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Former Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic discusses Ukraine, life and career

Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, who served as president of Croatia from 2015 to 2020, visited Notre Dame this week to speak to the Nanovic Forum on Tuesday evening.

Grabar-Kitarovic, the youngest president of Croatia as well as the first woman to be elected to the office, was a career diplomat prior to her election and gave an address titled “War in Ukraine, Peace in Europe? Geopolitics, Economics and Security after Russia’s Invasion.” She spoke to The Observer for an hour-long interview on Wednesday morning, discussing her visit to the University, career highlights and a path forward for Europe and the globe.

The former president’s visit to Notre Dame was eventful, participating in three classes, attending working meals with faculty and other members of the Notre Dame community and sitting next to University president Fr. John Jenkins for the Notre Dame Forum’s keynote event, a dramatic reading of an ancient Greek tragedy, Aeschylus’ “The Suppliants,” in Notre Dame Stadium

Grabar-Kitarovic offered her expertise on European diplomacy, and as a former head of state, on the current situation in Ukraine in her lecture on Tuesday evening. Speaking to a packed auditorium in the Hesburgh Center, she discussed the causes of the conflict and Putin’s erratic behavior. She shared her takeaways from the crisis, namely that in order to move forward, those standing against Putin must “maintain our unity of purpose” and “stand united,” as well as develop a standard of responding to hostile aggression on the world stage and address strategic vulnerabilities and challenges.

Before answering questions, Grabar-Kitarovic closed with a reflection on freedom. 

“The fact that we have peace in our countries and stability does not mean absence of threat. It means that there are men and women working out there, so hard, to secure our peace, security and stability and peace can never be taken for granted,” she said. 

Grabar-Kitarovic said that in Croatia, there is an annual theatre festival called the Dubrovnik Summer Games. The festival opened with the “Ode to Freedom” by the influential Croatian poet Ivan Gundulic.

“To quote part of that ode, in my free translation… ‘all the silver, all the gold, all the human lives and the cost of all of that does not equal the pure beauty of freedom and of peace,’” she said.

Grabar-Kitarovic told The Observer that her visit to campus had been “wonderful,” and that she was particularly delighted to see the works of Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, who spent time at Notre Dame.

Grabar-Kitarovic was born the daughter of farmers in rural Croatia, then a part of the former Yugoslavia. She described the burdens of growing up under communism and a centralized government in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital city in Serbia.

“It was very difficult because there were a lot of taxes and a lot of measures were the government and trying to limit [private business]. In the case of my family, for instance, the land that we could own, the number of people who could work with us. My parents had to work hard. They did not have an opportunity. They only finished elementary school, both of them because they had to start working very early,” Grabar-Kitarovic said. 

“What bothered me in the former Yugoslavia was that lack of accountability. It was always the same old group of people, the so-called political elites, who were professional politicians, they lived off politics and off the backs of all the rest of us,” she added.

Grabar-Kitarovic recalled a scheme when the Yugoslav government sold bonds to develop roads, many of which had not been developed since the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

“My family paid a lot of money for those bonds, not thinking of interests because we were not free market minded at the time. We just wanted for those roads to be built for the infrastructure to be built,” she said. “So we raise a lot of money and of course, it’s centralized. It all goes to Belgrade. And whatever we earn will go to Belgrade and then Belgrade would redistribute the money.”

The bonds were never paid out and the roads were never built, Grabar-Kitarovic said. The centralized redistribution in Yugoslavia was uneven and ineffective, she continued. 

“Projects that were built under communism were useless, such as an aluminum factory in a coastal town in Croatia, where you have no resources like bauxite to begin with. And of course, it failed,” Grabar-Kitarovic said.

She was able to study as an exchange student in high school, graduating from high school in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Returning to study at the University of Zagreb, Grabar-Kitarovic joined the movement for Croatian independence and witnessed the Croatian War of Independence. 

Studying in the United States was “an incredibly important experience where I learned a lot about individual rights and freedoms,” she said. Returning to Croatia, “I was so unhappy with the whole setup of life, with everything that was going on. [There was a] total lack of responsibility, hiding behind collectivism.”

As the war for independence was waged, Grabar-Kitarovic said that Croatia underwent a brutal assault.

“The atrocities committed were really the most brutal. It wasn’t just guns that were used, it was also knives and things that normally are not used as weapons. The scorched-earth strategy used to perform ethnic cleansing to drive out all the non-Serb population not in the occupied areas. Mass rape and sexual offenses actually started in Croatia, committed even on a greater scale later in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We were losing ground in the beginning,” she recalled.

