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Interview for the daily Dnevnik (Dnevnikov objektiv)

Ljubljana, 18.7.2009  |  interview

Slovenia and Croatia should continue to work on the basis of the proposal made by the EU Commissioner Rehn

Journalists: Zoran Senković, Ali Žerdin

Mr President, will you spend your summer holiday in Croatia like the majority of Slovenian citizens?

No, I haven't vacationed in Croatia in the past 25 years. I have always spent my summer holidays in Slovenia and I will also do so this year – I do not intend to change my habits.

On this point, you do not share the fate with our citizens?

I believe that Slovenian citizens have a number of good reasons to spend their holidays in Croatia and that many of them feel very well there. I hope that this also proves true this year.

Your hope might require a question mark. Bilateral relations between the two countries are strained. At what point are we at the moment?

At the moment, we are at a very sensitive point. Alongside certain accumulated problems there is also a rather bad atmosphere. We experienced the shock caused by an unsuccessful attempt on the life of the Slovenian Prime Minister, which, luckily, was prevented at a very early stage. Now, we should give a thorough consideration to everything, which, however, does not necessarily need to take too long. We need to deliberate our further steps and carry them out so as to solve at least some problems.

Do you take the event in which Mr Zagajski, a war veteran, was involved as an incident committed by a person with an obvious psychological disorder, or would you attach greater importance to this event?

Both. According to the information available, the person involved suffers from disorders resulting from his war experience, but his actions are probably also connected with the atmosphere in which this happened. Therefore, we should not underestimate this event. In politics, in general, one should never underestimate any threat.

Are there any other indications that you know of which indicate that this event should not be underestimated?

There are no specific indications. As you know, Mr Zagajski said that he had contact with some other people, a statement which has not been confirmed. I nevertheless think that the investigation of this dimension should be particularly thorough. And even if it is proved that there was no such organisational aspect, this event should by all means be taken as a serious warning.

You used a meteorological metaphor "atmosphere" when you spoke of the shock we experienced. Can this shock have the effect of thunder, which discharges the atmosphere?

I hope so. Allow me to step away from atmospheric metaphors to a political assessment and express my belief that the most important thing at this moment is to properly evaluate the importance of the recent engagement of the European Commission and Commissioner Olli Rehn in the effort to settle the border dispute. If we look back we can see that the Commission undertook bold action by offering its good offices and assistance regarding the border dispute between the two countries. In this context, it also offered several good proposals. First was the mediation proposal, which Croatia rejected, and then the arbitration proposal, which Mr. Rehn subsequently refined, the result being the proposal of 15 June, which goes very far and in the right direction. In a direction, which promises the possibility of a settlement of the dispute. It is important that this opportunity not be wasted. In international relations such situations are often described with the expression "window of opportunity". I believe that this window should by all means be used and that we should proceed with negotiations on the basis of Mr Rehn's proposal.

Let us stay for another moment with the failed attempt. Do you think that on this occasion both sides reacted in a more mature and responsible manner than in the past?

This is true and this is good, but it was also the nature of the event that demanded such mature and responsible reaction, meaning that there are mature and responsible people on both sides. I would, nevertheless, like to add that at this point we should continue to take mature and responsible steps motivated by the idea of settling the problem.

And what would, in your opinion, a mature and responsible policy on both sides of the border be in the continuation of the process initiated by Olli Rehn?

Here, two things are fundamental. Let me first make a general point: both countries must be aware of the fact that it is mutual respect that counts if they wish to find a solution. Also deference in the manner of expression and in their statements. There is a need to refrain from aggressive and offensive speech. Without mutual respect there is no solution. The second dimension is somewhat more practical. This is the need for a rapid agreement on the method of continuing work on Mr. Rehn's proposal.


Because this is the most developed, the most serious proposal, which is more promising than anything we have had in the history of bilateral relations or in the attempts to find a solution by way of assistance of a third party. Mr Rehn's proposal is an opportunity which should not be missed. However, this requires responsible and respectful conduct.

If we have understood the diplomatic signals from the EU correctly, then the message is that they do not intend to occupy themselves with us and Croatia much longer? As if to say, sort it out yourselves. If I have understood you rightly, then your message to the EU is that there is a high level of readiness in Slovenia to continue this process.

