Co-Authors: Dr Gabriela Bereghazyova & Dr Zuzana Palovic
The Voices of the East: Perspectives in a Divided Europe? Series Part #4
Interview with His Excellency Dr Ivan Grdešić
The last few centuries took Croatia, the Adriatic jewel, by storm. The strategically positioned country went from being a key part in the empire of Austria-Hungary to becoming the bedrock of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia following the changes after WW1.
Some twenty years later, Croatians was absorbed into the socialist Yugoslav Federation in the aftermath of WW2. It was out of this conglomerate, made up of numerous southern Slav nations, that Croatia went on to become a modern republic, but the rebirth was far from easy.
At long last, Croatia could start to breathe more freely in 1991. Yet, true sovereignty would not become a reality until after four more years of war as Croatia found itself in the hotbed of a civil confilict that plagued the southern part of the continent for a good part of the 1990s.
The 21st century Croatia is proud to be a part of Europe, where it feels it has always belonged. This alliance was formally sealed in 2013 when the country gained its much longed-for European Union membership. The rocky path to independence and re-integration into the European family has given rise to growth, reform and healthy confidence. Yet, the Russian threat is never far away.
In a world drifting apart, His Excellency Dr Ivan Grdešić shares the story of Croatia’s devotion to the European ideals, the complicated relationship with Russia and the lessons to be learnt from the tumultuous transition from an ancient nation into a young and vibrant democracy.
The 20th century witnessed the fall of authoritarian regimes the world over
When the imperial world and the communist realm collapsed, they proved that enforced multinational federations based on authoritarian control are unsustainable.
Unlike the empires of the past, the European Union is not a prison of nations
It is a family of countries that willingly came together to form a Union based on shared principles and values. The doors of the EU are open for countries to come, but also to leave. This makes it very different to the monarchies of the past.
The collapse of the European empires gave birth to the modern nations of today
Empires of the past collapsed because nations wanted to create their own nation states. Today, these young countries want to be viable and independent democracies. The recent economic and migration crises illustrate their reluctance to give sovereignty to wider authorities. Not only Eastern European countries are afraid of losing too much power and with it an ability to fully manage themselves.
The lesson of Brexit is a painful one, but it is not a catastrophic one
Britain joined the Union primarily for economic reasons. The single European market proved very lucrative for the merchant nation. But from the very beginning, the political culture, the traditions and the history of Britain were not the same as those of continental Europe.
The Brits did not share the core value of a return to Europe
The Union has a different objective and purpose for Croatia. My country, as other small post-communist European nations, views the membership as a return to Europe.
Croatia has always been European, just now we are members of the European Union too
Europe is where we belong. Eastern European countries never wanted to be something in between Russia and the Western world. They wanted to be the Western world. We have always felt a part of the West, its civilisation and space.
We feel an indirect pressure from the East
Although my country may not have been strained by Russia as some other states that were part of Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact, we sympathize with their challenges. After all, Croatia was not a member of the Warsaw Pact. The pressure we feel from the Russians today is much more indirect. Sometimes it is economic or energy-related, other times it comes from our immediate neighbourhood or symbolically coded in messages we receive from Russia. And no, we do not like it when Russia has military exercises close to our borders.
Croatians have mixed feelings about Russia
We are aware of our "soft sides" to Russia and we do our best to minimize it. In some periods Croatia has been reluctant to expand its trade with Russia, we even lost some businesses because of that. We are also exploring alternative sources of energy. On the other hand, this situation has allowed us to become more independent.
Being an EU member state and a NATO ally are at the core to our national interests
We recognise the weight of the situation in Ukraine as we faced a similar situation at home. Croatia joined European economic sanctions on Russia.
At the same time, Croatia understands the value of maintaining a pragmatic dialogue with Russia
It is important to be reasonable and work with Russia for our mutual benefit, especially when it comes to trade and economy. Europe has to keep open channel of communication with this important state.
We are living in a world where national interests are beginning to dominate again
Russia and the US show that they may shift into this direction. Common international values as rule of international laws and agreements should be in the same time in the national interest of all nations big and small. This is why it is important for my country to be a member of the EU, now more than ever before, and to adhere to the legality of international relations.
Croatia is a Western ally
From the beginning, EU membership was for us an answer to the threats and challenges of globalisation.
I am worried that the situation is going to worsen
However, democracies can re-invigorate themselves. History has proven that they can go through crises and resolve them. International politics also go through cycles of more common or more nationalistic times.
The best cure for the ailment of democracy is more democracy
It may take longer, be more expensive, as well as socially and economically demanding, but it is the healthier option. On the contrary, nationalism, populism and crude dominance of national interests are short-sighted and damaging.
Mr Grdešić was closely acquainted with ins and outs of politics well before he stepped on to the path of diplomacy. As a political scientist based at the University of Zagreb, he published extensively both at home and abroad on the matters of Croatian politics. His expertise gained scholar positions with a number of prestigious international research institution.
Dr Grdešić was first lured out of academia when he embraced the opportunity and took up the ambassadorial post in the US in the year 2000. Upon return to Croatia, he was hungry to share the experience and knowledge gained during his time in Washington D.C. at his alma mater in Zagreb. His insights proved valuable and translated into a leading role on the Advisory Council to the President of Croatia.