Two decades ago, the relatively small southern European nation of Croatia loomed large in international affairs. As a constituent republic of Yugoslavia, its 1991 declaration of independence hastened the collapse of the Communist federation, whose downfall descended into what came to be known as the Balkan wars. Emerging from the cauldron of violence, Croatia has been rebuilding itself and its image as it prepares to join the European Union this summer.
For Pjer Simunovic, Croatia's newly minted ambassador to Israel, there is no shortage of topics to discuss. As a former BBC journalist and state secretary in the Croatian Defense Ministry, he has observed and participated in diplomacy for over 25 years, but he does not shy away from difficult questions. Less than 24 hours after presenting his credentials to President Shimon Peres, Simunovic sat down with The Jerusalem Post for his first interview with an Israeli media outlet.
In a wide-ranging discussion, he addresses questions ranging from anti-Semitism to the status of Jerusalem, as well as his country's flirtation with fascism during World War II, when the infamous, Nazi-allied Ustashe regime took an active part in the slaughter of Croatia's Jews.
Israel and Croatia established relations 15 years ago. What is the state of the bilateral relationship today?
I think that due to mutual efforts in different spheres of life and based upon a long tradition of the relationship between the Jewish nation and the Croatian nation stretching back deep into history, we have been able to establish a remarkable partnership in many fields of life, such as the economy. We have a number of very important Israeli investments in Croatia, such as those by Teva [Pharmaceutical Industries], which purchased a major Croatian pharmaceutical company. We are also blessed with an increasing number of Israeli tourists, which increases knowledge of each other. And since I arrived here I keep meeting Israelis from different fields of life who have been in Croatia. And that creates a tremendous bond. So this is an important vehicle for getting to know each other better on a very human level.
In terms of the relations at the top, our two heads of state have established a remarkable personal chemistry. Croatian President Ivo Josipovic was here twice in the past year, and President Shimon Peres visited Croatia two years ago.
So there are regular exchanges at the top as well as between officials of different ministries, such as the Foreign Ministry, Agriculture Ministry, Ministry of Interior, Tourism, which is very important to us. We have also undertaken joint efforts to promote tolerance, and study and remembrance of the Holocaust, including, prominently, a close cooperation with [Holocaust museum] Yad Vashem.
There is also defense and security cooperation, so a whole network of exchanges has been established, and we are very proud of that. It was a joint effort and a good match in terms of the temperament and the mentality of the people, as Israelis and Croatians get along very nicely.
In terms of warmth and directness, we are similar in that regard, not being very formal. And my aim is to foster that jointly with my Israeli friends.
In the recent UN General Assembly vote, Croatia abstained on the Palestinian Authority's request to be upgraded to observer status. Why?
Obviously our preference would have been to have a unified and meaningful EU vote on that issue. We are very much attached to the idea of Europe.
We are next in line to become the 28th member of the EU in July. So this is where we see ourselves in terms of formulating many aspects of our policy, be it economy, trade or a joint foreign and security policy. In principle, and that was enshrined in the 1947 UN resolution, we believe in the legitimate right of the Palestinians to have their state, although it goes without saying that they have also missed many opportunities to have it. But in our view, there is a necessity to have a peace process and to stimulate it. Our abstention is a reflection of our view that the unilateral measures adopted by the Palestinians are not the best way to achieve that.
It has been emphasized many times that the solution should be reached through negotiations. What the Palestinians did at the UN was a unilateral move, so we could not support it as such. On the other side, voting against would have been, in our view, going against an important principle, which is that they deserve a state based upon recognizing Israel, respecting Israel's security and the necessity of Israel to be able to live in peace with its neighbors, and not to be exposed to continuous attack on all sides.
You mentioned the EU. Croatia applied to join the European Union back in 2003, and you are scheduled to enter it formally on July 1, 2013. But the EU is not what it once was, and its future looks precarious. Why would Croatia still want to join?
We think that it is still playing a formidable role in fostering reconciliation and establishing instruments for European prosperity, so on balance it is definitely a positive. Civilizationally, in terms of cementing democracy, free markets, tolerance and human rights, the European Union is very much about these values. It is also a reflection of our commitment to these values that we want to become an EU member.
Economically, the present crisis has obviously hit the Euro Zone very harshly, but our feeling is that it could have been even worse without the European Union and without the instruments of reconciling national politics. The option of moving back to a more nationalistic Europe with stronger boundaries would not be a step forward. To make a long story short: We are strong believers in European unity and in the EU and its instruments. It will situate Croatia firmly in the West, with all that entails.