The EU message should be understood like this: it is Slovenia's and Croatia's move. After all, it is up to the two sides to reach an agreement on arbitration. Tackling the problem as seriously as it has done, the Commission can only help, however, it cannot replace an agreement of the parties to the dispute. I am also sure that the Commission will be glad to provide further cooperation if only the two countries reach an agreement.

But here we face two partly separate and partly associated issues. One is an agreement on how to settle the border dispute, and another is when and at what point should Slovenia remove the blockade of Croatia's accession negotiations with the EU. Is it merely an agreement on the method of settling the border dispute that would suffice to open the possibility for Croatia to resume its negotiations with the EU?

Mr. Rehn's proposal offers an answer to this question. The conclusion of an arbitration agreement could be the moment for removal of the blockade and resumption of Croatia's negotiations with the EU. One should, however, not forget that Croatia has some other open issues in those negotiations, such as shipbuilding, justice and cooperation with the Hague Tribunal.

It is my impression that one part of the Slovenian political body particularly advocates the position that Croatia can resume talks for EU membership and integrate into the EU only after the border issue has been resolved.

The settlement of the border dispute is a process in which the conclusion of an arbitration agreement would be fundamental. I think that if such an agreement were reached, Slovenia could gather enough arguments to abolish the blockade.

Would it be possible to remove the blockade if Croatia admitted, on the basis of a legal opinion, that it had prejudged the border in certain documents? This approach is now proposed by Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor?

We are dealing here with an illusion which the European Commission recognized very early and therefore also suggested that the border dispute be settled as a whole. Look, if one tries to assess individual documents and their level of prejudging the border line, one already enters the field of trying to resolve the dispute. This would somehow be a surrogate way of settling the dispute, and, speaking as a lawyer, not very serious either. I believe that no international legal service or institution would actually accept a method of getting involved in the selection of documents. I do not believe that this is a realistic proposal in terms of competences held by the legal department of the European Commission; and it can, in particular, not be considered as useful in view of the need to settle the dispute itself. Selecting unilateral documents would mean a kind of an illusionary shortcut to the settlement of the dispute.

But if one listens to our Foreign Ministry, which says that it is the documents prejudging the border that are responsible for this mess, one cannot avoid feeling that the removal of these documents can lead to a deblockade.

These documents represent an accumulated practice which additionally complicated the border issue, and to "uncomplicate" it we above all need to settle the border dispute. Selective consideration of these documents will bring about no such results. Therefore, I warn against the illusion that we could achieve anything by this method. But, as at the end of last year these documents were given focused attention, they obtained a somewhat symbolic value producing the illusion that by removing them, a greater effect could be achieved than actually possible. Therefore, I think that this is not a good road to travel, considering that we have a good proposal by Mr Rehn on the table, a proposal that also solves the issue of these documents. Mr. Rehn's proposal actually states that the documents do not need to be withdrawn, but that they should not be used in the dispute settlement process.

So, Croatia also lives under the illusion that by solely withdrawing the documents the blockade would stop.

The paradox of this situation is that there is still a proposal on the table, a good and seriously drafted proposal by Olli Rehn, facilitating better and more comprehensive solutions. It would be reasonable to focus on what is better and get the whole thing over and done with.

Do you frequently communicate with the Government on this issue?

We communicate regularly.

Is the Government ready to listen to your suggestions?

They do hear me, but the Government has its own responsibilities and I expect it to adopt the right decisions. Several times, it has seriously expressed its readiness to continue negotiations on Mr. Rehn's proposal. However, it is true that sometimes these reasonable tones coming from the Foreign Ministry are not sufficiently perceived by the public at large. And one should not be overly surprised by that fact. The events last weekend were so resounding that it has been somewhat forgotten that the Foreign Ministry had a day or two earlier clarified its approach. And this approach is essentially an appeal to continue negotiations on Commissioner Rehn's proposal.

You mention symbols, the symbolic weight of the documents. There is the impression that these symbols strain bilateral relations. The symbolic weight often blurs the real interests of both sides. When we are discussing symbols rather than real interests, the problem is more difficult to solve since these symbols elicit emotions. What can be done to ease the weight of symbols in the relations between the two countries?

