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AP Interview: Croatian leader says Trump, Putin key to peace

July 15, 2018
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Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic gestures durning an interview with the Associated Press at the 2018 soccer World Cup, at the Croatian embassy in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, July 15, 2018. Croatia's president says that no matter what happens in the World Cup final, the unexpected success of her small country's hard-working, underdog team means that "we're a winner." (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

MOSCOW (AP) — Croatia’s president hopes her American and Russian counterparts show “responsibility” and remember they are the guarantors of the whole world’s stability when they hold their first summit Monday.

In an interview Sunday with The Associated Press, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic also shrugged off U.S. President Donald Trump’s aggressive behavior with NATO allies at a meeting on Wednesday and Thursday.

“It’s about his personality. I don’t take it against him,” she said.

Grabar-Kitarovic, who lived through Croatia’s 1991 independence war and governs in a region that has been caught up in larger geopolitical battles, said Trump’s meeting Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin could calm international tensions instead of inflame them.

“I’m really hopeful that the two state leaders will show enough ... responsibility for global stability and the trans-Atlantic relationship,” said Grabar-Kitarovic, who met Putin at the Kremlin on Sunday before her country’s team played in the World Cup final.

She expressed concern about Russian interference in southeast Europe, where Moscow has sought to use its economic influence and powerful energy sector to counter EU and NATO outreach.

But Grabar-Kitarovic insisted on the importance of talking to Russia instead of isolating it.

“We want to have a dialogue about common threats to our security,” she said. “We have to work together.”

Grabar-Kitarovic steered clear of sensitive issues, such as the pro-Ukrainian sentiment among some Croatian soccer players at the World Cup that has angered the tournament’s Russian hosts.

“Sports brings people together. People in all of our countries are tired of ideological differences, of going back into the past all the time,” she said.

Grabar-Kitarovic noted that one reason the Russia-U.S. relationship is of “utmost importance” to her region and the broader world is so “we never ever see again” massacres like the ones carried out during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The intense feelings that remain from the brutal ethnic and sectarian wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia nonetheless surfaced as Croatia advanced in the World Cup competition.

From Montenegro and Serbia in the east and Slovenia in the west, people in Croatia’s neighboring countries were split over whether to support Croatia or France in the soccer tournament’s final match, reflecting the persistent divisions.

Croatia, a country of 4 million people, confounded expectations to make it to the World Cup final. The Croatian team drew increasing support for its hard-working, underdog narrative as richer, higher-profile teams flamed out.

Grabar-Kitarovic used her country’s surprise success on the soccer field to raise its profile.

She posed in a red-and-white checkered team jersey on social media posts at every opportunity, gave Trump a team T-shirt when they met at NATO, and joined Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron in the rain on Sunday night to congratulate France’s team one-by-one after their victory.

In the AP interview, she sympathized with Trump’s rationale for assailing European allies at the NATO summit in Brussels for not spending enough on weapons and their own defense.

“Certainly, it’s not fair that the United States is carrying the burden for the defense of Europe,” Grabar-Kitarovic said. “We’re first and foremost responsible for our own security.”

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