Recently some European leaders such as Norbert Lambert, president of the lower house of the German Bundestag, and Jeljko Kacin, the European Parliament's Balkan rapporteur, have said that Croatia has not met the criteria and standards required to join the EU and that your entry should be delayed. What do you think of this?
We think that would be very much unjustified. We think we have done a tremendous job in all spheres of EU integration, including in terms of reconciliation and normalization with our neighbors. We have been reforming various instruments of the state. We have all hopes that realistically the process will be completed in time for us to join on July 1. Obviously there are some difficulties remaining in terms of the implementation of certain elements related particularly to the functioning of the judiciary and combating corruption. We see hard work which remains to be done still, but the message we are getting from Brussels is that we are on a good track. Obviously there may be other voices, but we are absolutely optimistic both about the future of the European Union and our chances of joining it.
It was more than 20 years ago that Yugoslavia broke apart. When you look back on the 1990s, how would you characterize the Balkan wars? Who were the "good guys" and who were the "bad guys"?
One of the important guilty elements is connected with the nature and legacy of Communism, which had its nasty and brutal features just like everywhere else. Repressing any signs of liberalism, private enterprise and free speech – that was the atmosphere. Maybe the only difference between Yugoslav Communism and the rest of the Soviet bloc was that the borders were more open and people were freer to travel, and the country was more exposed to foreigners. But it was still Communism, and that created a sense of militancy and the suppression of all nations within the federation.
But there was an additional repressive element, and that was that step by step, it was becoming Serbian-led. There was no ancient hatred between Serbs and Croats. There was a sense of human closeness and proximity. But with the creation of Yugoslavia in the 20th century, there was a sense that it was very much a Serbian project that was putting everything under Serbian rule. And then they were also repressing the liberal elements in Serbia at the same time.
I believe that Yugoslavia could have been dissolved peacefully. Croatia and Slovenia were committed to doing so through an amicable divorce, but the defining element which tipped the scales toward the use of force was Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and the idea that Greater Serbia could be carved out of it all. And the Milosevic regime embarked on that big adventure of trying to achieve that. There was a great deal of confusion at the time, and the West, the EU and NATO did not know what to do. We were asking for intervention from day one. Eventually, step by step, they intervened. The attempt to use force was the initial sin which helped to unravel the former Yugoslavia.
Nevertheless, despite certain squabbles that one may see in the newspapers from time to time, the relationships which now exist between the former constituent parts of Yugoslavia are close and friendly.
For example, we are supporting each other in the international arena. We are supporting Serbia wholeheartedly with their candidacy for the EU, sharing experience with them.
So do you view Serbia as a friend or a foe of Croatia?
In terms of reconciliation, which has been a joint enterprise, it is remarkable what we have been able to achieve. Absolutely we see Serbs as friends. We cherish the reconciliation that we have been able to achieve, we are very proud of it, and it is an essential part of our foreign and security policy.
Last month, Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac were released by a UN war crimes court in The Hague. The court overturned their convictions for involvement in the 1995 Croatian military offensive known as Operation Storm, which forced large numbers of Serbs from their homes and which the EU special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, Carl Bildt, said at the time was "the most efficient ethnic cleansing we've seen in the Balkans." Do you think the court's decision was just? And does your government have any plans to prosecute those who were involved?
Absolutely, on both accounts my answer is a firm yes. In the particular case of the generals, in light of what we know was happening politically, strategically and on the ground, we know they were innocent men, and that has been fully recognized by The Hague. My impression is that Serbia's reaction was that they saw that certain crimes were committed and they wanted to see someone prosecuted for them. And this brings me to your second question: Yes, we are doing it. There are people who were investigated by Croatian courts and who are spending time in jail [for] the crimes committed on our side during the war. Our cause was a just cause – defensive and liberation. But while pursuing that cause, certain crimes happened on our side, and there is absolutely a firm commitment to do what is necessary to prosecute anybody who committed crimes.
For many Westerners, the narrative regarding the Balkan wars placed much of the blame on Serbia, but it is clear that barbaric acts were committed by all parties to the conflict. Does your government acknowledge that Croatian forces committed atrocities against Serbs? Not as a systematic policy, but there were incidents of crimes.
We accept that, and we are prosecuting that. Right now, the Serbs are probably losing faith in international justice, and one has to recognize that.
But our belief in international justice has been very much strengthened by the final verdict – our belief in the justness of our cause and in the fairness of that international body, the court at The Hague.