As you were asking me this question, I recalled the novel Zastave by Miroslav Krleža. It is a long novel about symbols and their influence on daily life. It is worth reading. It is a novel about the process that led to the creation of Yugoslavia. In our part of Europe, symbols play an important role, while interests and rational definitions of interests have more difficulty making their way into political communication. From this point of view, too, the proposal by Commissioner Rehn is good. It eliminates the need for dealing explicitly with symbols. If I sum up the essence of his proposal: it adopts the international legal framework as the basis for tackling the problem and brings into it the idea of equity. Then it transfers the entire dispute to arbitration. If this were done, the two countries could entrust the process of settling the dispute between them to a third party, without tiring themselves with the symbolic dimensions that come up every time there is more heated political communication. I believe that Mr Rehn’s proposal is the technical tool that can help us ease the burden of the symbolic dimensions of the problem. In the past, William Perry, as well as prime ministers Drnovšek and Račan, tried to approach the problem in a similar way. But in bilateral talks it is much more difficult to achieve the desired result because two sides are involved, each with its own baggage of symbols. That is why settling the problem with the help of a third party is more promising in this case. Of everything we have seen so far, Mr. Rehn’s proposal is the most mature.

In an interview for the magazine Mladina, Croatian President Stipe Mesić answered the question of why Croatia is so sceptical of the principle of equity with a paradox: the principle of equity is not equitable.

As a lawyer, I would say that equity is always linked to law. This is also the case with Mr Rehn's proposal. It is a proposal linking international law to equity. Equity must be linked to law. Of course, politicians may have doubts about the idea of equity, but on the other hand, we cannot proceed without it. The use of law that would bring a considerably unbalanced solution, which one side in the dispute would consider inequitable, would not be successful. There have been cases in the past when two countries reached an agreement on the border, and the agreement was written in a treaty. But, politically, this did not solve the problem, because one of the sides considered the solution inequitable and unfair. It seemed that the agreement was technically correct, but serious political problems followed. If the technically correct use of law does not bring about an equitable solution, the solution is not the right one. All circumstances should be taken into consideration and used equitably in connection with international law.

Does the principle of equity apply to all issues in bilateral relations that are the cause of dispute?


Then there is also the issue of Ljubljanska Banka. When it comes to Ljubljanska Banka, Slovenia always provides legally faultless expert opinions, which the people, savers who had put money in the bank, do not consider equitable.

The question is what an equitable solution really is in this particular case. Cases differ from one another. If you are talking about the savers of Ljubljanska Banka in Croatia, the territorial principle should be taken into account. Financial resources have not gone to the Slovenian side. From the Slovenian point of view, it is inequitable to pay for something that we have not received. On the other hand, there is another aspect: the affected savers have decided to seek justice through the European Court of Human Rights. We must wait for these proceedings to end. These proceedings are partially completed; they have been completed with a rejection of the claims of Croatian savers. However, these savers believe that this is not a decision on the merits and that the proceedings will have to be continued. I believe that the European Court of Human Rights will take into consideration the concept of equity in the continuation of the proceedings. If you look at the judgement and opinions expressed in Strasbourg so far, you can see that much has been written on these matters in additional opinions: that is to say, on the territorial principle, on where the money has gone, etc. So, the European Court of Human Rights has already spoken about the aspect of equity. I believe that it is right to seek a solution before the European Court of Human Rights.

Slovenia elected the new Government at the end of 2008, and Croatia formed theirs a few days ago. Does this fact facilitate seeking a way to settle the disputes?

I am not sure. These are old problems. Governments always deal with the legacy of the problem. They are not in an enviable position. They do not have total freedom in deciding on the matter. They must take into consideration the whole history of the issue. As all citizens, I also expect the two Governments to be successful, but I do not want to place the burden of unreasonable expectations on them.

How come the deliberation about relations between Slovenia and Croatia ranks so high on your list of priorities?

I think about many issues, not only this one. I would not say that my deliberations about relations between Slovenia and Croatia are disproportionately high on the list. But it is true that we have reached an important point. On one hand, there are accumulated problems, while on the other there is shock that can discharge the tension. This requires detailed and careful consideration, which must not be too lengthy. That is why I believe that it is important for us, at this very moment, to devote special attention to relations between Slovenia and Croatia. Summer is a good time for deliberating more carefully on these matters. In the weeks to come, we will perhaps move closer to a solution and continue along the path that Mr. Rehn’s proposal has opened.

