February 12, 2022 Interviews

We need to turn more to our neighbours outside the EU

In an interview with Slobodna Dalmacija, Picula commented on Ukraine, the Western Balkans and our attitude towards these crises The interview was conducted by Hrvoje Prnjak, editor at Slobodna Dalmacija.

-What are your personal impressions from Ukraine, from contact with "ordinary" people - are people afraid of war or are they already tired of years of war tensions, breaking the truce, etc.? Does the atmosphere in Mariupol and Kiev remind you of the local atmosphere from the beginning of the nineties?

It may sound paradoxical, but while real drama is developing in and around Ukraine, citizens and even the state leadership are not inclined to dramatise. Citizens are certainly worried, but they do not give the impression that they are in a panic. The assessment of my Ukrainian interlocutors is that there is no need to provoke a sense of state of emergency by demonstrating military equipment on the streets, destabilising the banking system and weakening the economy.

-How do you assess the general policy of the EU in relation to the Russian-Ukrainian crisis? Can we even talk about a unified policy in this regard? Some countries, obviously guided primarily by their economic interests, seem to have decided to "pull the trigger", such as Germany? Is this something that actually encourages Russia in its, apparently still unsatisfied, aspirations to Ukrainian territory?

Russia's pressure on Ukraine is just the latest stress test for the expressed geopolitical ambitions of the European Commission, but also other EU institutions. However, geopolitical circumstances seem to affect the EU to a much greater extent. Once again, it shows how much the common foreign, security and defense policy is lagging behind, say, monetary union or the integration of the single market. And it is not just a matter of German hesitation in approving the supply of military equipment to Ukraine. There is also Hungary with its well-established resistance when it comes to showing resistance to various autocrats. On the other hand, the thesis that Ukraine is the last piece of the puzzle in Putin's ambition to rebuild Russia to the extent of the former USSR is gaining more and more credibility. Belarus is almost entirely subordinate to Moscow, as is Kazakhstan, during Russian interventions in their internal crises.

- In your opinion, what is the role of America in everything? Is it "sacrificing" Ukraine in some way, its prosperity and future for the realization of its goals and NATO expansion to the east, or do you recognize in the American engagement the aspiration for true help to the Ukrainians?

Another paradox; Putin's aggressive policy towards his neighborhood seems to be on the best path to strengthening cohesion within the EU, NATO as well as bringing Washington back to Europe. It is known that America has been concentrating its interests and attention towards the Indo-Pacific for a long time, primarily due to its rivalry with the increasingly influential China. The eventual expansion of NATO to Ukraine is, of course, a story on a very long stick, of which the Ukrainians themselves are aware. However, it is part of the modern Russian narrative that does not want to forgive the root causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union - others.

- It is also striking that the "main" talks are still being held on the America-Russia route? In this case, did the EU miss the opportunity to position itself more strongly in the whole story and impose itself as a factor of power?

In fact, Putin does not want to talk so much about European security with EU leaders but prefers direct agreements with the Americans as part of his strategy to separate the West, strengthen multipolarity and weaken multilateralism. On the other hand, he does not hate talking directly to the EU economic establishment and reminding him of the benefits of Russian-European cooperation. The EU emerged as the most successful peace project in European history. Reconciliation and cooperation are inscribed in her DNA as regulated by numerous agreements. But the EU is not operating in a vacuum. The world has changed in recent decades. Crises are everywhere on the EU's 15,000 km of external borders, while the pace of integration of the common foreign, security and defense policy has been slower. This crisis is a serious wake-up call.

- The arrival of Joe Biden in the White House, after Trump's policy of distance from the EU, was the reason for a new problematization of relations between the EU and the US, even in terms of security. Is the EU again just a "junior partner" of the United States in major crisis situations, or can it, guided primarily by its own interests, fight for an equal place at the table?

In general, we can conclude that our common values ??do not always and easily translate into common interests. This fact should serve as an incentive for us to better define them, to agree that we sometimes disagree, and to communicate differences better. Yet our shared values ??and agenda are much broader and more significant than our disagreements. The picture of transatlantic relations would not, of course, be complete if we do not analyse the situation in the EU. The decision-making structure often makes it impossible for the EU to take unanimous positions, to react more decisively and quickly to geopolitical and security challenges. That is why I believe that this period is crucial for the EU to develop a stronger role for the Union on the global stage.

- The return of the occupied parts of Ukraine, from Crimea onwards, is almost no longer mentioned in the light of the current crisis, as if it were an absolute topic. Only everyone is talking about whether Russia will carry out a new aggression against Ukraine: is it not dangerous for the sustainability of the principles of inviolability of sovereignty and territorial integrity, which until recently we thought was unquestionable in today's Europe?

The facts show that, unfortunately, the war has been a reality in Ukraine for eight years. Lately, however, it has definitely ceased to be just an internal problem of Ukraine as the crisis has grown into a European rather than a global security problem. One-sided demands that seek to dismantle Europe's security architecture, undermine state sovereignty and the fundamental principles of international relations cannot be accepted. Moscow's current, maximalist demands on the West can be summed up in the slogan "Russia's absolute security, everyone else's insecurity." The ongoing negotiations within the so-called Normandy format, which were renewed in Paris and should continue in Berlin, should be supported.

