Ljerka Alajbeg: I Will Personally Work on Organizing Me?trovi? Exhibition in Sofia
As Bulgaria has completed its one-year term as the Rotating Presidency of the South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP), Novinite is interviewing Ambassadors of countries that are parties to the process.
Following is our interview with H.E. Ljerka Alajbeg, the Ambassador of the Republic of Croatia to Bulgaria.
Ms Alajbeg's experience in foreign affairs dates back to 1979, when she joined former Yugoslavia's Federal Secretariat for Foreign Affairs (SSIP) subsequently assuming missions to the United States and the Federal Republic of Germany. She subsequently took up different positions within Croatia's Foreign Ministry, and in missions abroad, including Minister Counsellor at her country's embassy in Canada and Ambassador to the Kindgom of Belgium.
Your Excellency, is there any specific reason for this intense political activity between Bulgaria and Croatia, with Presidents paying reciprocal visits and ministerial arrivals over the past half a year?
Croatia and Bulgaria have had a very friendly relationship for more than 11 centuries. It's very hard to find two countries in Europe and in the EU with better relations throughout history. During Yugoslavian time, these ties were a little bit looser than before, but right now we are strengthening our relationship and the ties, not only between politicians, but also between the people. At the Embassy here we are working on that, and we hope that in the near future Bulgarians and Croats will contact much more than now. One of our main goals within the SEECP initiative is connectivity in all terms. I consider the connectivity among the people as one of the most important goals. To realize that goal we need very good transport connections (roads, airway and railway connections, etc.), which, unfortunately, we don't have between Bulgaria and Croatia. The second reason for intense political activities was a multilateral one. Bulgaria was presiding the SEECP process for a year and also held the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and therefore many conferences were organized here. At the same time we also had bilateral meetings. President Rosen Plevneliev was the first head of state to visit Croatia after our new President, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovi?, was elected. She paid her return visit to Bulgaria this April. Recently, Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov, visited Croatia. In the meantime our other ministers have been meeting bilaterally on the margins of different regional conferences.
Is this political interaction also bringing about economic interaction? While visiting Bulgaria, your President called bilateral economic relations "modest".
Yes, she is right. We are trying to work on this problem. As I mentioned previously, our excellent bilateral political relations and historic ties did not bear sufficient economic exchange. We have only slightly more than 150 million EUR exchange between the two countries. But the important thing is that we at the Embassy are working hard to improve the economic exchange. Interestingly, it is almost a rule that countries emerging from the former political and economic system trust the “old” western European economies more than they trust each other’s. For example, if given the same offer, under the same conditions, our countries usually give advantage to economies which have been established throughout decades, like Germany, France, and some other Western countries. It is a problem; we have to trust each other much more. Croatia, for example, has excellent companies, which are active on all continents - like Kon?ar group, Konstruktor, IGH, etc. In spite of that, if we are talking about reconstruction of railways or some infrastructural projects in Bulgaria, the advantage is usually given to allegedly better known companies. Probably, this mentality can also be found in Croatia and we have to change that. Moreover, I think we didn't exhaust the possibility of a joint venture in different fields where we can develop common projects for third markets. The economies of both countries are relatively small, but we can work together because we have compatible capacities. As an example, we can work together in the IT sector, where both countries have excellent references and results.
A sector which has been much discussed both bilaterally and multilaterally is energy – in terms of both the SEECP and the US-EU energy summit, the construction of an LNG terminal in Croatia and gas interconnections of Bulgaria is being promoted. How can the two countries work together?
When we talk about energy, it is not only a bilateral issue, rather a regional and multilateral one. As we know, energy was on the Bulgarian agenda of SEECP presidency, and it will also be high on Croatia's presidency agenda. The topic of energy is high on the EU agenda as well. The middle European and south European countries, together with the EC, already organized two high level meetings and agreed on 14 projects of common interest. The Croatian LNG terminal in the island of Krk is one of the priorities. Also, the gas pipeline – IAP [Ionian-Adriatic Pipeline], which is part of TAP [Trans-Adriatic Pipeline] is proclaimed as a project of common interest. Europe is supporting the energy supplies, especially in Southeast Europe, from various sources, in order to be independent from one single supplier. Well, we cannot exclude certain sources, because the competition and diversity is important. Talking about energy projects, Bulgaria and Croatia completely agree that we have to connect north and south, east and west of Europe. We support the idea of the Bulgarian President, who first proposed the Regional Energy Exchange. But it is important first to build infrastructure that will enable the access to regional energy supplies.