You say that summer is a good time for careful deliberation. This interview will be published on the eve of the anniversary of concluding the agreement between prime ministers Drnovšek and Račan. On 20 July, in the middle of summer, we will be celebrating the eighth anniversary of this agreement.

Well, this is pure coincidence. I would not like to bring any additional symbolic dimensions into the matter. The agreement between Drnovšek and Račan should not become a new symbol. Their agreement was conceived in a very pragmatic way. As you know, Dr Drnovšek was a very pragmatic politician, who led the negotiations in the light of interests. All the solutions were based on interests.

Are you in favour of a pragmatic way of tackling problems?

Certainly. But we are at a stage when the possibilities of pragmatic solutions that would be achieved by mutual agreement are meagre. We need the help of a third party. This conclusion is also pragmatic. In 2009, the European Commission has been really helpful in this matter. It formulated several proposals, and we must now establish which proposal can help us best.

Is there a risk of a new European Commission, when it is formed, removing the Slovenian-Croatian issue from the agenda and saying: "Sort it out yourselves".

Some things will certainly have to be agreed by ourselves. The present Commission’s term of office will last a few more months, and certain things can be done in the time we have available. If you think about how much was done in the first half of the year and how far we have come, progress is possible in the coming months. Perhaps even crucial progress – in the present Commission’s term of office. I would like to see such a course of developments. That would, in a way, also be a reward for the European Commission. It would be in the interests of all concerned: Slovenia, Croatia and the European Commission. Then we could say we have shaken off the burden of symbols, we are closer to our interests and can help everyone.

The agreement between Drnovšek and Račan was a political agreement. From the legal point of view, does it "hold water"?

This was a compromise based on premises that are still relevant today. These are, for example: Slovenia’s contact with the open sea and Croatia’s contact with the Italian territorial sea. These are two powerful political interests. The agreement between Mr.Drnovšek and Mr. Račan sought to satisfy both interests. Obviously, this attempt was not convincing enough for all stakeholders in Croatia. No tears should be shed for the past, but at the same time it is good to learn a lesson from history. The major value of the Drnovšek - Račan agreement lies in the motivation for understanding the interests of the other side. Their efforts to understand each other were sincere. Whether the outcome was very fortunate is another matter. But this is not the most important issue. Mr. Rehn’s proposal is also based on the ambition to satisfy the interests of both countries.

High on your list of priorities is the issue of amending certain parts of the Constitution. You are discussing the issue with experts. What is the progress so far?

I have been paying attention to this topic since the beginning of my term in office, not because I am a lawyer, but because, as President of Slovenia, I sincerely believe that we need to refine the constitutional system in a manner that will ensure the best decision-making, the best development and the most rapid transformation. Law should not be understood dogmatically, but rather instrumentally. The law here is an instrument of development. An actual point where much could be done for better development is amending the status of the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court should deal with the key issues and dilemmas of the future, including the relationship between Slovenia and the EU. I hope that the judgment of the German Constitutional Court, confirming that Germany as a state has sovereignty and that it has to strengthen the competencies of its Parliament in order to be able to take appropriate action within the Lisbon Treaty, has been well noted in Slovenia. This is indeed a very far-reaching matter affecting every EU Member State, including Slovenia. For this reason I consider constitutional provisions to be an extremely important condition for our future transformation. This, however, may not be immediately evident as yet, but if we want to set up a decision-making framework that will lead us ahead, we have to turn our attention to this issue. Let us be clear on this point, however: comprehensive amending of the Constitution is not required. The fundamental postulates such as parliamentary democracy, a state governed by the rule of law and a welfare state, human rights, etc., are not to be amended. Moreover, the major part of the constitutional provisions is such that no amendments are required. However, certain corrections are indispensable, because they will enable the decision-making that will take us forward. Transformation does not only include making decisions on the ownership of capital. Transformation also involves deciding on the mechanisms that will provide solid placement of Slovenia within Europe, and this is why amending the constitutional norms governing the Constitutional Court is so important. The Government is busy now preparing the text of these amendments, and I expect that in autumn an initiative will be brought before the National Assembly. The President of Slovenia does not have the right to such an initiative; he may organise a debate but may not be a proposer. Apart from the Constitutional Court, other topics may be taken under consideration, but concerning these other topics, clear agreement on the priorities is called for, involving a broad political consensus on those priorities. This set of issues includes the method of assembling the Government, the competencies of the National Council, referendum regulations, etc. A sense for obtaining broad political support is very important in starting such a debate. A sense of time, however, is also important. I do not intend to proceed too quickly, because we know that we are addressing complex crisis tasks and I would not want things to become unnecessarily complicated. Personally, I can understand the doubts expressed by the Slovenian People’s Party, but I emphasise again that this debate should not be hurried in any way that would affect the decision-making necessary to deal with the current recession.

