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News 05 Jan 17

Mystery Surrounds Croatia President's US Visit

The brief information the Office of the Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic has supplied about her latest visit to Washington has left the public pondering its purpose.

Sven Milekic
BIRN
Zagreb
Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic (left) with US Senator Marco Rubio in Washington. Photo: Twitter/Marco Rubio

Despite media pressure, the Office of Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic has supplied little information about the purpose of her visit to the US capital, Washington, fuelling speculation about the possible reasons.

The President is “on an official visit to the United States together with the head of the cabinet Natalija Hmelina. During her visit, the President will have meetings with representatives of political and social life and the non-governmental sector. The President travelled on a regular commercial flight,” the President’s office told the regional N1 network on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic – from the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, the party to which Grabar Kitarovic belonged before she became head of state – on Wednesday said she would have “important and useful talks”, also not specifying with whom or on what.

Her Office initially informed the public on Saturday that Grabar Kitarovic would visit the US from New Year until Thursday.

Three individuals reported her on Wednesday to Croatia's commission on conflicts of interest, demanding to know whether the purpose of the trip was private or official and whether the law on the conflict had been breached.

Critics said that the President should have informed the public of her exact whereabouts as, among other things, her security is funded from the state budget, and that it should be clarified who financed her trip.

Controversially, she went to the US on December 29, 2015 at state expense even though her official visit did not start until January 4.

Her Office said at the time that “private celebrations of the President… aren’t within the competency of the Office of the President, nor are records made of them”.

The Croatian news site Index meanwhile reported on Thursday that US Republican Senator Marco Rubio had posted a picture of his meeting with Grabar Kitarovic on Twitter and said they had discussed “ways to deepen ties” between NATO allies.

Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic on Zagreb's main square - sent as New Year's greeting card. Photo: Facebook/Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic

The Croatian daily, 24 sata, published a photograph of Grabar Kitarovic arriving at the US Senate on Wednesday. The paper's sources said she would meet members of incoming US President Donald Trump’s administration.

Although it is not advisory for foreign officials to meet members of the US President-elect's administration before the inauguration, Croatian diplomats claim it is not uncommon.

The daily Jutarnji list reported on Thursday that she had met James Mattis, who is touted as as the likely new US Secretary of Defense.

Opposition MP Sinisa Hajdas Doncic took a critical line on Facebook on Thursday, accusing her of behaving with “harmful consequences for Croatia".

"I saw she took a photo [earlier on] with Santa Claus. Who knows what she's doing? Probably she has some private visits since she was Croatian Ambassador to the US,” Doncic said.

The Santa Claus remark referred to a photo greeting she posted on Facebook over the New Year taken in Zagreb’s main square.

Before becoming President in February 2015, Grabar Kitarovic was Minister for European Integration from 2003 to 2005, and then Foreign and European Integration Minister from 2005 until 2008.

Her ties with the US deepened after that. From 2008 to 2011, she was Croatian Ambassador to the US and then Assistant for Public Diplomacy to the NATO Secretary General until 2014.

That year, she entered the presidential race as the candidate of the HDZ and other parties on the right.

Media reports on Thursday, logging her various US visits since, claimed she had spent more than a month in the US during less than two years in office.

Her whereabouts - and apparent secretiveness - have caused other disputes at home, unrelated to visits to the US.

In 2015, questions about whether she had attended a private party with the controversial former president of Zagreb football club Dinamo, Zdravko Mamic, drew media scrutiny.

She denied attending the party he had organised for her birthday. Her Office claimed it had no record of her whereabouts that day.

But Mamic admitted in July 2016 that they were at the party together, and “had fun and haven’t seen each other since”.

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