Interview with Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, President of Croatia

Lauren Simmonds

June the 24th, 2019 – Since 2015, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović has been President of the Republic of Croatia. Prior to that, the 50-year-old NATO Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy has so far been the highest ranking woman in the history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Furthermore, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović is the first female president of independent Croatia. Sven Lilienström, founder of Faces of Democracy, spoke with Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović about Croatia’s Presidency of the EU Council in 2020, the gender roles in Croatia and NATO as the backbone of Europe’s security architecture.

Ms. President, you are our 66th “Face of Democracy”. How significant are democracy and democratic values to you personally?

I remember how much I yearned for democracy, when I was a girl growing up in the communist Yugoslavia. How much I wanted to escape the oppression, lack of freedom and lack of individual choice. This is what motivated me to become an exchange student in the US. Upon return, it was even more difficult to tolerate the failed economic policies, the lack of values, of respect, of democratic institutions and inequality before the state and the law. Thus, I joined the moment for an independent Croatia that wanted to become part of the democratic family of nations.

For me the European Union’s greatest achievements are peace, freedom, democracy, equality, human rights. It is easy to take the freedom it brought to all of us for granted. Or to forget the strong desire of the nations formerly behind the so-called Iron Curtain, behind that high wall that separated Europe, to be part of the free world. That desire guided and invigorated our fight for democracy and liberation. Croatia remembers it well.

As a country which has had its fair share of difficult history, communism and war it had to endure to achieve its independence and freedom, we appreciate peace, liberty, democracy, prosperity and stability even more. And we understand how crucial it is to protect the principles which allow our countries and peoples to live in conditions which a great majority of people on this planet are unfortunately not blessed with. My personal experience makes me appreciate democracy and democratic values all the more.

In the first half of 2020, Croatia will take over the Presidency of the EU Council for the first time. One objective for this period is the accession of your country to the EU and Schengen area. What other items are on your to-do list?

Joining the Eurozone and the Schengen area are our national priorities that we will be working on in the next period. In addition, on the global level, Croatia is ready to start the accession process to join the OECD. When it comes to our EU Presidency, we want to focus on development and growth, employment – especially of youth, connectivity (energy, transport, digitalization), and strengthening the security of our citizens, both internal and external. We will strive to give additional visibility to policies in which we believe we can provide some benefit and our specific know-how – such as tourism and maritime policies. Furthermore, one of our most important priorities is EU enlargement, or – as I like to call it – consolidation of the EU. In this vein, we will host an EU-WB summit in May 2020, twenty years after the first Zagreb summit, which was a turning point for the EU perspective of South East European countries.

In a global environment marked by disintegrating structures and numerous conflicts, NATO is an anchor of stability. What does the NATO membership mean for Croatia?

NATO has been the backbone of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture for decades. Let me emphasize in this context that the Republic of Croatia remains firm in its conviction that NATO is the cornerstone of our security and the backbone of Europe’s security architecture.

In our current security surrounding an arc of instability stretches from our south to our east, as a source of a multitude of traditional and non-traditional security threats and challenges, such as hybrid threats, terrorism and extremism, uncontrolled mass migrations and so on. In such circumstances, NATO’s relevance and importance for Europe’s, as well as Croatia’s security and stability remains unquestionable.

Croatia’s commitment to NATO and support to its goal of a Europe whole, free and at peace is steadfast and we have been proving this by our active participation in all major NATO missions and operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo and the Mediterranean, as well as NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania and Poland.

The further development of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) is designed to strengthen the strategic autonomy of the EU. Does Europe need another security institution alongside NATO?

Europe must invest in its security. Investing in security is investing in long-term stability and prosperity. We support the further development of the CSDP and its Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). However, we do not believe in duplication of efforts. NATO remains for us the anchor of our joint defense.

Keyword “emigration”: At present, your country has a brain drain of almost 50,000 citizens per year. Many of them come to Germany. How do you intend to stop the brain drain?

The brain drain is also a consequence of our EU accession. All new EU Member States have experienced the same phenomenon. I have put demographics high on my presidential agenda from the beginning of my mandate. Croatia has talented, educated and diligent young people who fair well at the labour markets across the EU. It is important to implement policies which will keep them in the country. Job creation in Croatia and GDP growth coupled with specific measures for the youth and young families are crucial in this regard. I am content that the emigration process has slowed down recently, but there is much work ahead of us. Now we need to stimulate the return of our recent émigrés.

The gender roles in Croatia are strongly shaped by traditionalist values. You are the first female president of independent Croatia. What developments are taking place in your country with regard to gender diversity?

First of all, Croatia is currently one of only four countries in the world (out of 193 UN Member States) where a woman was elected Head of State directly by popular vote. We have had a female prime minister, and women foreign and defence ministers. I am proud to have recently taken over the Chairmanship of the Council of Women World Leaders (CWWL), the only organization in the World dedicated to current and former women heads of state and government. When it comes to Croatia, gender equality is enshrined in our Constitution as one of the highest constitutional values. We have a whole range of established institutional mechanisms for the protection against discrimination based on gender as well as combating all forms of domestic violence. Croatia is one of the few countries in the world that has a dedicated Ombudsperson for Gender Equality. Furthermore, we developed a Data Base of Business Women in Croatia as well as the Women’s Entrepreneurship Development Strategy, which contributed to the increase in number of women entrepreneurs by 23 percent in the last 15 years. We are proud of the fact that we have a smaller gap in wages than the EU average (10 percent in contrast to EU average of 16 percent). Since 2003, a total of 344 women have participated in peace missions and operations around the world. That said, I don’t think there is a day when I am not faced with some form of discrimination against women, of gender stereotypes and language that borders on hate speech. Our work is far from done until full gender parity is achieved and violence against women is eradicated, in Europe and the World.

Ms. President, you won the hearts of many people across the world at the World Cup final in 2018. Assuming that you will be elected for a second term in the office: Will you bring the red and white checkered jersey with you to Qatar?

First of all, I have to say once again how immensely proud I am of the Croatian team and their historic second place in Russia, but also of the way they played and carried themselves, of their passion and heart that they left in the field. I am also so proud of the Croatian people, of the sense of pride, unity, belonging and their love for Croatia, that was tangible and that could be felt throughout the country (and seen on TV as well). Of course, I am hoping for the same scenes in Qatar. No matter if I am the President or not, I will be there in red and white checkers cheering the Croatian team on.

Ms. President, thank you very much for the interview!

With thanks to Faces of Democracy for the interview with the President of Croatia.

If you’d like to keep up with more news, views and interviews from the Croatian political scene, make sure to follow our dedicated politics page.


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