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Steve Rukavina: Croatian Americans have always been focused on Croatia, but Croats in BiH are now more an important issue

Predsjednik Nacionalne federacije kulturnih zaklada hrvatskih Amerikanaca

Steve Rukavina: Croatian Americans have always been focused on Croatia, but Croats in BiH are now more an important issue

stu 18, 2020

Piše: Jurica Gudelj

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Foto: Supplied by Steve Rukavina

Steve Rukavina is the President of the National Federation of Croatian Americans Cultural Foundation (NFCACF), National umbrella organization of Croatian American member groups; including the Croatian Fraternal Union from Pittsburgh, PA; and individual activists; engaged in many cultural, artistic, humanitarian, diplomatic, tourism-related and community charity activities. We discussed the recent Presidential election in the US, various US policies towards BiH, Croats in BiH and Croatia and the overall state of the Croatian diaspora in the United States.

Thank you for taking the time to share your insights with our readers in BiH, Croatia and around the world. Could you start by telling us how much is known about Bosnia and Herzegovina in the US and especially about the issues Croats face in BiH?

I am sorry to report that the political dynamics and overall situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is not well known in the U.S. or even within the Croatian American activist community. The issues are not even understood within the U.S. Congress and even the members on the House or Senate Foreign Affairs committee. There was a hearing in 2019 with the Europe Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the discussion and questions were so elementary with so much basic knowledge not understood about the constitutional structure of BiH and including all the dynamic political issues facing each nationality and within each entity.

From the perspective of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croats in BiH, is there a major difference between a Republican or a Democrat President?

It depends who the President is and President-elect Joe Biden is by far the most interested of all the twenty plus presidential candidates from 2016 and 2020 when it comes to Southeast Europe knowledge and interest. Let's take another example and it so happens John Kasich is 50% Croatian and yet, has shown no interest in Croatian issues or BiH issues in his carrer at all. Senator Bob Dole did in the 1990s with the help of his senior foreign policy aide who was Mira Radielovic Barata and her father was born in Herzegovina. Senator McCain had an interest in Southeast Europe and was globally interested in foreign policy as you know but lost the 2008 election.

In 2010, at a holiday party at Vice President's residence, Joe Biden told me the story of his first visit to Croatia back in 1979. The young U.S. Senator was part of the American delegation led by the famous Averell Harriman to attend the funeral of Tito's right-hand man, Edvard Kardelj. Vice President Biden told me they could not meet in Zagreb with Tito with so many world dignitaries there also requesting a meeting with him. Thus, a few days after the funeral they flew down to Dubrovnik to meet privately with Tito as a strategic American objective. He shared with me that this visit for that funeral really created an interest in Croatia and the region.

Senator Joe Biden visited the region in 1993, as the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations-Europe subcommittee issued a scathing report against the Milosevic and Serbian aggression. He spoke out against those on Capitol Hill who argued it was a civil war and who pushed the "don't get involved in this conflict" opinion. Joe's report included a detailed description of the destruction of Vukovar and pushed for more decisive action from U.S. leadership. Again, in 2015 then Vice President Joe Biden visited Zagreb and he showed his interest and commitment to the stability of the region.

Let me share too that in 1991-1992, that Franciscan Fr. Ilija Zivkovic based in Washington, D.C. and heading up our Croatian Catholic Mission had several meetings with then Senator Joe Biden who was Chair, of the Senate Foreign Affairs Europe sub-committee. Joe Biden is his book "Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics" gives a lot of credit to this Franciscan Monk in the nation's capital who influenced him about speaking out against Slobodan Milosevic and Serbian aggression.

How much of the US foreign policy towards Bosnia and Herzegovina is predetermined? Can the policy be influenced by presenting a Croatian point of view, or through more intense lobbying efforts?