In your opinion, amending the status of the Constitutional Court is thus urgent, critical.

Yes, indeed.

Why do you comprehend the rule of law as an instrument of development?

The Constitutional Court must be relieved of trivial matters.

Triviality threatens the rule of law?

Precisely so. If judicial bodies are flooded with vast numbers of trivial matters, then the quality of work in key matters is thwarted. We have to come to terms with this fact and change things at this point. If we change them here, we will manage further development more easily. If the Constitutional Court no longer deals with traffic offences, it will have more time for topics of strategic relevance. Such development may bring about changes in the quality of politics as a whole.

What is the advice of the experts with whom you have been having discussions?

They estimate that the issue of the Constitutional Court should be regulated urgently. In their opinion, the conditions for a successful step forward have been ripening.

You have been reminding us of the crisis context in tackling the issue of constitutional amendments.

As for the crisis issue, my constitutional competencies are limited in nature. I’m in regular contact with the Prime Minister and we have been talking a lot. I support the measures proposed by the Government and I believe they have taken the right direction. In my opinion, what we need above all is crisis management in all state institutions. The capability of rapid and on-going decision-making has to be increased. It should be taken into account that the crisis will take some more time and that decisions will need to be taken all the time. In addition, we need a sufficiently comprehensive systemic approach to reforms that are required in the public sector. I believe that at the level of our organisation it would be good to think about accelerating our actions. However, we also come face to face with concrete topics such as the issue of technologically updating Slovenian industry. I focus my attention on positive events. A few days ago I was in Tolmin, where Hidria opened a new production line of ignition systems for diesel engines that are more ecological and have a market in Europe. We need more of such work. The notion that science belongs only to universities and institutes while industry should only engage in production is wrong. A shift is needed here. Science must also find its place in companies and firms. If I were a young engineer today, I might want to live in Tolmin. I would work in an exceptionally well-organised laboratory and spend my free time climbing the hills and boating down the Soča River. The crisis circumstances, of course, represent the other aspect. As President of the Republic, I am not vested with powers for resolving these issues, but of course I do have opinions on them. The case of Mura is one such issue. The responsibility for solving the problems must be shifted to the owners. I do not know whether you have paid attention to the provision of our Constitution stating that property has three functions, i.e. economic, social and environmental. This wording is laid down in Article 67 of the Constitution. This is written down in the fundamental act constituting our society. This article is not in our Constitution for the reason of just looking good; we want it to be like this! The owners of capital have to feel responsible for economic, social and ecological effects. Shifting burdens to the state is not a healthy policy. The present debate between the state and the owners – in the case of Mura it is NFD – has been necessary. It would be good, however, if it had taken place earlier, but as it is, often a crisis has to come to a head before a debate can be started. I would like this debate to yield good results. I do not want any ambiguity here: I believe that Mura has to be preserved. However, the owners must put forward their best efforts to this end. They are responsible for the company's fate. The owners should provide good management at Mura. In this respect, certain deficiencies were recorded in the past. What can the President of the Republic do in such a case? The President can help search for new markets. When I pay official visits, I always invite business people to participate in the delegation. These visits are prepared carefully. Two or three months are needed for establishing contacts between our companies and the companies in the countries we visit. Not only the visit itself, but also the preparation for the visit is important. And certain companies are able to make business deals out of this.

You can thus organise the context that leads to the conclusion of business.

It is not only the context, but also very concrete communication, which has to be prompt and effective. It is important that any country which I visit also be well-organised and that they find their appropriate counterparts for the business people from our delegation. The key importance of these preparations is the value added.
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