Highlights of Croatian foreign policy in 2015

An unprecedented refugee crisis and the consequent worsening of relations with some neighbouring countries, the withdrawal from a border arbitration agreement with Slovenia, an unsuccessful genocide lawsuit against Serbia and a gruesome execution of a Croatian national in Egypt are some of the highlights of Croatia's foreign political activities in the outgoing year.

Unprecedented refugee crisis

This year Europe has been faced with a refugee crisis of proportions not recorded since World War II and major humanitarian and security challenges. Croatia is one of the countries along the Balkan refugee route used by refugees and migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East on their way to Germany and Scandinavian countries in search of a better life.

The refugee tide spilled over Croatia's borders in September after Hungary closed its border with Serbia by erecting a wire fence because of, as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said, the need to protect Hungarian and European borders from the refugee influx.

That physical barrier has rerouted dozens of thousands of refugees, who until then had travelled via Serbia and Hungary to their desired destinations without problems, to Croatia's eastern border.

In the following month, Croatian authorities used by-pass routes to transport refugees from reception centres to the green border with Hungary, until Orban decided to erect a fence also on the border with Croatia. Croatian authorities then changed the route for the transport of refugees and started sending them to Slovenia. It did not take long for Slovenian authorities to start putting up a razor-wire fence on the border with Croatia.

Croatian authorities took a humane approach to refugees, underlining that Croatia would not close its borders, except in case Austria and Germany did it. More than half a million migrants have passed through Croatia since the start of the migrant crisis.

Impact of refugee crisis on bilateral relations

The migrant crisis has worsened the already fragile and problem-laden relations with neighbouring Serbia, Hungary and Slovenia.

The worsening of relations has been caused by mutual accusations between Croatia and Hungary regarding the handling of the refugee crisis.

Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic harshly criticised on several occasions Orban's positions and Hungary's decision to close its border, calling that country "a dead end" and accusing it of non-European behaviour. Orban responded by calling Milanovic "a Socialist whose job is to attack Hungary".

Involved in political debates were also Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic and her Hungarian counterpart Peter Szijjarto, who said that relations between the two countries had hit rock bottom.

Relations with Hungary have been at a pretty low level for a few years, the main reason being the INA-MOL case, namely the unresolved issue of management of INA and the refusal of Hungarian authorities to transfer MOL executive Zsolt Hernadi to Croatia to face charges that he bribed former prime minister Ivo Sanader to secure for MOL management rights in INA.

Due to suspicions that Serbia was sending all migrants to Croatia in agreement with Hungary, in late September the Croatian government decided to block the border crossing of Bajakovo, on the border with Serbia, for trucks from Serbia. The Serbian government reciprocated by stopping the import of all Croatian goods into Serbia. This was followed by new countermeasures from Croatia and the closing of the border to passengers from Serbia. Both sides exchanged harsh words and accusations.

The Croatian ambassador to Serbia refused to accept a Serbian note protesting against the border blockade because of Serbia's statement that the Croatian measures could be compared with measures from the time of the (World War II Nazi-styled) Independent State of Croatia (NDH). Serbian tabloids launched monstrous attacks on Milanovic, likening him to Hitler and NDH leader Ante Pavelic.

Several days later, the border was unblocked.

Relations with Serbia had not been good before the border incident even though Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic's attendance at the inauguration of Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic in February gave rise to hopes of improvement, and a meeting of the two countries' foreign ministers in Zagreb in March sent out an optimistic message about "a new level of very good relations". Shortly after that, anti-Croatian incidents broke out in Serbia - war crimes indictee Vojislav Seselj burned a Croatian flag in downtown Belgrade, and Serbian Labour Minister Aleksandar Vulin hurled insults at Milanovic and Croatian army general Ante Gotovina.

The Croatian ambassador to Serbia was withdrawn to Zagreb for consultations but soon both countries started defusing tensions.

The past continued to burden the two countries' relations and in the summer, when Croatia was marking the 20th anniversary of Operation Storm (which helped claim back parts of Croatian territory held by rebel Serb forces), Serbian officials spoke about the operation's "criminal nature" and Serbian authorities found a military parade held in Zagreb on that occasion insulting.

The refugee crisis has also resulted in strained relations with Slovenia. While Croatia was claiming at the start of the crisis that it was sending migrants to Slovenia in line with an agreement with that country, the Slovenian authorities said that that was not true and that Croatia was sending migrants in an unorganised manner, ignoring agreements on the number of migrants it was sending. Slovenia then started erecting a wire fence on the green border with Croatia, prompting the Croatian government to start sending one protest note after another against the fence being put on Croatian territory.

In December, Croatia reported Slovenia to the European Commission, claiming that the border fence prevented the migration of wildlife and that with it Slovenia was violating regulations on the protection of natural habitats and the environment.

Despite protests by Slovenian intellectuals and experts, Slovenian and Croatian associations and local residents on both sides of the border, Slovenian PM Miro Cerar claims that the fence is being put up to ration the refugee influx across the green border and protect communities living in border areas and their property and that it is a temporary measure that will be cancelled once the refugee tide abates.

