I’m not naive, of course – I know that it’s easier to collect points and votes on the din of intolerance. But, again: for how long and for whose benefit? How will Serbia complete negotiations with the European Union on full membership if it doesn’t resolve some of its issues in relations with Croatia that concern, for example, the rule of law? – Hidajet Biščević
Hidajet Biščević, the new Croatian ambassador to Serbia, says that all the jobs he’s ever done – from journalism to diplomacy – he did as a “citizen of the world”, trying to love his own and not hate others. He arrives in Serbia at a time when bilateral relations are stagnating and numerous issues in mutual relations have been waiting decades to be resolved. In this interview for CorD, he says that he’ll put the issue of missing persons and former detainees high on his list of priorities. When asked about intolerance towards Serbs in Croatia, expressed during the recent election campaign, Ambassador Biščević says that he would like the Serbian public to be “better acquainted with the actual and real position of the Serb national minority in Croatia,” which he claims is better than the position of the Croat minority in Serbia.
Your Excellency, considering the results of parliamentary elections in Croatia, what can be expected from the future parliamentary majority and the new Croatian government?
First and foremost – stability, predictability and responsibility. The election results confirm that the majority of society and the political public in Croatia have come together around the political identity of the country and around the political direction that wants to see Croatia as a stable, secure, democratic country, without sporadic deviations towards various forms of political experimentation, without hasty populist formulas or radicalisms of various ideological tones. Such a stable democratic government will also be able to respond to the many challenges confronting us, from health and economic challenges to political and security ones. Europe and the world are not even close to emerging from the tunnel of confronting unpredictability and geopolitical vying, and thus it is all the more necessary to have stability, security and democratic inclusivity on the political scene and in society as a whole.
Preliminary data indicate that voter turnout was below 50%, which was also recorded in Serbia. Do you consider the lack of motivation of citizens to participate in this democratic process worrying?
I would say that the reasons for such low percentage turnouts in our two countries are quite different – it is true that in Croatia we have reached a certain saturation with politics, and partly also an aversion to politics due to a kind of cacophony, trivialisation and even theatricising of the political scene. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the fear of mass gatherings resulted in many voters staying at home. However, in Serbia, apart from the identical fear of the virus, there were also other reasons that contributed – for example, long announcements and calls for a boycott, regardless of the extent to which that was politically opportune and how much it really acted to ensure some voters stayed at home.
A stable, democratic Serbia with clear state policy goals and a clear commitment to its neighbours and the region is certainly in Croatia’s interest. Croatia has no other interests.
Moreover, although there are divisions and oppositions on the Croatian political scene, the atmosphere of political pluralism prevails and it can’t be said that there is any of the political and social polarization that, as we’ve witnessed lately, takes violent forms of some kind which, it seems to me, are unarticulated and mutually confronted dissatisfactions and frustrations of all kinds, which it would be useful – for the benefit of Serbia, for its European path, for the resolution of the remaining issues and for stable development – to overcome as soon as possible. A stable, democratic Serbia with clear state policy goals and a clear commitment to its neighbours and the region is certainly in Croatia’s interest. Croatia has no other interests.
How do you see the future role of Croatia’s Independent Democratic Serb Party (SDSS); do you think the participation of Serb representatives in the government would be useful, both for Serbs and for Croatia?
Representatives of the Serb community in Croatia have been participating in Croatian governments for decades already… since the mid-1990s. They are guaranteed three seats in parliament. As such, in this respect, Croatia is “more progressive” even compared to the recommendations of European institutions, such as the Venice Commission, which advocate the principle of integrating minority communities into different political options instead of separate political action as a minority group. Unfortunately, it seems to me that these facts are neither known nor recognised by the Serbian public.
The SDSS has been a coalition partner in several governments to date, and as far as I can see it will support the new government of Prime Minister Plenković and will participate in the parliamentary majority, and possibly in the distribution of ministries. Unfortunately, I must add this: despite the Agreement on the Protection of Minorities, which we signed twenty years ago, the Croat minority community in Serbia does not enjoy anywhere near such political rights.
I will illustrate that with a “minor” example: for 13 years the Association of Croats in Belgrade hasn’t succeeded in resolving the problem of adequate space for its gathering and the organisation of exhibitions or concerts in Belgrade… 13 years!… While the Serb community in Zagreb has all the conditions ensured for its cultural, media and other activities.
The pre-election campaign was also marked by new messages of intolerance towards the SDSS, MP Milorad Pupovac and Serbs in general. How would you comment on these phenomena?
