The 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Croatia and the United States of America was recently celebrated at an event in Zagreb. One of the dignitaries present was Zvonko Labas, the executive vice president of the National Federation of Croatian Americans, who spoke afterwards with TCN about the Federation’s activities and its efforts to improve relations between the two countries.
What are the main activities of the National Federation of Croatian Americans?
NFCA was founded in the early 1990s, as an umbrella organization which gathers various associations of Croatian Americans. It is a strictly non-political organization. We are not involved with American politics and we are not involved with Croatian politics. We only want for the relations between the two countries to be the best possible.
My primary reason for coming to Croatia was to attend the event marking the anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. It was an honour to attend the ceremony as a representative of the National Federation of Croatian Americans (NFCA). The current US Ambassador to Croatia Julieta Valls Noyes has recognized the importance of NFCA’s activities. I was particularly proud of the fact that the musical element of the ceremony was provided by a jazz band of the US Navy, since I am a veteran of US Navy. They came here from Naples, Italy, where the headquarters of the Sixth Fleet are located.
The goal of the Federation is to inform decision-makers in the United States about Croatia, in order for the two countries to become good friends. We have been quite successful in our efforts. For example, regarding military relations, first there was cooperation with National Guard of Minnesota, which was followed by membership in NATO. Now there is a great friendship between the two countries’ militaries.
During the first two or three years, our focus was on advocating for the recognition of Croatian independence and on providing assistance to Croatia. The second phase began in 2003, when we launched efforts for Croatia to join NATO. It took us five years to succeed. When we started, it was very difficult to find anyone at the State Department willing to talk with us. Therefore, we decided to propose to the US Congress to establish the Congressional Croatian Caucus. We organized an event at the Congress presenting Croatia, and we invited congressmen, their staff and other dignitaries. Within just two to three weeks, we already had 38 congressmen who wanted to become members of the caucus. That changed everything and suddenly all doors were opened for us.
The process was long and the culmination happened in late 2008. The decision on Croatia’s membership was made by the US Congress as the final decision of that congressional session. There was a hearing at the Foreign Affairs Committee, and some senators wanted to delay the decision to the next congress, but we were against it. Finally, in December, the final hearing was held and the Foreign Affairs Committee made the decision to support Croatia. The whole Senate voted on it immediately thereafter.
At the time when Croatia was getting ready to enter NATO, we had a fantastic team working on promoting Croatia in the United States. Croatian ambassador in Washington at the time was current President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović. US Ambassador to Croatia was Robert Bradtke, our Federation was very active, and we had the support of the congressional caucus. It was the right team to do the job. The stars were aligned perfectly.
The culmination was an event marking Croatia’s membership in NATO held in 2009 at Norfolk. An American general said they were happy to have a partner which knows how to fight. That was a wonderful moment for me. A US military band played the Croatian national anthem and the Croatian flag was raised. Our efforts have succeeded.
How many Croatians Americans live in the United States?
There are almost a million Croats living in America. There were three major waves of emigration. The first one happened before the First World War, while the second wave took place between the two world wars. People coming to America were mostly going there for economic reasons. However, the third wave, which happened after the Second World War, mostly included people emigrating for political reasons.
Croatians today live mostly in Pittsburgh, California, Pennsylvania, Chicago, Cleveland. There are as many as 350,000 Croatians living in Pennsylvania alone. That is why we always have a lot of Pennsylvania representatives as members of the Congressional Croatian Caucus.
When did you move to the United States?
I was part of the third wave of emigration. As soon as I arrived in October 1958, I volunteered for the US Navy, which enabled me to receive citizenship within three years. After I left the Navy, I graduated from the Purdue University, which is one of the best engineering schools in America. Later I also received an MBA.
As student, I used to work in the iron industry during the day and study in the evenings. It was very difficult for me, but everything changed after I graduated. I spent the next 14 years working in international business in Europe. I lived in Italy, in Austria, and worked as a sales marketing manager for Eastern Europe. But, I have had enough. I returned to the United States. Since I was an expert in production and a Navy veteran, I started working for the Department of the Navy as an engineer. I retired as the director of production and quality assurance for naval aviation.
What is your focus of interest in the Federation?
One of issues I am working on is the status of Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I lead the task force for Bosnia and Herzegovina because I have a lot of knowledge about history of the Balkans area. Two weeks ago, we were at the State Department where we met with officials about possible changes to the electoral system in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is a very important issue. This is the right moment to do it, but we will see what will happen.
Do you think that the Trump administration will change something in relations between the United States and Croatia?
I think that many people have wrong information about Trump. He is a very successful business, and he did not need to become president, which is tremendous responsibility. His election was a reaction against globalization, one of many such events around the world, with Brexit being the best known. People are becoming more nationalist, which I do not think is anything bad. A nationalist is not a fascist. If you love your country, your customs and traditions, there is nothing wrong with that.
Trump is a pragmatist and he likes to negotiate, which he has been doing his whole life. I do not think there will be any major changes regarding relations between Croatia and the United States. We have only two major open issues. One is the issue of double taxation, which can be solved by an international agreement which has to be agreed between the two countries. The other issue are visas which Croatian nationals need to come to the United States. These are only two issues which exist between Croatia and the United States.
Otherwise, we are focused on promoting investments in Croatia. There is a possibility that a direct passenger flights could be established between the two countries. Another major project is the LNG gas terminal on the island of Krk. I think we will succeed, but these things take time.