Grabar-Kitarovic: Meeting with Serbian PM not just another protocol meeting

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic said in an interview with the Serbian public broadcaster RTS on Sunday that her meeting with Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, due to be held on Monday, and the signing of a joint declaration on the promotion of bilateral relations and settlement of outstanding issues would not be "just another protocol meeting".

"The meeting with Vucic was not prompted by the international community, it was motivated by the mutual wish to make concrete steps in bringing the two countries closer to one another," the Croatian president said, stressing that she and Vucic wanted their meeting to be of historic importance.

In a separate interview with Croatian Radio-Television (HRT) on Sunday, the Serbian PM expressed confidence that the agreement to be signed with the Croatian president would be of historic importance and that it would be a foundation "for the settlement of all disputable issues between Serbia and Croatia."

He went on to say that both countries had a common interest - long-term peace and stability, but that Serbia and Croats should talk more and show more mutual respect.

"Croats should more often try to feel what it's like to be in Serbs' shoes and Serbs should more often try to feel what it's like to be in Croats' shoes. It seems to me that that way we would be able to understand one another better," said Vucic.

Speaking of the two countries' border dispute on the Danube River, Grabar-Kitarovic said that joint commissions should sit down and establish "the differences and possibilities of compromise solutions."

If no solution is found in bilateral talks, she does not think that it would be a problem to seek assistance from international judicial institutions.

Vucic, too, underlined international arbitration as a final solution to the border dispute, should there be no bilateral solution.

Grabar-Kitarovic said the search for missing persons was a "humanitarian issue", stressing that families of the missing deserved to know what had happened to their loved ones and that the two countries "should be able to settle that painful issue and turn to the future."

Vucic said that the two countries were looking for a similar number of missing persons, explaining that on Croatia's list of missing persons were also around 400 Croatian Serbs.

"Serbia is looking for a slightly more missing Serbs, but it's time we finally settled that," he said.

Commenting on the status of the Serb minority in Croatia, Grabar-Kitarovic dismissed claims that not enough had been done for minorities, stressing that the Serb minority "has three guaranteed seats in the Croatian Sabor, regardless of the number of votes won in elections", that there were minority councils, and that Serb representatives could also serve as deputy county heads.

"Issues such as electricity, living standards, jobs, sustainable development - those are all issues that also burden the majority Croat people and all other minorities and citizens of Croatia," said Grabar-Kitarovic.

Vucic said that he was not satisfied with the return of Croatian Serb refugees to their prewar homes, but added that all questions should be discussed openly, noting that "the emotional aspect" was a problem.

"Emotionally, we will never agree. When we speak about Storm (the 1995 Croatian army and police operation), 99% of Croats will treat it as a heroic operation and celebrate it, while 99.99% Serbs are the saddest on that day because of the expulsion and exodus of such a large number of people," said the Serbian PM.

President Grabar-Kitarovic said that the settlement of outstanding issues between Serbia and Croatia would also have an effect on economic relations because "Serbia is a very important trade partner for Croatia."

She invited Serbians to spend their winter and summer holidays in Croatia, stressing that "Serbian tourists are welcome in Croatia."

Speaking of the economic cooperation, Vucic said that it "is a fact that for different reasons, Croats find it harder to tolerate Serb presence in the economic sector than Serbs do Croat presence", but he expressed satisfaction that there was a large number of Croatian investors in Serbia, that the biggest retail chains in Serbia were Croatian-owned and that Croatia was one of "the most important foreign trade partners."

"That cooperation can be enhanced in the future - in tourism, services and many other sectors, but that requires a different policy and different emotions," he said, adding that one of the goals of the declaration he and the Croatian president would sign on Monday was a better economic cooperation.

Asked if he minded Montenegro's accession to NATO, Vucic said he did not, stressing that Serbia respected all other countries and wanted them to respect its independence and sovereignty too.

Commenting on the interviewer's remark that Serbia had good relations with Russia, he said that Serbia had good relations with Russia and with China, as well as with all European countries.

"I believe relations with Croatia, too, will be much better."

President Grabar-Kitarovic expressed confidence that she would not be alone in Croatia in her readiness to settle outstanding issues with Serbia and that she saw in all parts of the political spectrum "readiness to make progress in dealing with problems."

Denying that Croatia was blocking the opening of the policy chapter No. 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights) in Serbia's EU entry talks, Grabar-Kitarovic said that "Croatia does not intend to block Serbia on its path to the EU" but that it would insist on Serbia meeting all membership criteria.

"I believe that we can solve our bilateral issues in parallel with Serbia's EU accession process," she said.

Asked about the opening of the policy chapter No. 23 and the disputable law on universal jurisdiction for war crimes, which Croatia insists Serbia should repeal, Vucic said that he believed that opening that chapter was important, but that if it was not opened, "Serbia will continue building good bilateral relations with Croatia."

Asked if there was a high level of consensus in Serbia about EU accession, Vucic said that the level of consensus was higher among politicians "because they know better what we need" than among Serbian citizens, but added that he believed a majority of Serbian citizens were in favour of their country joining the EU.

Speaking about the canonisation of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, which is being disputed by Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church, Grabar-Kitarovic said the canonisation "does not mean the downplaying of the Ustasha regime nor is it directed against the Serb people."

She said that Stepinac "suffered under the Communist regime because he did not want to give up his faith", that Stepinac, who was beatified in 1998, "is a symbol of protection of the Croat people from communism" and that arguments in favour of his canonisation included "elements of martyrdom, tolerance and help to others" because, among other things, he saved Jews and Serbs during World War II.

Speaking about her preference for music made by Marko Perkovic Thompson, Grabar-Kitarovic said that "listening to Thompson does not mean that I condone any salute, such as 'For the homeland ready' or any other."

"I will always promote healthy patriotism that does not endanger others," the Croatian president said in the interview with the Serbian public broadcaster.

Grabar-Kitarovic and Vucic will meet on Monday in the eastern Croatian community of Dalj and then visit Tavankut and Subotica in Serbia, where they will sign a declaration on the promotion of Croatia-Serbia relations and settlement of outstanding issues, including protection of minority rights, a plan to resolve border issues, the issue of missing persons and succession to the former Yugoslav federation.

The Croatian president's office said in a statement the declaration would be an expression of the two countries' wish to move forward in their relations.

RTS and HTV broadcast both interviews after their prime time news programmes.

Last update: Mon, 20/06/2016 - 12:10

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