Three Seas Initiative
Croatia’s perspective on the Three-Seas-Initiative

Three Seas Initiative Croatia
© created with Canva

Together with the Polish President Andrzej Duda, the former Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović launched the Three-Seas-Initiative. The very first summit of the young European initiative was subsequently held in Dubrovnik, Croatia, in 2016. According to the former Croatian President, the initiative should function as an informal political forum, facilitating economic cooperation among Central and Eastern European countries by improving infrastructure and connectivity in the region. Even though Croatia never officially declared it an objective of the initiative, from a Croatian point of view, the Three-Seas-Initiative is also supposed to attract the interest of the United States in the region and lead to greater independence from Russian energy.

Taking the initiative

The idea to create such an institution for economic and infrastructure development in Eastern and Central Europe was already born in 2014. An informal trilateral meeting initiated by Croatia was held in New York in September 2014 (Górka, 2018). The subsequent official initiation of the initiative took place in partnership with the Polish President Andrzej Duda. In August 2016, the inaugural Three-Seas-Initiative summit was held in Dubrovnik, Croatia. At the summit, President Grabar-Kitarović elucidated her vision of the initiative as an “informal political forum where Central European countries can pursue their goal of strengthening European ties and economic cooperation by building transport and energy infrastructure and creating digital technologies” (Górka, 2018, p. 59). Later on, Croatia reiterated its support for the initiative and its desire for tangible deliverables by signing a letter of intent for the creation of the Three-Seas-Initiative Investment Fund. These instances illustrate the great initial enthusiasm of Croatia for the Three-Seas-Initiative. Since Poland has a much more dominant position in the initiative nowadays, the crucial role Croatia played in the creation of the initiative is often overlooked. The change of political leadership in Croatia also greatly contributed to this phenomenon. While former Croatian President Grabar-Kitarović was an enthusiastic founder of the initiative, Croatia’s new President Zoran Milanović is much more skeptical. He even argued that the initiative could potentially harm Croatia’s external relations. Poland, on the other hand, has not experienced a change of political leadership in the meantime. This in turn explains Poland’s unaltered position towards the initiative and its continuous support for it.

Croatia’s external relations

Even though Croatia’s foreign policy was successfully strengthened by its accession to NATO (2009) and the EU (2013), solidifying its internal stability and security, Croatia’s relations with some of its neighboring states are still tense. Border disputes with Slovenia, Serb minority issues and mistrust vis-à-vis Hungary are just some examples (Górka, 2018; Hejj, 2017). As a consequence, Serbia was not invited to join the Three-Seas-Initiative summit in Warsaw, although Serbia could play a significant role in better connectivity between Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania (Górka, 2018). Irrespective of its troubled relations with some fellow EU member states, Croatia reassures to be a staunch supporter of the EU and EU integration. Croatian President Kolinda Grabar announced that the Three-Seas-Initiative should serve to “make better use of EU instruments to build European added value” (Gniazdowski, 2017, p. 107). This in turn implies that Croatia has no interest in rivalry between the initiative and the European Union but rather supports a mutually beneficial cooperation.

Similarly, Croatia – judging from the statements of its former President Grabar-Kitarović – expects the Three-Seas-Initiative to strengthen its relations with the US, which sees the initiative as a valuable opportunity to curb Chinese influence in the Eastern and Central European region. Unofficially, the initiative should also advance Croatia’s independence from Russian gas, subsequently protecting Croatia from Russian blackmailing. Investments in an LNG terminal on the island Krk near Rijeka and gas trading with Poland are regarded as ways to realize such aspirations (Górka, 2018).

Interview with Dusan Dinić

Next to Poland, Croatia is one of the founding states of the Three-Seas-Initiative. How has Croatia’s position towards the Three-Seas-Initiative changed over time and why?

Poland and Croatia have maintained quite good relations since the 1990s. Many Croats still see John Paul II as "their" pope, especially in comparison to a more liberal Franciscus. Moreover, president Grabar-Kitarović's ideological closeness to her Polish colleague Andzej Duda was also undisputed and contributed significantly to the TSI's launch in 2016 with high expectations. However, since the fall of 2016, the moderate and EU-friendly PM Andrej Plenković has been determining the guidelines of Croatian foreign policy, which had contributed to a realistic view of the TSI. Above all, the amount of funds for the realization of the planned TSI projects promised so far is rather disappointing: from originally planned 100 billion €, only three billion is planned now. The Croatian contribution amounts up to 20 million €. President Milanović, elected in January 2020, even called the TSI "harmful" because it negatively affects relations with Berlin and Moscow. This reserved attitude towards the TSI can be drawn from the absence of any reference to it on the website of the Croatian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Do you believe that the relationship between Poland and Croatia has changed because of the Three-Seas-Initiative and if so, in what way?

The influence of the TSI on Croatian-Polish relations is negligible since 2017 at the latest. However, the interest of both countries in field of transport and energy projects are still fairly different.

China shows a great interest in the Middle and Eastern Europe and thus established the 17+1 initiative. In your opinion, is the Three-Seas-Initiative a potential rival to China’s 17+1? Are the two initiatives in conflict with each other?

China's 17+1 initiative coincides with the basic directions of the TSI projects in two core points: transportation and digitization. However, within the framework of this initiative, China is primarily pursuing its strategic plans (such as Silk Road or use of Chinese technology). Under the TSI, dozens of projects have been elaborated, its financing is though by no means secured. The finances promised by the USA and the EU for the realization of these projects could easily be exceeded by the Chinese funds. However, it is questionable whether the countries of the TSI, if they accept the Chinese financing of the above-mentioned projects, will be able to meet the European standards, especially in areas such as transparency and ecology.

References

Gniazdowski, M. (2017). Comments on the structure of the three seas initiative and the Warsaw summit. Polish Quarterly of International Affairs, 26(2), 229-232.

Górka, M. (2018). The Three Seas Initiative as a political challenge for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Politics in Central Europe, 14(3), 55-73.

Hejj, D. (2017). Make Hungary great again: Do Hungarians need the three seas initiative. Polish Quarterly of International Affairs, 26(2), 218-228.

About the author

Valerie Kornis completed an internship at the Central Europe and Baltic States Project Office. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in International Relations and Organisations from Leiden University in The Netherlands and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at Sciences Po in Paris.

Dusan Dinić

Dušan Dinić is a senior Program Manager for Serbia and Croatia at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation Western Balkans in Belgrade. He is in charge of cooperation with partner political parties, creating and moderating the bi-weekly podcast on foreign policy, and organizing liberal oriented networks in the fields of local politics, equality of women, and economic policies in the region.

Three seas Dusan Dinic
© Dusan Dinic archive