Defense has also been discussed as a possible area of cooperation, and Bulgaria's Defense Minister Nikolay Nenchev paid a visit to Zagreb earlier this year. What are the prospects for cooperation there.
As members of NATO, we have close cooperation with other NATO members, especially with the countries in the region, such as Bulgaria. We have many common interests, from organization adequate activities connected with migration flow to the modernization of old military equipment. Croatia has been producing, even during Yugoslavian times, certain military supplies in factories like “?uro ?akovi?”, “Gredelj”, and others. This certainly could be of interest to Bulgaria. Concerning coastguard equipment, Croatia is very active in producing all types of ships and maritime vessels, including military ones. I am quite sure that this topic was discussed during the ministers’ meetings in Zagreb. We organized a small presentation in Sofia during the visit of our President with an economic delegation in April this year. They presented the possibilities of interaction with Croatian companies, finding new partners or refreshing relationships with old partners. A highlight of the presentation was the possibility of producing the different types of vessels in Croatian shipyards. It is well known that Croatia was one of the most famous shipbuilding countries in the world. In the meantime we diversified and changed our production from boats and huge ships to different specialized ships; from private yachts to police and military vessels.
For both countries as EU members, the integration of the Western Balkans is crucial. How could Bulgaria and Croatia contribute to the EU integration of the region?
The EU enlargement toward Southeastern Europe is always on the agenda, whether bilateral, regional or EU agenda. Bulgaria and Croatia share the same feeling about that question. We are both supporting each and every country of the region to become a member of the EU and NATO. The problem is that some countries have serious difficulties in meeting the necessary requirements. Both of our countries openly expressed on many occasions our readiness to help our neighbours in the region to speed up this process. In that sense, Croatia has already helped these countries in different ways. For example, it shared the entire acquis communautaire, translated into Croatian language, exchanging advisors and good practices. It is in Croatia's best interest to have a stable neighborhood, and therefore we will continue with this practice.
We are not interested in blocking any country on its European path because that policy wouldn't be productive for anyone. Croatia experienced this kind of blockage and it proved to be counterproductive and wrong.
Regarding the migrant crisis, does Croatia share the concerns of Bulgaria? The Western Balkans route is now closed, but Bulgaria has recently seen a surge in the number of migrants crossing.
During the “Balkan route” Croatia was faced with a flow of more than 700 000 migrants. It was very demanding because we were not prepared in the beginning. The migrant flow surprised all countries on the route, but we had no choice and had to care about these people. We in Croatia did our best. We built shelters for the migrants and accommodated them in the best possible way. Any type of human trafficking or misuse of their unfortunate position did not occur in our country. We gave the best assistance to all of them. By joint action, together with our partners on the route, whether members of the EU or not, we succeeded to stop the migration flow. At the very beginning of the crisis, Croatia was ready to receive a certain number of migrants and is now in the process of their first relocation from other countries to Croatia. Altogether between 1500 and 2000 migrants are to arrive in Croatia. With Bulgaria we have been working closely from the beginning, mostly concerning the security problems and challenges connected with transit of such a huge number of people. We both also had to follow the individuals who were going from our territory to ISIL military formations and those who are coming back. It is not a considerable number, but these people could become dangerous because they are movable and they can organize their activities very fast. Therefore, we all have to work on that issue closely, both regionally and bilaterally.
What specific measures can be taken regionally and bilaterally as regards terrorism? There was a recent publication in Newsweek Serbia that singled out Bulgaria and Croatia as transit destinations with training camps for jihadists.
I think that this article was based on insufficient information. However, Croatia and Bulgaria are working seriously on that problem. My opinion is that any dangerous and organized activities, like terror attacks, could not happen in our region without our professional services having any information about it. Our services work very well and in accordance with one another. However, it is always possible, in each of our countries, to have insane individuals, “lone wolves”. These kind of people can be found anywhere in the world. There are always some frustrated people, or people influenced by a certain extreme forms of a religion or ideology. They act individually - that's something we cannot always notice in advance and prevent.
Bulgaria and Croatia have an agreement on cooperation in culture. What are the prospects for working together in this field?
