cup was remarkable in many respects, not least in the achievement of the Croatian team which came close to winning the coveted trophy, but lost to France in the final. A country of four million people, Croatia produced a team of brilliant players whose successive victories against a string of formidable opponents gradually raised the level of national excitement in their home country to fever pitch, and – in the words of its ambassador to Washington, Pjer Simunovic, “uplifted the national spirit.”

In an interview with Diplomatic Connections, Ambassador Simunovic strove to put the team’s success in perspective, arguing that sport was only one aspect of a “serious” country’s activities - and Croatia was a serious country. However, the fact is that sport plays a central role regarding Croatia’s national identity, and Croatians are soccer-mad.

The team’s success gave Croatians a reason to be proud of their country despite a less than rosy overall picture. The economy could be performing better; young people are emigrating in droves, and, amid general political disenchantment a recent ex-prime minister has been found guilty along with his party, and convicted on corruption charges. Also, back home Croatian national soccer is mired in scandal, with the heroic team captain, Luka Modric, suspected of perjury.

Croatia was one of the six constituent communist republics of the former Yugoslav Socialist Federation whose post-Cold War fragmentation turned the Balkans into an ethnic bloodbath in the 1990s. It took armed intervention by the UN and the United States to end the strife that gave new meaning to the term “ethnic cleansing,” and the cessation of conflict was enshrined in an agreement cobbled together by Washington and signed in – of all places – Dayton, Ohio, on December 14, 1995.

A trail of the conflict’s after-effects continues to haunt the former belligerents in the shape of war crimes trials by a special tribunal in the Hague of assorted Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians, residual resentments between the former constituent republics, and border disputes. Unquestionably, the war interfered with the process of reshaping Croatia’s post-communist society. It took Croatia 10 years of on-and-off negotiations to finally join the European Union in 2013, in part because the EU said its democratic norms had not yet met requirements, but also because at one point neighboring Slovenia blocked entry over a disputed border. With the birth of younger generations who experienced neither the communist regime nor the war, the passage of time is resolving Croatia’s transition problem.

Croatia had a somewhat easier entry into NATO and has a close strategic relationship with the United States. There are Croatian troops in Afghanistan, and serving in UN peacekeeping operations. An ever-rising tide of tourists attracted to its natural beauty, its long Adriatic coastline, and numerous islands, has been a lifeline to its economy; but as Ambassador Simunovic explains, the exodus of young Croatians to seek work elsewhere is one of its most significant problems.

A former journalist who once worked for the BBC’s now-defunct Croatian service in London, Ambassador Simunovic has successively been Croatia’s ambassador to Israel, deputy foreign minister, Croatia’s negotiator for entry into NATO, state secretary for defense, and chief-of-staff of the Croatian security council.

Diplomatic Connections: How does a country with four million population end up almost winning the World Cup?
Ambassador Simunovic:  It did not come out of the blue, I would say. We are giving a whole new meaning to punching above our weight when it comes to sports. For one reason or another, football (soccer), basketball, tennis, water polo, athletics – sports are very popular in our country. We have good youth training procedures in our schools. It’s a great system and a competitive one, and football is extremely popular. It gets promoted as a national trait.

Diplomatic Connections: It is heavily underwritten by the state?
Ambassador Simunovic: I wouldn’t say so. Football very much manages itself on a commercial basis. It’s a confluence of other factors; we used to have a magnificent generation of players in the 1990s [That Croatian team earned third place in the 1998 World Cup], now we have an extraordinary group of individuals who were able to forge a team, an extraordinary ability to play together.

Diplomatic Connections: There were celebrations, of course. But is there a lasting impact to this success?
Ambassador Simunovic: Too early to tell what kind of lasting impact it can have. Clearly, Croatia is a serious country dealing with serious issues such as its foreign relations, and national security, so there cannot be a direct correlation between a success in sports and everything else that is happening in the country. What is certain is that it has uplifted the national spirit. A pride in a very positive sense in who we are and what we can achieve. Interestingly, it came at a certain moment in the psychology of the nation which is important. We had been badly hit by the economic crisis, although a few years back the economy started to pick up, tourism is doing magnificently, and this success in Russia has certainly increased optimism about the future. Obviously, it has raised the profile of the country internationally.

Diplomatic Connections:  What are your priorities as Croatia’s ambassador to Washington?
Ambassador Simunovic: To keep forging the strategic alliance we have been able to establish with the U.S. since the beginning of our relations, when we started to work together on how to end the war in Yugoslavia, how to stabilize the region, how to extend the integration of the Atlantic relationship, including ourselves. We have always acted as an agent to promote the European Union and NATO. When it comes to fighting terrorism, we have troops in Afghanistan (and other critical missions across the globe). Military cooperation is the strongest pillar we have with the U.S. For us, NATO is the main pillar of our security, and the main institutionalized instrument in strengthening trans-Atlantic cooperation, which in our view is of absolutely irreplaceable value. After the last NATO meeting in Brussels, the first country Defense Secretary (Jim) Mattis visited was Croatia to meet us and our partners in the U.S.-Adriatic Charter (with Croatia, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Montenegro as members, and Slovenia, Serbia, Kosovo as observers).