It's a fact that in 2006 that the United States to a great degree handed off Bosnia and Herzegovina and what they call the Western Balkans portfolio to the European Union. I think it's a facade and not real to think the dangling a European Union membership carrot or a NATO Alliance one is going to solve the very real constitutional issues and dysfunctionality that keeps BiH in a straitjacket. It is very difficult to get the U.S. Congress interested in BiH and they do not want to do any heavy lifting to modernize the Dayton Peace Accord. We are supporting new efforts by Congressman Mike Turner (Dayton OH) to have the US Congress further discuss and vote on House Resolution 1163 that examines on-going issues in BiH from a Dayton Peace Accord perspective. We support his idea for the U.S. and European Union to support and stage a Dayton II meeting in Ohio to discuss modernizing the Dayton Peace Agreement. There was a very concerted lobbying effort in Washington in 2018-2019 as Bosnian Croats from Mostar hired a world class law and lobbying firm for one year and there was a lot of activities to promote Croat issues, including the fact non-Croats could elect the Croat Member of the Presidency. I am sorry to report that there were no notable accomplishments and except to get one House Europe-Foreign Affairs sub-committee hearing to be held about BiH that was dominated by minor issues scratching the surface as the Congressman on the committee remained confused.

Who did the Croatian Americans, Serbian Americans and Bosniak American communities support during the past American presidential election?

I think it's fair to say first, that the Croatian American community like America was very split in their voting. However, in this election with the Democratic candidate being Joe Biden, a devout Catholic and known to be a man of character, for example in the swing state of Pennsylvania, I estimate that maybe 5% more Croatian Americans in the Pittsburgh area that voted for Trump in 2016, voted for Biden-Harris this election. Joe Biden is more popular and likeable than Hillary Clinton and that makes a difference and Joe Biden only won Pennsylvania by 1% and around 60,000 votes. As an individual American citizen, I supported Joe Biden and have been involved with his campaign all year on the national level and in the state of Pennsylvania. Former U.S. Senator Mark Begich has been very outspoken and supportive of Joe Biden. Former Republican Governor of Ohio, John Kasich went public and threw all his support behind Joe Biden too which is unusual for such a prominent Republican to support the Democratic candidate. Former Republican Congressman George Radanovich (CA) supported President Trump in this election and the Trump campaign had a Croatian American Facebook page and as did the Biden-Harris supporters. It should be noted that none of our Croatian American groups endorsed a presidential candidate as we all are non-partisan without taking sides in elections.

The Serbian American community was publicly were very supportive of the Trump-Pence ticket. American diplomat Richard Grenell who was engaged with the Serbian-Kosovo trade diplomacy document exchange got involved. He visited the Serbian American community in Milwaukee and Pittsburgh in October to campaign for Donald Trump in those two key battleground states. Remember, in 2016 it was even more publicly pronounced that Serbian Americans supported the Republican ticket as so many spoke out and wanted to remind their community about the Bill Clinton-led NATO bombing of Serbia and so Hillary was even less popular in that election.

The Bosniak American community was very supportive of the Biden-Harris ticket and there was even a billboard in Iowa in October touting their support. There were lots of Tweets and Facebook posts by Bosniak Americans sharing stories and details how Senator Joe Biden had played an influential role in the "Save Bosnia" and stop Serbian aggression in BiH during the 1990s. It was widely known in their community that Senator Joe Biden was one of the strongest proponents of NATO bombing of the Serbs in 1995 with Operation Deliberate Force.

Is there any awareness in the US administration of how damaging the electoral manipulation with the election of Željko Komšić as the Croatian member of the Presidency, has been to the stability of Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially in light of claims that it's had some degree of US support?

I must say there are very few Americans and yes, the diplomats in the State Department that work within Central or Southeast Europe division understand the issue of non-Croats electing the Croat Member of the Presidency. However, I think most of those American diplomats who understand that concept or political development regarding Komsic do not see it as a major issue for some reason. There were a few who told me "don't worry about it and it won't happen again" and then it did in 2018.

Which US institutions are the primary drivers of the foreign policy towards Bosnia and Herzegovina and how much influence can the US embassy in Sarajevo have on that policy?