Withdrawal from border arbitration

At the end of July, the Croatian parliament unanimously decided that Croatia should withdraw from the border arbitration agreement with Slovenia after it was found that the Slovenian member of the arbitration tribunal, Jernej Sekolec, and Slovenian diplomat Simona Drenik had secretly met to discuss the case and agreed to lobby the other judges on the panel to rule in favour of Slovenia.

Sekolec resigned after the finding and the Croatian member of the arbitration tribunal, Budislav Vukas, stepped down after Croatia withdrew from the compromised arbitration. Slovenia appointed Ronny Abraham, the President of the International Court of Justice, to replace Sekolec, but he soon resigned too. The tribunal then decided to appoint new judges after the two countries failed to nominate their candidates within the set time frame.

Croatia sent two letters to the arbitration tribunal saying that it had launched a procedure to terminate the arbitration agreement because of its flagrant violation by Slovenia. It also sent a note to Ljubljana saying that Croatia was withdrawing from the arbitration agreement because it considered it irrevocably compromised, citing the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.

Slovenia responded by saying that it did not accept Croatia's "unilateral withdrawal" from the agreement, adding that the arbitration process should continue and result in a ruling that would be binding on both parties.

In October, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told the European Commission, which supported a continuation of arbitration, that the agreement did not exist anymore. "The agreement has fallen through, it is compromised, the Croatian parliament has unanimously rejected it and for us it doesn't exist anymore," he told the Croatian press.

However, early in December the tribunal called on Croatia and Slovenia to once again state their views on the legal consequences of Croatia's position that the arbitration should be terminated, scheduling one more hearing for March 2016. Croatia is to present its position by January 15 and Slovenia by February 26.

The Slovenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately acknowledged the receipt of the notice from the tribunal, reiterating that the arbitration procedure should continue and end in a binding ruling. The Croatian Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs would not comment on the latest move by the tribunal because Croatia had withdrawn from the arbitration and, judging by that, had no intention of declaring its position again. 

ICJ dismissal of genocide lawsuits 

In February, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague dismissed Croatia's genocide lawsuit against Serbia and Serbia's counter-suit. The Serbian counter-suit was rejected unanimously, while the Croatian suit was dismissed with 15 votes in favour and two against.

In 1999, Croatia sued Serbia for committing genocide against Croats during the 1991-1995 war in Croatia, and Serbia responded in 2010 by launching a counter-suit for an alleged genocidal campaign against Croatian Serbs during Operation Storm in the summer of 1995.

The ICJ accepted the findings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) according to which war crimes committed by Serbia in the Eastern Slavonia, Kordun, Lika, Banovina and Dalmatia regions of Croatia were not aimed at annihilating the Croats but forcing them to leave those areas so that a homogeneous Serbian state could be created. The tribunal found that an act of genocide had been committed but the intent was not to annihilate one ethnic group but only to expel it. The expulsion of Croats did not include their systematic annihilation.

Commenting on the verdict, Prime Minister Milanovic said: "We have to respect the tribunal's decision, it cannot be appealed. We have done all we could in these 15 years, we are not satisfied with the tribunal's decision, but we accept it in a civilised manner."

Outgoing President Ivo Josipovic, who had been involved in drafting the lawsuit, said that the ruling was disappointing but as expected, while Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic said that it could not be inferred from it that both sides were equally to blame. "I hope this verdict will help the two countries to close this historical chapter and move on in a better direction," she said.

Execution of Croatian national by Islamist terror group

In 2014 Croatia joined the international coalition in the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group, and this year it was appalled by the brutal execution of a Croatian national, Tomislav Salopek. He worked for the French company Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) and was abducted in the Cairo area on July 22 while driving to work. Islamic State released footage showing Salopek kneeling in the desert next to a masked man holding a knife and reading from a piece of paper that his abductors would execute him within 48 hours unless the Egyptian government released arrested Muslim women. Despite efforts by the Croatian and Egyptian security services to locate him and Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic's visit to Cairo, Salopek was brutally executed. Islamic State released a photograph of a murdered hostage on Twitter, saying that Salopek was killed because Croatia was involved in the war against Islamic State.

Last year Islamic State also executed British charity worker David Haines, who was married to a Croatian woman and has a family in Croatia.

U.S Vice President Biden's visit to Zagreb

In a year in which the Croatian government nominated Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic for the post of UN Secretary-General and President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic unveiled her initiative to connect the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Sea, Croatia welcomed US Vice President Joe Biden, the highest US official to visit the country since President George W. Bush in 2008.

Biden arrived in Zagreb in late November to attend a summit of Southeast European leaders, hosted by Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic and Slovenian President Borut Pahor. The summit was held as part of the regional Brdo-Brijuni Initiative which brings together the countries of the former Yugoslavia and Albania. In that way the US showed that it was interested in taking a more active part in dealing with regional issues and bringing the region closer to the West.

After Southeast Europe had been out of the focus of US foreign policy for years and was visited by lower-ranking US officials, Grabar-Kitarovic wanted to get the US interested in the region again and her office said that Biden's visit was a confirmation that Zagreb was Washington's main partner both in the southeast and northwest of Europe, namely in the Baltic-Adriatic-Black Sea region.

Last update: Sun, 27/12/2015 - 21:59
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