Diplomatic Connections:  What about the bi-lateral trade.
Ambassador Simunovic: Bi-lateral trade is below what we can do, and what we would like to have, on both sides. The main element in the pipeline is the LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) terminal project on the (northern Adriatic) island of Krk, which should be one of the main elements in diversifying energy supplies.

Diplomatic Connections:  Diversification being code for less dependence on Russian gas imports.
Ambassador Simunovic: Of course. The pipeline will enable us to work closely with American suppliers on a nice commercial footing. This is something which we see as being very much in U.S. interests, and very much a part of our discussions with our American friends.

Diplomatic Connections:  Presumably, you are in touch with the Croatian diaspora in the U.S. Where are the Croatians concentrated?
Ambassador Simunovic: I was just on a tour of Cleveland, New York, San Francisco, Napa Valley. The concentration is in these places, plus Seattle, Texas. Very much all over the place. In California, it’s huge. Pittsburg for a long time used to be the second largest “Croatian city.” If they’re from the coastal regions, they gravitated towards the fishing areas like Seattle, San Pedro, New Orleans.

Diplomatic Connections:  You mentioned NATO. Do you share the unease of some Europeans that the Trump administration might not be as committed as in the past to the North Atlantic Alliance and  Article 5 in the alliance treaty the principle of mutual defense?
Ambassador Simunovic: Not really. If you look at the big picture, you’ll see that when it comes to what’s happening on the ground the U.S. is undertaking greater measures than it has been doing for decades, and has even strengthened some new ones in terms of the military, and the Pentagon, including the enhanced formal presence in Europe. What President Trump is certainly advocating for in a very vocal way is the necessity for more equitable burden-sharing: but before him, other American presidents did the same, and it’s something that has already been agreed upon.  Of course, he’s more expressive and more robust. We’re moving towards that goal. The Croatian government adopted a special decision reconfirming it will reach the goal of 2 percent of GDP. That has been the pledge for a long time: most countries have not fulfilled that pledge for domestic reasons, and it has to be done. The trans-Atlantic link and the presence of the U.S. in Europe is a fundamental ingredient of international stability, it’s in Europe’s interest and in our interest.

Diplomatic Connections:  What about U.S. interests?
Ambassador Simunovic: It’s up to the Americans to decide what their strategic interests are, but we can say that for them (NATO) is an investment from which they also benefit a great deal - for example, our nation being with our American friends in their hour of need in the aftermath of 9/11, when the U.S. invoked Article 5. The only time that Article 5 has been invoked - it was for the United States. We should go beyond the daily declarations, and go to the essence.

Diplomatic Connections:  What is the popular feeling in Croatia today on membership of the European Union?
Ambassador Simunovic: When we became independent from Yugoslavia inherent in the idea of becoming independent was membership of the European Union. The idea was to re-integrate with the West in all its aspects – liberal democracy, free markets, human rights, prosperity, alliance, Western civilization. When the time came for negotiations we didn’t need a referendum to join NATO, it was a parliamentary vote, but there was one for the EU, and the result was 60 percent in favor.

Diplomatic Connections:  But has that acceptance changed?
Ambassador Simunovic: The unfortunate turn of events was that Croatia’s entry into the European Union in 2013 coincided very much with the unease in the union caused by the 2008 financial crisis, the crisis with Greece, then the Brexit came, so many of the things taken for granted for decades, like the structural fund, the ever-deepening integration, solidarity- the great ideas of the fathers of Europe, Adenauer, Schumann – came to a certain re-examination due to pressure from different quarters. In our case, people were not able at the time to see the direct advantages of membership because we had been hit by the crisis; they were not able to fully understand that we were much better off with the instruments with which the EU was helping us. In Croatia, the crisis was sharpened by a certain lack of structural reforms which should have been done earlier. But how do people see the European Union in Croatia these days? When it comes to the country as a whole, philosophically we are still committed to the idea of perfecting this union as the best way of keeping Europe free and safe. What ordinary people think on a daily basis is hard to tell. They may not have such an immediate understanding.

Diplomatic Connections:  Is Croatia in the eurozone?
Ambassador Simunovic: Not yet. The plan is to introduce it when Croatia, for the first time, has the EU presidency in the first half of 2020, and that will be another big moment. It will increase our visibility as an EU member.

Diplomatic Connections:  That will be after Brexit.
Ambassador Simunovic: Yes, and without the Brits, the European Union will be losing a lot. There will always be an England, so that I would be less worried about - the fate of the UK. Britain provides the European Union with a lot of Anglo-Saxon pragmatism; the UK was always a proponent of enlargement, but not of the ever-deepening, and that idea of ever-deepening has ended up provoking a lot of friction [“ever deepening” the union is specified in the Treaty of Rome]. Without the UK (the EU) will have lost a certain equilibrium; we know what the European Union will look like without the British, but what will truly change?  That is still to be seen. We certainly wouldn’t like a European Union which is a coalition of great powers. We see it as an equitable organization in which we can work out our differences nicely with a bit of goodwill from all sides, and without the dictate from a major power.