So I assume, then, that the people who were forced to flee during Operation Storm will be allowed to return to their homes and reclaim their property and possessions. Is that correct?
Yes, indeed. I previously worked at the Foreign Ministry as an assistant foreign minister, responsible also for a close cooperation with the OSCE mission in Croatia, which was in charge of monitoring and reporting on the return of refugees and the restoration of property, so I am very much familiar with this topic. That has been a complicated multilateral issue connecting Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Montenegro and Kosovo. For example, you might have a situation where a Serb from Croatia is now living in Kosovo in a house from which an Albanian has been expelled, and in the meantime a Croat, himself expelled from the Serbian part of Bosnia, has moved into the Serb's house in Croatia. These were the kinds of problems that we were dealing with. Those wishing to return have returned. Those who have for one reason or another established their lives somewhere else, they were helped, including by the international community, in doing what they would like to do.
Many Croats from Serbia have also left and moved to Croatia, as have large numbers of Croats from Bosnia. It is of course an extremely sensitive subject, both psychologically and socially. Being uprooted is an unhappy experience, to say the least. In Croatia, our feeling was that we were at the forefront of efforts to enable people to come back and to compensate them. The solutions are never perfect.
In March 2008, Croatia recognized Kosovo, a region that was sovereign Serbian territory, as an independent state. Once you accept the right of a region such as Kosovo to secede, doesn't that open a Pandora's box, since any part of any country could theoretically break away? For example, if the Serbs of Croatia's Krajina region also wanted to break away, would they have the right to do so?
The case of Kosovo is more complicated, as it is not simply a region. Under the Yugoslav constitution, there was a very specific arrangement in which Kosovo was at the same time an autonomous province of Serbia like Vojvodina and also had direct links to the federation. So it was a province, but it was also more than a province. And by some interpretations, according to the 1974 Yugoslav constitution, the constituent parts had a right to secede.
But even if that is the case, when Kosovo became independent four years ago, it was part of sovereign Serb territory.
Again, constitutionally Kosovo is somewhere in between, and according to some constitutional lawyers, they had a good case for their own independence.
But what is not subject to interpretation is the fact that the same Milosevic regime in the late '90s embarked upon such a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, which was amounting to an annihilation. It was very visible and very recognizable.
And by virtue of making such a move, they were losing the right to possess that particular territory.
Then NATO came and reestablished peace, and it was simply unfeasible to go back. The chain of events led to independence.
I admit it is a complicated case and a sensitive one for our Serb friends. I understand that and respect that. But our position is that we recognize Kosovo and that it deserves independence. But it is of paramount importance that the government of Kosovo respect the rights of the Serbian minority that lives there and respect the sanctity of Serbian monasteries that are there and guarantee freedom of access to them. In many cases, parallels are drawn between these territories and others, such as Catalonia and Spain, Scotland and Britain, but there are incredible differences between the countries.
In the 1990s, the Balkans saw widespread ethnic cleansing in which people were forced out of their homes because of their identity, because of who they were. When the Palestinian leadership or various European countries call for the removal of Jews from Judea and Samaria, how is that different from ethnic cleansing?
This usually does not get observed from such an angle – but yes, I see your point. But let me say a few words about the issue of settlements. We are firm believers in the common European approach, and we support the EU stance in terms of criticizing the latest announcement regarding planning and building in the settlements. I am not here to decide what Israel's interest is – that is for your government. But watching from the position of a friend of Israel, and from the position of a group of countries with a vital interest in seeing peace in the region, this is not a measure which will contribute to that process.
But regarding what will be the future of the settlements... well, asking Israel to bulldoze the settlements, notably the major ones, is not a realistic option. I was a bit perplexed by your question, because it never crossed my mind that this could be an option. It wouldn't seem realistic nor meaningful.
But it is not helpful in the present situation to respond to a unilateral move at the UN with a sharp unilateral move on Israel's part.
Croatia seems to be divided along an ideological fault line, between those who are anti-fascist and those who look back with nostalgia on the fascist Ustashe regime during World War II. What is your government doing to counter extremism and anti-Semitism in Croatian society?
This is an important question, and we have zero tolerance, a firm zero tolerance of all extremism, be it fascism or Nazism or anti-Semitism. Today it is an extremely marginal phenomenon connected mainly with hooliganism on an anecdotal level. No political party whatsoever, whether inside the parliament or outside it, presently has any signs of that. There is a tradition of deeply appreciating the tremendous contribution that the Jewish community has been making to Croatia throughout history, in politics, culture, the arts and science.