In light of what I mentioned a moment ago, speaking of the full political rights and political inclusion of the Serb community in Croatian political life, then any expression of intolerance remains at the level of individual or group radicalism, or, perhaps, even as a result of some other interests and actions. I don’t rule this out either, as these messages appear almost regularly during election times.
I can’t understand what drives a young man in his thirties in Serbia to become some kind of ultra-Chetnik, in the 21st century (!!), just as I don’t understand the urges of his peers in Croatia who parade around wearing a black shirt
What is most important is that the Serb community in Croatia participates in Croatian political life and the Croatian political leadership condemns every individual incident or outburst. I would like to see reciprocity on the Serbian side as well. I would like to see the Serbian public better acquainted with the rights and real position of the Serb national minority in Croatia. I would like to see the Croat minority community in Serbia enjoy the same rights and the same position. Then there would certainly be less room for the constant renewing of stereotypes.
Your arrival in Serbia was accompanied by talk that you were practically brought out of retirement as a career diplomat and invited to take the helm at the embassy in Belgrade. What have you set for yourself as your main task?
I don’t claim that any individual can influence changes and the improvement of Croatian-Serbian relations on their own. Experience can help, primarily in recognising the circumstances, history and mutual notions etc., in order to be able to act towards overcoming these notions and placing relations in a new context, in order to try to create a new paradigm of relations between our two peoples. Quite frankly, I don’t see any benefit, much less a future, in the recycling of stereotypes… So, I can’t understand what drives a young man in his thirties in Serbia to become some kind of ultra-Chetnik, in the 21st century (!!), just as I don’t understand the urges of his peers in Croatia who parade around wearing a black shirt. The only motive I can fathom, as far as both spiritual states are concerned, is the absence of a modern, new goal; a lack of strength to shape an acceptable new paradigm. A lack of strength to step away from the “historical vortex” in which, since the creation of the first common state, accusations and false alibis have arisen: you didn’t want equality in the Kingdom; you killed Radić and thus created Pavelić, so Pavelić created Jasenovac, which in your consciousness was an excuse for the ’90s…
I think we need to focus in particular on the issues of all the missing citizens, former detainees and that humanitarian complex. With that we would show our humanity and the acceptance of European values
My question is simple: how long will that continue? And for whose benefit? Thus, overcoming this “gap from the past” is something I could state as my main task – of course, with an awareness of the reality, especially that segment of reality that reflects the centuries-old East-West dichotomy of Serbia’s political fabric and society. However, to put it simply, I believe that the turnaround in Europe and some new reset in relations between the European Union and Russia can overcome the “Obrenović-Karađorđević” dichotomy of Serbia’s social fabric and that, against that background, new Croatian-Serbian relations can begin to take shape, anchored in modernity and grounded in the same values.
I’m not naive, of course – I know that it’s easier to collect points and votes on the din of intolerance. But, again: for how long and for whose benefit? Or, to put it simply, with the best of intentions, how will Serbia complete negotiations with the European Union on full membership if it doesn’t resolve some of its issues in relations with Croatia that concern, for example, the rule of law? Thus, resolving inherited unresolved issues would be the second “main objective”.
How do you see Serbia? As the Balkans, the region or the neighbourhood?
I see Serbia today as a country that, to the misfortune of everyone, has spent transition time trying to shape its post-Yugoslav identity through a “territorial approach”, instead of a democratic one, so that now, after everything, it is facing a key choice, just as it has so many times in its history: modernity or “closedness”. I don’t think the Balkans is necessarily a negative connotation… unless in that definition we mean stubborn, useless, false patriotism that would try to prove to us in the 21st century, for the sake of illustration, that it is better to travel “our people’s” trains with wooden benches than Thalys trains, and still on those decrepit wooden seats to drill into the heroic patriotic chest because… “we will not enslave strangers”.
Personally, I don’t think that the so-called ‘region’ has negative connotations, as many think – mostly those who don’t know and don’t recognise that the principle of so-called ‘open regionalism’ is today the predominant paradigm of international relations.
Of course, with the assumption, not to say the precondition, that all participants share the same values and standards… from the Baltic to the Visegrad Group, all the way to Central Asia, today this open regionalism is the foundation of stability and cooperation. I repeat, along with the same standards.
Do you have an explanation for the low level of bilateral relations and calls harking back to the governments of Vojislav Koštunica and Ivo Sanader as a golden period in relations between Serbia and Croatia?
