An Interview with Stjepan Mesic, President of Croatia

Rebuilding Croatia

Photo: Nina Bilandzic

Croatia has been beset with problems since it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. It took four years of sporadic, but often furious, fighting before Serb armies retreated from Croatian territory, and it was only in 1998 that the last Serbian enclave was returned to Croatia under United Nations supervision. Ten years of authoritarian and corrupt rule under Franjo Tudjman's nationalist regime slowed economic growth and complicated Croatia's transition from communism to a market-based economy. The middle class withered. In a country of 4.5 million, 700,000 lost their jobs.

Today, the country's war wounds have mostly healed, and its economy shows signs of a slow, but steady, improvement. When Stjepan Mesic was elected in January 2000, many hoped for a turning point in Croatia's history. Despite the fact that he occupied senior positions in Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union [HDZ] throughout the early '90s, Mesic has gone to great lengths to distance himself from his late predecessor. During his first year in office, he has supported investigations into corruption under Tudjman's regime, reformed the state-run media, and consistently stressed reconciliation with Croatia's neighbours. This new line from Zagreb has generated considerable enthusiasm for Mesic's presidency. On July 18, 2000, Croatia was admitted into the World Trade Organization. The country continues to make strides toward joining the European Union.

On Aug. 13, Nina Bilandzic caught up with President Mesic while he was vacationing with his family on the island of Hvar, in the Croatian Adriatic.

The Crisis in Macedonia:

WPR: It has been 10 years since the war broke out in what used to be Yugoslavia. Most recently, Macedonia, which had remained at peace, has been teetering on the brink of a full civil war. How do you view the future of this situation, and the role of the international community in its resolution?

I believe that a peaceful solution is possible and will be found, because the international community learned its lesson and immediately became active in helping to resolve the crisis. In Croatia and Bosnia the international community waited too long. With the help of the international community, first an agreement will be signed and then implemented. This conflict cannot be resolved by war. The biggest role of the international community is to bring the conflicting parties—the Macedonians and the Macedonian Albanians—to the negotiating table and to let the force of arguments prevail over the argument of force. And that is something that the international community can and must do. It is better to negotiate for 10 years than to wage war for 10 days.

It is better to negotiate for 10 years than to wage war
for 10 days.

Macedonia is going through a big crisis which can be overcome by political means with the good will of one and the other sides and if the fact is accepted that Albanians make up 30 percent of the Macedonian population—this is not a small number—they must be accounted for in the constitution and equally participate in the army, police, and public services. And this is achievable only by negotiations and not arms.

WPR: Do you think that all the ex-Yugoslav nations are heading in the right direction, especially considering the current situation in Macedonia?

I think things will start going for the better in Macedonia after the radicals are halted on both sides.

Bosnia and Herzegovina remains the problem. Peace has not yet been fully implemented. The Dayton Agreement [signed December 1995] has halted the war, but it is still not a real foundation for peace because state institutions do not fully function. The two entities [Bosnian Serb Republic and Muslim Croat Federation] behave like states. This is something that should be resolved in an upgrading of the Dayton agreement. Until then, the international community has to be present in Bosnia.

I think that in Zagreb now the option of expanding borders, supported by the HDZ, has definitely been abandoned. There are no more forces in Croatia that would want to extend Croatia's borders into Bosnia.

The same thing can be seen in Serbia. Only it would be good for these messages to be clearer, for Serbs to clearly say that they consider Bosnian Serbs as a bridge of cooperation and not as a right to expand borders. Because there is a hidden wish to expand borders on the account of relations between Montenegro and Serbia. There are some groups in Serbia and Belgrade who reason this way: If Kosovo goes and Montenegro goes, then we should think about extending borders by annexing the Bosnian Serb Republic to Serbia's territory. It is clear that this cannot succeed, but it can prolong the crisis and can obstruct European policy in this area and democratisation of the entire region.

As I said, the war broke out because of the ambition to create a greater Serbia and a greater Croatia and not because we fought for religious regions.

Relations with Europe and the United States:

Photo: Nina Bilandzic

WPR: Mr. President, what is your view on the new American administration, in particular on the role of the U.S. foreign policy in Europe and in the Balkans? Do you expect the Bush administration to change its approach compared to its predecessor?

I think that American foreign policy will not be changing substantially though there [may] be some slight shifts. [The Bush administration] will not depart from the premise that European unification is in the interest of America. Because only a united Europe can benefit the world and America.