And yet, there were moments of comfort in solidarity.

“We were sticking together and I remember the times of feeling united with the people. If you were stuck somewhere during an air raid, in somebody’s basement, they would clothe you, they would feed you for as long as it went on. There was practically no crime in Croatia,” Grabar-Kitarovic said.

Nonetheless, from Zagreb, the war was palpable. 

“As you lie down in your bed, you can hear detonations from 24 kilometers away, where the front lines are. Some 24 kilometers, imagine. [That’s] nothing. But you know, there were people there, day and night, defending Croatia. You hear those detonations and you’re so grateful for them. And you’re so grateful for the warm beds that you can sleep in because most people in parts of Croatia that were under for weeks and months, they would spend those weeks and months in their cellars sleeping on the floor,” Grabar-Kitarovic said. 

She describes the war as a formative experience in her personal and political development.

“It taught me humility, to appreciate things in life that really matter, more empathy, being able to understand conflicts in the world today perhaps a little bit better. Because you have to put yourself in the shoes of everyone, of those who are attacking you, of those under attack. As I said, there is no one [size] fits all experience. There is no blueprint for ending the war, or for reconciliation. But there are things that you will learn through that reconciliation process. When I was sitting listening to the news from [the besieged city of] Vukovar, I thought that there was no chance that we would anytime soon, maybe ever live together with Serbs again. But then you know, you start working on reconciliation,” Grabar-Kitarovic said. Those experiences shaped her through her diplomatic career and presidency, she added.

Grabar-Kitarovic served in a number of posts, including minister of foreign affairs, ambassador to the United States, as well as assistant secretary general of NATO.

She said that internationally, she sees a role for Croatia in leadership.

“I’ve always said that when we look at [European Union headquarters] Brussels, we are Brussels. We shouldn’t be just following, we should be actively contributing to common European policies and so much more, in Brussels, in NATO,” she said.

As a career diplomat, Grabar-Kitarovic says she was hesitant to seek the presidency. “I so much more prefer international work than domestic politics,” she said.

Looking at Croatia, however, she says that it faces large structural issues. 

“Domestically, by far the biggest problem is the demographic trends and structure. Our population is aging. The ratio between actively employed and those who are not in the labor market is becoming smaller and smaller. It’s almost one to one now. So that was one of the aspects in which I was actively engaged in,” she said.

In her lecture on Tuesday evening, Grabar-Kitarovic discussed Vladimir Putin’s recent actions and motivations.

“Having known him for a number of years… he would rather die than to admit defeat, he even has an idea that there is divine power on his side,” she told the audience.

Grabar-Kitarovic met Putin several times in her career, including a lengthy summit in 2017 and a short courtesy visit during the World Cup.

“I was traveling with other fans. I was buying my own tickets and flying on charter flights,” she said.

In her lecture, she pointed out how Western leaders had reacted to Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, calling the response “meek.” Grabar-Kitarovic reiterated that western leaders did not have enough of a desire to hold Putin and Russia accountable for such violations.

“When Russia annexed Crimea, the communique that came out of NATO was really watered down by a number of players. Those were driven primarily by economic interest of having cheap gas, rather than strategic interests of looking into the future and thinking about geopolitics,” she said, singling out German dependence on Russian gas as opposed to other European nations that diversified their sources of fuel.

As someone who has held up the importance of international bodies and alliances, Grabar-Kitarovic says she is concerned by the rising tide of populist Euroscepticism across Europe. 

“The closing-in of societies, the growing mistrust towards institutions, especially towards Brussels. Trust is the basis of human relationships and trust is the basis of democracy. Because in a democratic system, you put trust into the people whom you elect to be able, competent and ethical enough to lead you to where you want to go,” she said. “I think there was a lack of touch with reality, lack of actual human touch with people and lack of emotion in politics. And people are asking for more authentic leadership. So there is a tendency everywhere to vote the so-called third options, which in some cases are nationalist or populists because they appear.”

Grabar-Kitarovic ended the interview with a diagnosis of larger sociological issues plaguing and underlying the geopolitical tensions she had covered throughout her visit on campus.

“Not just the future of our institutions, but the future of relationships, the bond defined in democratic societies and of course, around the world you see more and more of these ideological rifts and divides; the world has become a highly contested place. And you see fighting not just for resources, supply chains, but you also see battles for values, a value system, ideologies, etc. And we’re getting increasingly divided. The world economy has been decoupling and it looks like pulling apart and tearing at the seams and between societies, governments and regions,” she said.