It is true that our relations have been stagnating for a long time. During the time that you mention, there were specific longer-term strategic goals, on both sides, and that enabled the improvement of relations, constant contacts, dialogue… Croatia aspired to launch negotiations with the EU and it was natural to strive to show how it wants to develop good neighbourly relations with Serbia because in that way it contributed to what was most important to Europe, i.e. the stability of this part of Europe, which is a very prominent interest of Croatia itself. Serbia, for its part, at the time, with the aftermath of the assassination of Zoran Đinđić in the background, sought to resolve the undertones of the past – in a way that sought to avoid confrontation, revanchism and radical upheaval in society and on the political scene – so it also showed greater readiness to thaw relations with Croatia. Considering that we know the direction in which both processes went, stagnation emerged.
In your opinion, which unresolved issues between Serbia and Croatia require urgent resolution, and what can be resolved in the long run?
It is difficult to “classify” unresolved issues and put them in order: if you ask the relatives of the missing, that is the most important issue for them, while a villager living along the border can hardly wait for the borderline to be resolved. But, since you are already asking, I think we need to focus in particular on the issues of all the missing citizens, former detainees and that humanitarian complex. With that, we would show our humanity and the acceptance of European values.
How satisfied are you with bilateral economic relations, which seem to suffer less from the influence of daily politics. Do you see the possibility of strengthening economic cooperation?
Our economic cooperation is stable, with even these months of the viral crisis not impacting dramatically on trade and goods exchanges. However, of course, there is room for progress – among other things, that is also one of the reasons why we are so strongly advocating for and encouraging Serbia’s European path and the concluding of negotiations with the Union. Living in a common market and living with the same standards will undoubtedly enable the strengthening of economic cooperation. To that end, viewed from a broader perspective, this “little piece of Europe” that is shared by Croatia and Serbia has one immeasurably important potential: its geo-economic position.
Croatia and Serbia has one immeasurably important potential: its geo-economic position. Transport, infrastructure, energy lines and corridors could be laid across our territories, connecting various parts of the continent, from west to east and from north to south
Transport, infrastructure, energy lines and corridors could be laid across our territories, connecting various parts of the continent, from west to east and from north to south. Placing the route from Belgrade to Zagreb on the map of the Union’s connection with China, and then for Croatia Vukovar will no longer be the last point on its eastern borders, nor will Serbia’s view to the west in Sremska Mitrovica, but rather both sides will be part of global processes.
You were born in Sarajevo, while you forged your career in Croatia and were also an EU official, heading the EU Delegation in Tajikistan. With all that in mind, how do you see the Western Balkans?
It is true that I’ve worked in both national and international diplomacy – but I’ve always tried to be a “citizen of the world” in every position I’ve held; to love my own people and not hate others; to recognize narrow-mindedness at home, but also equally to recognise backwardness in others; to avoid any kind of radicalism; to see politics as a means of establishing bridges… That’s how I imagine the Western Balkans. I’m of course aware that in real social and political life there are still too many who work in the other direction, who simply “live off Balkanism”, who have been bubbled to the surface of post-Yugoslav, transitional and wartime waters, while greatly suppressing prudence, education and tolerance… not to mention intelligence.
Ambassador Biščević, as the former editor-in-chief of “Vjesnik”, what could you say about the state of the media, both in Croatia and in Serbia, if you came here to get acquainted with the situation?
Unfortunately, the media has taken on almost all the negative aspects of globalisation: accessibility has opened up space for ignorance, speed has killed grammar, the market has brought to the surface only those brain cells that enjoy violence, pornography and blood, reason has given way to malice and cynicism, knowledge and education have stumbled into carelessness and divisiveness, political objectivity and professionalism have been harnessed to a party or corporate reins…
All this, of course, isn’t only the case in the media, as banality and indifference have prevailed on the international stage in many other areas of human action. Can you imagine a city square today where five thousand people read the first issue of a newspaper at the same time because they are terribly interested…in, say, the crisis in Yemen or the Korean announcement of a nuclear bomb being launched – and once upon a time that picture could be seen on squares, people were once worried the Cuban missile crisis, about the Vietnam War breaking the souls of nations. That can’t be imagined today, of course. Few people even follow that on the internet nowadays. The media began to feed heartlessness and indifference. Who cares about Yemen, if Kyrgios has said something against Đoković again and if Kanye West will really become the new American president?
Overcoming the “gap from the past” is something I could state as my main task… resolving inherited unresolved issues would be the second “main objective”
Living in a common market and living with the same standards will undoubtedly enable the strengthening of economic cooperation
From the Baltic to the Visegrad Group, all the way to Central Asia, today this open regionalism is the foundation of stability and cooperation. I repeat, along with the same standards