For years we have had an agreement on cultural cooperation. The agreement serves as a framework, and every three years we conclude a program on specific cultural activities. The last three year program was signed in Croatia in 2014. My impression is that the program is not detailed enough. It does not contain concrete activities like exhibitions, concerts or joint cultural events. The wording of the program is too general, and it is left to both sides to create concrete projects. There are major projects which have been discussed many times by previous and present ambassadors and ministers of culture. For example, Croatia has been showing interest for years in the Thracian Gold exhibition [The Epic of the Thracian Kings], which was held last year in Paris. On the other side, Bulgaria would like to see some major exhibitions from Croatia, for example, the works of Ivan Me?trovi?, the famous Croatian sculptor. The realization of these types of projects usually turns out to be either too expensive or technically too demanding. Finally, we end up with some small exhibitions or other less demanding cultural presentations. These types of events have their advantages because it is easy to present them in different places, not only capital cities. However, we think that the possibilities from both sides are much bigger and our audiences deserve and expect major cultural attractions.
I will personally work on organizing Me?trovi?'s exhibition here in Sofia, since his family has ties with Bulgaria, namely his daughter-in-law is Bulgarian. His son [Mate Me?trovi?] was Ambassador to Bulgaria, where he married a Bulgarian lady, Rumyana, who now lives in Croatia taking care of the sculptor’s legacy. Concerning the Thracian Gold exhibition, both of our countries have a certain type of syndrome, which characterizes smaller countries: we like to be seen and show off in big world capitals like Paris, London or New York. It seems like we don't appreciate the audience in our own countries enough. European capitals are not really isolated. Any cultural event can easily attract the public from other destinations. Proof of that is the success of the project European Capital of Culture.
So, I hope that we will have a chance in the near future to organize some cultural events that will also have a social dimension. It would be much more than just culture, it would serve as a revitalization of our friendly relations, which were neglected in the past.
Bulgaria has been pushing to create joint tourism products with neighboring countries. Speaking of Croatia, which is a popular tourist destination and is not far from Bulgaria, has such an opportunity ever been discussed to propose a joint tourism product?
We have been talking about these packages for years. Although our countries have a similar touristic offer, both of them have certain specific attractions. Croatia has a rich summer season, and Bulgaria is a famous winter tourist destination. But to create a joint tourist product we need much better transport infrastructure and direct flights between our two countries. However, I still think we didn't exhaust our capacities and did not start efficient talks and actions on that matter. It's constantly in the air and the result is that we are trying to promote each other much more efficiently than before.
Sometimes, I think that our tourist institutions, or even agencies, are always playing on the safe side. They don't like to start something which would be more challenging. For example, why don’t Croatian agencies try to promote Bulgaria's archaeological tourism? Also, why don’t Bulgarian agencies promote some Croatian natural or cultural sights? As ambassador, I participated, two years in a row, in one initiative supported by the Bulgarian Ministry of Tourism to promote Bulgaria as a country and as a tourist destination. The title of the project was You Think You Know Bulgaria? I will personally always promote Bulgaria because I believe that Bulgaria has much to offer and its capacities are still not recognized enough. That can also apply to Croatia's tourist possibilities, especially if we are talking about the rich offer of the mainland. So, for our two countries there is much to do together in this field.
I think it was in that popularization campaign where you said you fell in love with Bulgaria. Which is your favourite place here?
I love Bulgaria because it reminds me of Croatia: the sea, the mountains, interesting places, and so much natural and cultural diversity. Above all, Bulgarians and Croats are friendly and warm people. Each town, each city has its own story because our countries were on the crossroads of many conquerors, of many cultures, of many influences. And that's exactly what gives richness to our both countries.
On the other hand, each of our countries is unique. When I visited the Rila Lakes, it was an unbelievable feeling. I thought: “Oh my goodness, it's magical, completely different than anything else.” Nessebar reminds me of an Adriatic city, but there is a difference in architecture, in style and one feels an urge to discover it more closely. And Perperikon - a unique place! I visited Machu Picchu in Peru. Perperikon is your Machu Picchu and even more than that, because this site is older and bigger. I was on the Danube river from Bulgarian side, the huge Danube plain is fascinating. Probably I will leave this country without seeing so many interesting places, because my free time is limited. However, I hope I will come back and I will always recommend to all my friends to visit Bulgaria.
They say, for us diplomats, that we have to leave the country when we fall in love with it because it might affect our job and we start to become the Ambassadors of our host country. I am sure that in the future I will really be an Ambassador of Bulgaria, as well.
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