The U.S. State Department and the Department of Defense are the primary drivers of geo-political and military policy for the U.S. in Southeast Europe. Of course, the White House can be and may be more involved under a Biden Administration. The U.S. Ambassador in Sarajevo has little influence on any major policy issues involving American policy in the area. The Trump White House had the one Kosovo-Serbia trade diplomacy initiative recently that was not a regional policy and a funny set of circumstances that made it a priority during the election year. It was a fact that it was not a signed agreement but three different documents signed by the Serbian, Albanian and American officials.

However, as I stated earlier it has been very difficult to get the U.S. Congress interested in BiH and in 2006 the US State Department handed the lead role back to their EU allies and so it's been on the back burner as a non-priority! The U.S. Congress was so involved in SE Europe and Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1990s and Senator Joe Biden was one of the top ten influential Senators involved with urging more U.S. involvement to stop Serbian aggression.

How much of a hot topic is Bosnia and Herzegovina among Croatian Americans and how much can they, as a community, do to improve the position of Croats in BiH?

It not a hot topic, or even a warm topic and the Croatian American community is not real politically active overall and is much more interested in priority Republic of Croatia issues and projects. It's a fact our community is much more interested in Croatian celebrities, sports, tourism, citizenship, Double Taxation Treaty agreement. The NFCACF has not had much success in trying raise funds from Croats born in Herzegovina that are here in the US and tied to our commitment and efforts to assist the Bosnian Croat community with their pursuit of more rights in BiH. I must say, that our other national Croatian American organizations do not get involved in the American political arena and it has been difficult for 25 years now to generate on-going interest and serious support for our efforts with any Bosnian Croat issues.

What kind of a role can the National Federation of Croatian Americans (NFCA) play in highlighting the issues faced by the Croats in BiH and how important their equality is for the survival of Bosnia and Herzegovina?

We play an important role and yet, it's difficult to get the serious attention of the US Congress to get involved again in BiH. We host many Bosnian Croatian dignitaries in Washington, DC when they visit the nation's capital or New York City. I have had over forty major meetings over the past ten years alone with American diplomats and U.S. Congressman plus with Dragan Covic, Marinko Cavara, Deputy Foreign Minister Josip Brkic, Bishop Franjo Komarica and Cardinal Vinko Puljic, discussing the issues facing the Bosnian Croatian community. I have met with high ranking American diplomat Matt Palmer several times and with US Ambassador Eric Nelson, just before he left for Sarajevo. We have had one of our NFCA Board Members meet with Ambassador Nelson twice over the past two years. We have introduced two congressional resolutions over the past ten years advocating for a Dayton II and to better establish the equal opportunity and rights for the constituent Croatian people and yet, we have not achieved any serious overall support.

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accord, in what light is it viewed today? Are there any initiatives for a revision of DPA, possibly through another summit, sometimes referred to as "Dayton 2"?

Yes, this is the 25th Anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accord and another opportunity to discuss seriously via events this month. The NFCACF will host a Saturday, November 21st "Dayton Peace Accord 25th Anniversary" virtual webinar. We are collaborating with European Parliament Member Zeljana Zovko with this virtual panel discussion with American diplomats including Peter Galbraith, Croatian diplomat Mate Granic, Croatia's Foreign Minister in 1995 and Croatian American lawyer Luka Misetic will speak. Professor Drazen Barbaric, from University of Mostar will present about on-going DPA-related issues disenfranchising the Croat community in BiH.

It is my opinion that Croatians in BiH will suffer within a second class status as certain DPA commitments to a constituent people have been erased and so have key commitments made with the Washington Agreement in 1994. It is my personal opinion that BiH constitutionally for the long term would benefit and be so much more sustainable with a Belgium or Switzerland approach. Cardinal Vinko Puljic has presented to American officials a six federal unit plan that would better ensure the equal rights of all three major nationalities. Richard Holbrooke never intended for the DPA to be a long term constitutional agreement but rather to stop a war. There's a way to draw the BiH regional borders to establish a Third Constituent Community too that make sense and would honor the principles of a Switzerland approach. We soon will have the Biden Administration that may bring a new opportunity to be more positively engaged in Southeast Europe and many of the diplomats that will fill the State Department higher positions have been involved in the region.

