STA, 28 July 2019 - Smiljana Knez, Slovenia's outgoing ambassador to Croatia, has told the STA in a valedictory interview that a lack of trust is the biggest obstacle preventing relations between Slovenia and Croatia to thrive.
Knez is happy with her record in office to an extent, because the embassy "has in fact done a lot" considering the state of the political relationship between the countries, which is at a lowest point since the signing of the arbitration agreement in 2009.
"The relationship is not such as I'd like it to be, it could be much better. There's always room for improvement, but the precondition is the political will to solve issues and the willingness to respect the rule of law," Knez said.
She believes that it is time the countries fully resolved one of the big issues that have been troubling their relations for 28 years such as the border and or the matter of the Yugoslav-era savings deposits with the Zagreb branch of the defunct Slovenian bank Ljubljanska Banka.
She sees mutual trust between all players as the first condition to tackle all open issues between the two countries. Meanwhile, efforts have been made to deepen the links between the two nations through various presentations of Slovenian business and culture throughout Croatia.
"Regretfully, there's not much trust in a whole range of issues that would require more dynamic approach to get resolved. A low level of trust makes it harder to talk, negotiate and seek solutions to unresolved issues."
Turning to the issue of border arbitration, she says that even many politicians in Croatia are of the opinion that the arbitration award is in fact good for their country.
"It's a compromise solution and I regret that Croatia has failed to respond to Slovenia's proposal to agree a demarcation of the land border because that would make people's life easier and bring the sea border, which was set for the first time, into life."
In its first reaction after the border arbitration tribunal declared the award on 29 June 2017, the European Commission stated clearly that the award has to be implemented. However, talks between Ljubljana and Zagreb on how to implement the award went on only for half a year after its declaration.
"I don't know of any indications of any discussion about any serious Croatian proposal to package the arbitration award in a way that would make it more acceptable for Zagreb," Knez says about the legal framework that the Croatian government allegedly presented to Slovenia in a bid to find a mutually acceptable solution.
Slovenia has taken Croatia to he European Court of Justice over its refusal to implement the border arbitration award. Knez says that the award will remain valid even if the court declared the suit admissible but then failed to uphold Slovenia's view that through non-implementation Croatia violates EU law in terms of Schengen and fisheries.
"I've noticed a belief in Croatia that the two countries can live with open issues because we have good relations in other fields. I don't believe in that because unresolved issues burden relations and clog cooperation in some areas. There's for instance no real cooperation within the EU even though the two countries may have shared interests."
During her three and a half years in office, the embassy has been trying hard to prevent the cold political relationship affecting the boosting of business links.
Bilateral merchandise trade amounted to EUR 4.2 billion last year, a third more than at the start of Knez's term in 2016. In the first quarter of this year trade was up by 14% compared to the same period a year ago.
The two countries have been maintaining regular contacts at the level of ministries, in particular those linked to economy, transport and infrastructure.
Knez has devoted a lot of her attention to the Slovenian minority in Croatia, which is trying for ethnic Slovenians in Croatia to become more politically engaged, not only in the Croatian parliament, but also at the local level where decisions are taken on everyday life and on preserving the minority's identity.
Knez is leaving her post in Zagreb to become an international relations advisor to President Borut Pahor. Until the arrival of a new ambassador, her duties in Zagreb will be assumed by charge d'affaires Nataša Šebenik.
In April, the newspaper Dnevnik reported that career diplomat Vojislav Šuc was appointed as Slovenia's new ambassador to Croatia. Most recently, Šuc has served as the head of Slovenia's permanent mission to the UN and other Geneva-based organisations. He has also served as ambassador to Sweden.