[GGP] Croatia Off the Field This Past Month
This past month, we joined countless others across Washington watching the World Cup beamed live from Russia. Having worked and lived in Croatia and Russia, the Cinderella story of the checker shirted Vatreni captured our attention. Indeed, in the few World Cups that Croatia has competed in they have won as many matches as the United States has over 68 years.
The victories on the field over the last month are as noteworthy as what has happened off the field of late. Even before Nordstream and NATO have dominated Washington’s attention, these geopolitical developments on the shores of the Adriatic deserve examination.
On June 25th, Croatia celebrated its 27th birthday and on July 1st the fifth anniversary as the newest EU member. The nation, with a population roughly that of Kentucky, was forged from the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia. From 1991 to 1995, the war claimed 100,000 lives across ethnic groups and displaced countless individuals. Every player can point to family stories from their childhood years marked by the conflict.
The world has watched as Croatia’s President, Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, has enthusiastically cheered her team on and even presented President Donald Trump with a jersey in Brussels. Her nationalist pride rivals Croatia’s founding President, Franjo Tudjman. He often mused that “football victories shape a nation’s identity as much as wars do.”
Fortunately, brutal nationalist fueled wars are behind the Former Yugoslavia. Three republics are members of NATO and a fourth, Macedonia, has received an invitation. Croatia deserves credit as a committed ally and for defense spending as a percentage of GDP higher than Germany.
As the euphoria of the last month wears off, Croatia must tackle major geopolitical and economic growth challenges. While Russia lost on the field, they are dominating off the field in the region. It is wise for Washington to pay careful attention.
Croatia has a diversified energy portfolio including a relatively large percentage of renewables. However, the logos for Gazprom emblazoned on the sidelines of every World Cup match, are also increasingly a fixture across Croatia. Gazprom supplied a record volume of natural gas to Croatia in 2017 and signed a 10-year deal with a last September for 1B cubic meters annually. Such long-term deals are incredibly rare. While the signing of this deal made little news in the US, the front page of Kommersant in Moscow had the headline “Croatia Returns to Gazprom”.
According to the Russian Ambassador to Zagreb Anvar Azimov, Croatia is set to import 70% of its gas from Russia this year. “This is absolutely not enough, given our potential. I have already said that Croatian businessmen will not find the kinds of opportunities offered by Russia in any country of the European Union.”
Gazprom’s assertive and competitive gas marketing policies across the Balkans have already been effective in undermining Zagreb’s plans and America’s footprint. For years, the building of the LNG import terminal on Krk Island remains stuck in neutral. This critical infrastructure project has the capacity to supply gas hungry allied European economies solely dependent on Russian sources. The terminal would import gas from America and elsewhere and concretely demonstrate Trans-Atlantic bonds. This May, the design capacity was significantly scaled back explicitly because of Russian pipeline gas.
Gazprom and the Russian government have similarly been hard at work in neighboring Hungary and Serbia. While Nordstream has dominated recent news, equally important for Washington is the proposed ‘Turk Stream’ which aims to completely bypass Ukraine and cut across the Black Sea. NATO allies Bulgaria and Romania are equally in a rock and a hard place. To the chagrin of Russia, NATO allies Montenegro and Albania are busily working on a proposed Ionian Adriatic Pipeline which is aggressively supported by the EU and would rely on Azerbaijani gas sources.
What Croatia accomplished over the last month in Russia, rightfully attracted attention across Washington. Now, more than ever, the US-Croatia alliance deserves continued attention.
Immediately following the NATO Summit, Secretary Jim Mattis traveled to Zagreb with a clear message. “I’m here today to reinforce America’s commitment to the security and stability of southeast Europe…Our meeting today is proof of our enduring shared commitment to this region’s prosperity and security, and the unbreakable trans-Atlantic bond.” Democrats and Republicans in Congress and the Administration would be well advised to double down in the coming weeks on this commitment for this fragile region.
Rauf Mammadov is resident scholar on energy policy at The Middle East Institute. Ari Mittleman is publisher of www.BalkanInsider.com.
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