How would you rate today's relations between the diaspora and Croats in the homeland?

Croatian Americans who are active with the National Federation of Croatians, the Croatian Fraternal Union and the Association of Croatian American Professionals are proud patriots who promote Croatia in many ways but there's not as much a connection with the Bosnian Croat community. Our Croatian American community is so proud in Croatia's beauty and all the reasons tourism is such a draw for Americans. We are so proud of all the sporting accomplishments and even more Croatians came out for the World Cup to root for the Homeland's soccer team and then got involved in our community too. Our community is very pleased that the pathway to Croatian citizenship is much more straightforward and achievable these days.

What regions do most Croatian Americans hail from? Do those regional identities (Dalmatia, Slavonia, Zagreb, Lika, Bosnia, Herzegovina and more) still survive in the diaspora under the broad Croatian umbrella?

We have Croatians from Zagreb living in probably forty states. It's amazing how many Dalmatian Croatians live in Louisiana, California and Washington and by the water like their ancestral heritage in the Homeland. We have a lot of Croatians from Lika in the mainland from Pittsburgh, to Cleveland, St. Louis, Kansas City, to Chicago and to the Iron Range of Minnesota where many Croatians and Slovenians were iron ore miners, including my Grandfather Thomas Rukavina from Perusic. There seems to be a higher amount of Herzegovinian Croats that settled in Cleveland and Chicago for a number of reasons based on jobs and following family members to the same city.

Could you tell us more about the relations of Croatian Americans with other US communities hailing from former Yugoslavia?

There is not a lot of ethnic community collaboration between the nationalities from the former Yugoslavia, though I have collaborated with Macedonian and Albanian Americans on several projects over the past 25 years. We have not partnered with any Serbian American groups and I do see Bosniak Americans at many foreign policy events around Washington, DC. We are cordial to each other but have not found any initiative to work together with that would be BiH-related except for one proposed multi-ethnic " how to start a business" project that we hope to get some U.S. Embassy funding for in 2021. The Slovenian American community is not present at all in the nation's capital, though I have visited their national headquarters in the Pittsburgh area which is about 15 miles from our Croatian Fraternal Union facility based in Monroeville, PA.

Even though we're witnessing an exodus of Croatian youth for the EU, there is also a strong movement in the other direction, of diaspora born Croats returning to Croatia. Do you have any insights on the numbers of Croatian Americans that have made their way back and how do you see this trend playing out in the future?

There is a lot of interest in younger Croatian Americans getting their Croatian citizenship but is the number of 1,000-2,000 that significant if 200,000 young Croatians or more leave the Republic of Croatia or BiH because of their EU citizenship which allows them to seek work in other EU countries? It is clearly a two-edged sword to belong the EU and the numbers show so many young Croatians leaving Croatia for EU countries and even more devastating is that so many Bosnian Croatians get their Croatian citizenship and also leave BiH for EU countries.

I have had several American diplomats say to me within the last five years: what are Bosnian Croats complaining about regarding electoral or constitutional issues in BiH and suggested that since all Croatians have the Republic of Croatia as a home country and a pathway to the EU citizenship, than those challenges for Croats should not be such a big issue.

However, as you know and I know, Croatians from Mostar, Travnik or anywhere in Herzegovina, that have seen their family live for centuries on their ancestral property, don't want to pack up and move. It's a fact that Americans are much more transient and move from city to city and aren't living on their families property except for farming families which are year by year, losing and leaving their property because of all the economic hardships of farming in the 21st century.

Lastly, comments made by American diplomats or Bosniak politicians that encourage Bosnian Croats in BiH to leave the country tends to diminish, the commitments guaranteed by American government within the Washington Agreement in 1994 and within the DPA in 1995 to guarantee Bosnian Croatians, the equal rights of a constituent people in BiH.