Diplomatic Connections:  Would the Croatians today – twenty-three years later – accept the Dayton Accord?
Ambassador Simunovic: That’s a hypothetical question, but yes, because with all its imperfections it enabled peace to prevail after a bloodbath and a terrible war, and the prospects of even further mayhem. (Serbia’s President Slobodan) Milosevic had been stopped and pushed back militarily, and that enabled Dayton. The agreement was realistically possible, with the Americans playing a major role. The Dayton Agreement was not meant to be a permanent solution; it was a cease-fire agreement to open the way forward to reach a durable and lasting political solution. It was not meant to be the last thing, but without the enactment of something else it ended up being so. It should have been replaced by a more formal institutionalized arrangement a long time ago. But it wasn’t, because the circumstances were such within Bosnia and externally, because of lack of vision, lack of engagement, other things happening in the world.

Diplomatic Connections:  Do you think that, having put together the Dayton Agreement the Americans didn’t follow through - walked away from the problem?
Ambassador Simunovic: The Dayton Agreement was a major revolutionary instrument to end the war and to establish a framework, within which the actors would be able to work their way towards including membership of the European Union and NATO. The reconciliation that has been achieved following the intensity of the conflict was remarkable. In Bosnia, you get statements, you get many things which are not nice, but they are not shooting at each other. You have the disturbing level of Russian penetration in the region, but that is a separate issue. One of the objectives of our foreign policy is to keep the flame of enlargement alive. Some EU and NATO members, particularly old members, are suffering from enlargement fatigue. Eventually getting Macedonia, Serbia into NATO, we can help them actively with our experience, and politically advocating the enlargement.

Diplomatic Connections:  How difficult are relations between former belligerents in the war?
Ambassador Simunovic: If you use the benchmark of the mayhem and bloodshed of the 1990s, we have made a lot of progress. Today there are people traveling all over the Balkans. There’s a record number of Serbian tourists visiting the Adriatic, people from Croatia visit Belgrade. You see political statements one way or another, criticizing each other; you see some occasional outbursts, but in the main – and again, considering what had happened – this is truly amazing. Cooperation is going on at different levels. On the surface, and beneath the surface, at the level of human relationships and friendships, at the level of cultural exchanges, things are much more optimistic than you would believe from reading certain media in Serbia, or in Croatia, Bosnia, or Macedonia.

Diplomatic Connections:  How would a Croatian father react to the announcement that his daughter planned to marry a Serb?
Ambassador Simunovic: Intermarriages at the pop star and celebrity-level are a big thing that gets a lot of media attention, but otherwise it’s absolutely a normal thing. The trickiest relationships in the former Yugoslavia are between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians.

Diplomatic Connections:  The war apart, how did Croatia transition from communism to a democratic society?
Ambassador Simunovic: Communism, apart from being a totalitarian system, was also an economic system, so the wounds went deep, and it took longer to heal. The problem we’re facing in terms of getting rid of the communist legacy is having to deal with the double transition. We were transitioning from communism to democracy, and from peace to war and back. There was no time to evaluate who did what during communism, and to debate on it because we ended up facing war immediately. Now, there’s a big ideological debate ongoing in our country between those who want lustration (cleansing a new regime from the remnants of the past) and those who say, how can you do it now? Certain things you can always do, when there is a legal case of responsibility for an act which is not subject to any amnesty, and there is always time to get things right, but that’s how it ended.

Diplomatic Connections:  But does the new generation stay in Croatia, or does it migrate, as in the case of Central European countries?
Ambassador Simunovic: That’s the most critical – the most disturbing - issue we’re facing in Croatia, and it also connects with the soccer, and the level of optimism in the country. If part of that optimism will result in fewer people leaving the country that would be the greatest effect of our almost victory at the World Cup. Younger Croats leaving is a product of the years of recession; it’s a product of communism, and many other things. After World War II it was the men who emigrated north – the so-called guest worker generation – leaving their families behind, so they were shuttling back and forth and sending money back. Now, the most disturbing development is that people sell everything and the whole family goes, and once they go in such a manner it’s hard for them to come back. Maybe we shouldn’t be so pessimistic. It happened earlier in other former communist countries in central and eastern Europe, and I read that now they’re returning.

Diplomatic Connections:  What advice would you give a fellow ambassador about working in Washington?
Ambassador Simunovic: There are differences of magnitude, it depends on the size and the nature of the country you represent: that very much conditions your priorities and the way that you are seen in this city, what you need to do, and how you need to do it. To get the attention of the Americans you have to be a great power: that helps. Or you have to be a big problem that also gets their attention. And the third slot, in which we think we are, is a country which is not a great power, not a great problem, but an ally helping to contribute to the issues which are important both to the Americans and to us, and that gains you leverage. The U.S. asks you to do something, which may not at that moment be visibly in your immediate interest, you do it, then you gain a certain right to ask for their support for something which may not be in their interest. It’s a transactional relationship but in an indirect sense.

Diplomatic Connections:  Ambassador Simunovic, thank you for taking the time to speak with Diplomatic Connections.

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