miro kovač.jpg
Photograph: HINA/ Damir SENČAR/ ds

The newly-appointed Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Miro Kovac, said on Thursday that he would start mending relations with neighbouring countries, which have deteriorated because of the refugee crisis, and if Germany were to drastically restrict the influx of refugees, Croatia would do the same to protect its territory.

"We need to improve relations with our neighbours. Relations with some of the neighbours, such as Slovenia, Hungary and Serbia, have deteriorated due to the refugee crisis. There was a lot of fuss and omissions last year when the refugee wave turned towards Croatia. One of the foreign policy priorities is to mend and strengthen relations with our neighbours," Kovac told Hina in an interview.

Kovac will soon visit all neighbouring countries, the first being Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), a state in which Croats are one of the three constituent nations and towards which Croatia, as a neighbour and signatory to the Dayton peace agreement, has a special responsibility.

Kovac is due to visit Sarajevo and Mostar already on Friday. "That visit will show a continuity of our state policy towards BiH. Croatia is very much interested in seeing BiH develop well and reach an arrangement that will ensure that the Croats, satisfied and equal with their friends Bosniaks and Serbs, embark on the path of EU integration. We want a strong friendship with BiH in politics, economy, science and culture, in all areas" Kovac said.

"I want my first trip abroad in fact to be to BiH, particularly because it has been announced that BiH will apply for EU membership and we as a neighbour will support that wholeheartedly," he added. 

Kovac, a former Croatian ambassador to Germany, said that "Berlin's nobleness is now encountering reality". If Germany decides to drastically restrict the inflow of refugees and if Austria follows suit, Croatia will have to do so too. "This won't guarantee a long-term efficient solution, but Croatia will have no choice but to close its borders to more efficiently control the inflow of refugees and protect its territory."

Speaking of the relations with Serbia, Kovac said he would take an open, positive and constructive stance, that he was looking forward to increasing trade, and that he would insist on dealing with the remaining issues stemming from the 1990s war against Croatia, notably missing persons. "I'm confident that the Serbian side will see that without resolving the issues from the war, there can be no sound foundation for good relations in the future. If we are frank and open with each other, we will very soon see results in that regard."

He said solving the issue of representation of the Croatian minority in the Serbian parliament would be a sign that Belgrade wanted to build sound good-neighbourly relations. "The Serb minority has three members in the Croatian parliament, while we don't have any deputy representing the Croat minority in the Serbian parliament, although an intergovernmental agreement on the protection of national minorities has been in place since 2004. Something is not right here and we must tell our colleagues in Serbia: Let's deal with this."

Croatia walked out of a border arbitration agreement with Slovenia last year, and Kovac confirmed that "the arbitration is no longer valid," proposing a solution that would be based on international law and good neighbourly relations. "We wish to reach a solution with our friends in Slovenia that will be based on international law and in the spirit of good neighbourly relations. We are confident that we will find a solution to the border issue based on international law and in the spirit of good neighbourly relations between the two peoples and states. Croatia and Slovenia are members of the EU and NATO, many Croats spend their winter holidays in Slovenia and many Slovenians spend their summer holidays in Croatia, our economies are strongly connected."

Kovac dismissed criticism that, with the Baltic-Adriatic-Black Sea Initiative, Croatia was drawing closer to Hungary and Poland, which have been exposed to criticism for their anti-immigration views, for restricting media freedoms and undermining the three-branch division of government.

"That initiative is a contribution to Croatia's emancipation on the foreign policy front," he said, adding that Croatia is at a junction of Central and Southeast Europe. "We must take advantage of Croatia's  specific position and be active in the vertical (Central European) and horizontal (Southeast European) cooperation. If we are clever, we can profit a great deal, especially in the economy and in strengthening our energy independence," Kovac said.

He went on to say that the new government "will be and must be" more active on the international front than the previous government, stressing that there should be more discussion on foreign and security policy in the Croatian parliament and in public. "Economic topics dominate in Croatia, which is understandable, but we must develop a democratic culture and not only include state bodies in discussions on those topics but experts too."

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