- You have already commented on President Milanović's rather derogatory criticism of your departure for Ukraine. But here I want to ask you - is it that the Government has one, and the President obviously another foreign policy agenda when it comes to the Ukrainian crisis is detrimental to the perception of Croatian foreign policy? How do they look at it in Brussels?

I am reluctant to accept public communication that deviates from a rational discussion of the merits of the problem in question. In the case you mention, it was necessary to respond to the inconsistencies regarding the consumption of borscht, raising per diems, salaries, political insignificance, Kosovo, refugee centers in Niger, on the Turkish-Syrian border. The President and the Prime Minister are clearly failing, due to the already chronic conflict, to preserve even a minimum of state unity in the field of foreign policy. The latest conflict has caused, to say the least, confusion among our allies and partners.

In your opinion, what should be the policy of the Republic of Croatia towards the Ukrainian crisis? Should we look at our work as much as possible "while the big ones are arguing", or do you see in the whole situation a reason for principled support for Ukraine? You yourself used to say "we are not a member of NATO by chance and we are not a member of the EU by chance"?

I am against any policy that calls into question Croatia's credibility both as a member of the EU and as a member of NATO. Deviation from the implementation of agreed obligations jeopardises such credibility. Of course, Croatia has the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes in the bodies of organisations of which it is a part. We should not shy away from previous discussions in the country about sensitive decisions. In any case, we need to show solidarity with a country whose traumatic present coincides with Croatia's recent past.

- Not long ago, you stated that the EU and the international community have no answers to the possible escalation of the ongoing crisis in B&H. You also said that it was a consequence of the lack of vision and leaving the Western Balkans to itself. Isn't this also an opportunity for a more important role of Croatia, for a new foreign policy agenda, if for no reason, then because of the interest in stabilising the situation in the neighbourhood, and also because of the Croats in B&H?

I expected far more from Croatian diplomacy and politics in general after joining the EU almost nine years ago. As a multi-regional country, Croatia needed to develop a much more active policy towards its neighbourhood, which is not yet part of the EU. Admittedly, there have been steps forward, but this is not about the continuity of such a policy. Croatia borders as many as three countries at different stages of EU accession, so it should have done more to articulate Brussels' policy towards the southeast. Today, on the one hand, we have a somewhat atrophic policy of EU enlargement, and on the other hand, the increasingly important role of non-European factors in the Western Balkans that do not share the values ??of the bloc. This area is increasingly marked by pronounced authoritarian trends, while B&H is even more exposed to growing dissolution processes. Due to the erosion of the Dayton Order and a small number of Croats who in that country feel particularly strongly the clashes between the interests of local political elites.

- Milorad Dodik announces the separation of the Republika Srpska once a week, negotiations on the election law are not moving from the deadlock; everyone refers to Dayton, but to whom it suits. Are you an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to the near future of B&H?

Unfortunately, B&H is post-conflict, conflict-ridden, and it should certainly be prevented from developing into a pre-conflict society. Especially in an election year, the greatest danger is posed by the merging of various chronic crises. Dodik seems to be the main character of the current drama, but in fact it is increasingly a medium of foreign influences on B&H and the region. The main dilemma can be formed in the question of how to achieve the homogenization of B&H itself instead of the homogenization of the constituent peoples in B&H? Certainly not by abolishing constitutivity but by elaborating the mechanisms of authentic federalism. B&H is certainly entitled to its position in the architecture of modern Europe. It would be optimal to constitute it on the basis of internal consensus during this process, and not solely because of external pressures.

- You once advocated the establishment and financing of the work of the Secretariat for EU Islands, all with the aim of including the islands in the story of energy transition, in order to be self-sufficient in this regard. Are you satisfied with the concrete results when it comes to Croatian islands that are ready to apply for EU funds that will provide them with real infrastructure investments, did you expect a broader response?

Yes, in 4 years I have provided 4 million EUR for the functioning of the Secretariat of the Clean Energy Initiative for EU Islands and of course I care about the success of this initiative, especially in Croatia. I think we have reason to be pleased because the largest and most populated islands have applied to the Secretariat's tenders in the first round. The Cres-Lošinj archipelago, Brač, Hvar and Korčula, islands inhabited by about 50,000 or 40% of the total number of islanders in Croatia, have gone through the process of drafting transition plans and today are the basis for withdrawing EU funds and attracting investment. Solar power plants Orlec on Cres and Gdinj on Hvar are good examples of concrete projects which would be difficult if these island communities did not opt ??for energy transition and make the necessary steps. To these should be added the applications received by the Secretariat in the second phase, concerning projects that applied for technical assistance. These are various green transition projects on Dugi otok, Žirje, Cres and Lošinj, as well as the Dubrovnik Elafiti. So we have islands involved in the energy transition from the far south to the north. By the way, we are expecting the last tender within the Secretariat during this month, and it is to be expected that the list of Croatian projects will be even thicker. In short, I am satisfied with the interest shown by the islanders and the strides that have been made as much as our Croatian circumstances, and the problems we are burdened with, allow.


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