To explain why a united Europe is in America's interest, I use a sports analogy. Imagine a national soccer team without an adversary. Without competition, the team would soon lose its edge. The national team would weaken and disappear. If, on the other hand, it has other teams to compete with that always represent a challenge, it becomes stronger and grows.

More importantly, a united Europe rules out war as a political means because borders will be open and decisions will be made through a democratic procedure on economic and financial issues. In such a Europe, every nation will live in its cultural environment. It will be irrelevant who is on the other side of the border—whether it is a Frenchman, a Croat, a Serb, or an Albanian. The European idea on unification must win. The idea on European integration has matured and the time for European unification is now.

WPR: In the countries of ex-Yugoslavia, has the same idea matured as well?

The idea has not matured here quite yet, but it is being realized to a large extent. People are aware that creation of a new Yugoslavia would not help European unification, but that each country will join Europe, like joining a convoy, as soon as it achieves its integration standards. The ones who achieve the standards first will join the European Union first. That is why democratization of the entire area is crucially important.

A crime is an individual act and must be delt with individually.                  

Chances for democratization are much better now because Serbia has a bigger potential for quicker democratization. Croatia can help Serbia by enabling the return of Croatian Serbs and in this way show the maturity of its democratic processes. A democratic process has started in Serbia, which will assure that Serbs outside its borders will be seen as a bridge of cooperation with [Serbia's] neighbors and not as a reason to expand [its] borders. It is important that Croatian Serbs return because they can be our bridge of cooperation with Serbia.

Unification will not go very fast if we don't mobilize our economic and human resources. Europe must realize that it is in its interest for us [ex-Yugoslav countries] to achieve its standards as soon as possible and join it.

Photo: Nina Bilandzic

WPR: What is the greatest obstacle for Croatia to clear before it joins Europe?

The obstacles are the remaining strong structures of the former authorities, who have concentrated capital and the media in their hands. A lot of people from the church participate in this. They do not want a European Croatia; they want an isolated Croatia, because only in such a Croatia they can live without democracy. But these are simply disoriented people who understand neither democracy, nor European integration, nor are they interested in the benefit of the entire society. They are guided only by their partial interests and that is why they cannot succeed.

The Croatian opposition, which wants to turn back time, is now very active in Croatia. It wants to bring the HDZ back to power without taking into account that the HDZ is responsible for agreements with [former Yugoslav president Slobodan] Milosevic on the division of Bosnia, one of the main generators of the crisis [in ex-Yugoslavia]. The HDZ is responsible for creating a flawed system of privatization that has allowed capital to flow out from Croatia through the hands of various world speculators. They showed up and took over firms that they did not know how to run.

The Hague Tribunal:

WPR: What is the proper role of The Hague-based U.N. war crimes tribunal in this region? What role will it play for Croatia?

It is certain that it will play a positive role and is beneficial for the nations in this area. The Hague Tribunal will help us in the individualization of guilt.

A crime is an individual act and must be dealt with individually. Why should a group assume responsibility? Why should all Serbs, all Croats, or all Bosnians be responsible when crimes were committed by individual Serbs, individual Croats, and individual Bosnians? And it is here that the Hague Tribunal helps us. Because the domestic judiciary has not done its job. Croatia has simply not been a state ruled by law—looting and crimes were allowed and no individuals were brought to account. That is why the Hague Tribunal is important for us.

WPR: Will cooperation with the Hague Tribunal provoke more crises, as it has already, in the Croatian government?

Certainly, there would be some crisis situations but it will not stop the process of democratisation and the functioning of a state ruled by law. The radicals will continue being loud and will obstruct the process. But this is only transitory. Their time has passed.

Lessons of the Past:

WPR: What lesson can we take from the war?

I think that on the basis of what happened in the territories of ex-Yugoslavia everyone should learn a lesson—the international community, European countries, and the United States—and that is that war threats should not be underestimated. Eleven years ago, in Gazimestan, Milosevic said that armed conflicts lay ahead of us, and people did not take this threat seriously. Obviously, it was a big danger and ended in disaster. So, in the future, in other territories also, as soon as there are threats of force, the international community should join and halt the aggressor whenever it is possible, and it can do so only through international institutions.

Everyone has to face his or her own truths. That is where we have a problem. Everyone sees the other's crimes, the other's ambitions, but does not want to confront the crimes committed by members of his or her own nation…Time is needed for that.

The most important thing for us now is to look ahead and stop staring at the rear-view mirror. Our problem is that everyone is looking back, so it is hard to move forward.