But on December 28 of last year, large memorial masses were held in two Catholic churches in Zagreb and Split for Ante Pavelic, the Ustashe leader who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Do you think it is appropriate that in modern Europe a man who took part in genocide would be memorialized?
It is not appropriate, and it has been strongly condemned. It shouldn't be happening. There is no explanation or justification for this kind of thing. But I guess in an open society, these kinds of things can happen. But we have condemned it and it is not representative of anything.
During the Holocaust, 30,000 Croatian and Bosnian Jews were murdered, mostly in Croatian concentration camps such as Jasenovac, which is often referred to as the Auschwitz of the Balkans. And the Ustashe regime was of course allied with the Germans. Was Croatia a culprit or a victim during WWII?
Croatia was certainly to begin with a victim of the chain of events unleashed by Nazism and fascism. Certainly a number of Croats participated, and we see that as a shameful act of siding with the most evil forces in history. Among the Croats who supported the Ustashe regime, there were some who committed crimes and some who were bystanders, although at times like that one cannot be a bystander. But there were also those on whom we based our modern statehood, the tradition we follow, the ones who took to the forest and fought with the Allies and the resistance.
The Ustashe regime and the Nazis were bitterly contested in Croatia, and that saved the honor and the spirit of the country and laid the foundation for the modern state. It also provided us with a long-term warning to take all necessary measures to ensure that it never happens again. We are also profoundly proud of more than 100 of our Righteous Among the Nations, among whom is also my first cousin twice removed, from the maternal side, Mr. Jaksa Kalogjera, honored by Yad Vashem in 2001. Mr. Kalogjera – "barba" [uncle] Jaksa – 97 years old, passed away in 2007.
Earlier this year, the Croatian president visited Israel and apologized for Croatia's role in what was done to the Jewish people during the Holocaust. Has Croatia also apologized for the Ustashe's mass murder of other minority groups, such as Serbs and Gypsies?
Absolutely, absolutely – that has been condemned many times.
According to the World Jewish Restitution Organization, the process of returning property confiscated from Jews during the Holocaust has "operated exceedingly slowly and, with regard to private property, makes it impossible for many former Jewish property owners to obtain restitution or related compensation." Of the 135 claims for communal buildings and land submitted by Croatian Jewish communities, the government has returned only 15 properties (not including cemeteries), and virtually none since 2000. Why is this the case?
When our president was here and spoke to the Knesset, he reaffirmed our moral obligation to resolve the restitution issue in a meaningful and just fashion. While I was getting my credentials from my president, that was one of the issues he reiterated as a moral obligation of ours – not as a successor state to the regime that did those things, which we are not, but as a moral obligation of a modern Croatian democracy standing for the highest values. Presently the Ministry of Justice is working on the new version of the de-nationalization law, which would enable more to be given back wherever it is reasonable and can be traced.
There are instances in which it would not be feasible, but then there is the issue of compensation.
Discussions are ongoing with our Israeli friends to try and figure out what the best practices would be – legally and practically. At the same time, we are in touch with our American friends and with Jewish organizations in the US. We feel this as a commitment and a moral obligation. And there are also discussions with the Jewish communities in Croatia about this.
Of course it is very complicated, because various properties were confiscated during the war and then nationalized by the Communists afterward.
And then there were decades in which properties changed hands. But we are trying to find the best legal framework in which this issue can be solved.
On November 20, former Croatian prime minister Ivo Sanader was found guilty of accepting a bribe and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Is corruption a problem in Croatia?
Obviously that has been a major issue, and the government is making a big effort to deal with that. It is a product and legacy of Communism and of a fragile and chaotic post-Communist transition, exacerbated by war and its uneasy aftermath. Communism was corrupt to the bone, and when it fell, everything was up for grabs, to a large extent. The transition could and should have been done more judiciously.
Instead of a culture of impunity, it was necessary to establish a culture of responsibility, which is something that has been done. The unhealthy culture of impunity has been erased, and this is the only way forward.
We are sitting here in your embassy in Tel Aviv, but Jerusalem is Israel's capital. If the Jewish state were to put its embassy to Croatia in Dubrovnik rather than Zagreb, I don't think your government would look kindly on such a move. Why isn't your embassy in Jerusalem?
I fully understand what you are saying. It is, as you know, one of the major international issues. It is obviously an issue that is larger than Croatia. It is an issue for the international community in a much larger sense. I hope that our Israeli friends understand the overall circumstances. But I think that we are well aware of the attachment of the Israeli nation and the Jews to Jerusalem itself.