1. This week, 27 years ago, Croatia declared its independence. Please tell our readers what you remember from that week and the months which followed.

June 25th, 1991 was the day when the parliament of Croatia declared their independence and dissolved its association from Yugoslavia. It’s now a national holiday and was glad to see the Balkan Insider represented at the Croatian Embassy reception last week to celebrate that milestone development.

It was an exciting but stressful time in 1991 with the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), the fourth largest army in the world back then committed to crush any armed rebellion within Croatia. At the time, I was an officer with the non-profit Croatian Democracy Project (CDP) working with CDP founder, Max Primorac. We were issuing educational press releases almost bi-weekly to keep up with all the developments within Croatia in 1991. I was proud to arrange and to serve as a moderator  with a press conference in July, 1991  at National Press Club and televised on C-Span with the newly appointed  Croatian Ambassador Frane Golem. The summer of 1991 was very stressful as the JNA and Serbian para-military forces were trying to build a Greater Serbia and sadly, about 15,000 Croatians died bravely defending Croatia as a result of that Serbian aggression in Croatia. Serbian forces established control over 30% of Croatia by the end of 1991.

I had the high honor of being on the “Freedom Train” that ran from Zagreb to Split for the first time in four years on August 26, 1995.If there is a will there is a way and at that historic juncture in history, in the early 1990s, the hands of history put some wind at the back of the Croatian people and Croatians with their incredible zeal and determination were not to be denied their independence.

2. Also this week, five years ago, Croatia became the newest member of the EU. What role did NFCA play in the lead up to this milestone? How did you and your members celebrate in 2013? Please add any comments about the NFCA role with Croatia and NATO Membership?

I was honored to be at the reception at the United States Institute of Peace on  July 2, 2013 to celebrate that accomplishment. However, I must say that our organization was not directly and seriously involved with promoting Croatia with the EU since it was such an European process type project.

The US Ambassador to Croatia at the time (James Foley) was very successful in partnering with the Croatian government to keep that process moving forward and with the successful outcome.  I am pleased to say that Croatia the past two years have finally found a lot of ways to tap into EU monies to better help their economy.

The NFCA is extremely proud of our ten year  plus effort to promote Croatia’s ascension into NATO and our focus from 1999 to 2009 was with the United States Senate. We worked closely in a bi-partisan way with influential Senators like Richard Lugar, George Voinovich, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden to promote Croatia for NATO membership.  We were able to pass resolutions in the both the House and Senate in 2005 that supported Croatia’s membership in NATO. In the House, the Congressional members leading the bi-partisan effort included George Radanovich, Elton Gallegy, Chris Smith, Peter Visclosky, Dennis Kucinich and Bill Pascrell. 

President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic was the Croatian Ambassador to the USA in the important 2008-2009 time frame and was laser-focused on building support for Croatia’s NATO membership with the powers-to-be in Washington. It was not a given in the fall of 2008 with a presidential election going on that the Bush Administration and US Senate would make it a priority.  However, a bi-partisan coalition pushed Croatia across the finish line within the US Senate by the end of 2008. I do believe that Croatia’s NATO membership and now after nine years with this Euro-Atlantic entity, is the most important geo-political development for Croatia’s existence.

I am still guardedly optimistic that the EU membership will still further define and develop Croatia’s free market economy and especially with creating jobs outside the tourism industry.

3. Can you provide our readers a sneak preview of what NFCA has in store for the rest of the year? We hear that you have major plans for September.

This September will be the 25th anniversary for our NFCA organization and so we are planning a very celebratory few days in the New York City.  We will hold our annual convention and our annual Board of Directors meeting which is set for the weekend before the UN General Assembly. It  looks promising that President Grabar-Kitarovic can make an appearance at a NFCA event the weekend of September 22-23 to salute our milestone accomplishment.
The last few years the NFCA has been very involved with trying to make a difference within Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) working on several electoral reform issues and talking about modernizing of the Dayton Peace Accord  (DPA). The country in my opinion is stuck in an ethnocratic-established dysfunctional state that has huge barriers to offering “equal rights and opportunities” for all in the ways that the European Council for Human Rights requires and is necessary for NATO or EU membership.

I feel strongly that there is a need to convene a Dayton II Summit which is long overdue. The DPA was never meant to be a long term solution and personally I favor a Belgium or Switzerland model that will respect the true multi-ethnic history and makeup of BiH and more  fairly integrates all three major ethnic groups into six or ten regions and structured like the USA with a federal state type approach.  This model could better ensure and embrace all the human rights, equal rights and economic development for all citizens and presently, I do believe Croatians are second class citizens in many ways within the two existing entities.

Also, the NFCA  continues its leadership role with on-going due diligence with the Avoidance of the Double Taxation Treaty project between the US and Croatia. We are looking at a fall event with our Congressional Croatian Caucus too which will probably include a wine tasting celebration on Capitol Hill. 

The NFCA is embracing more projects too within the humanitarian, non-profit space and we are the number one organizational sponsor of Special Olympics in Croatia. We will announce our second “40 Under 40” program for the Croatian American community this September, too. We have a few other pet projects supporting two different Croatian-related film documentaries too.

4. Tell our readers a little about yourself. Where do you derive your commitment to  to grassroots advocacy and being a citizen ambassador?
Growing up as the son of Joseph Rukavina in Minnesota was the key factor. My dad, a history teacher and coach was the most active Croatian American in our state and  a true activist nationally with the Croatian Fraternal Union. I was raised to be a proud Croatian and as a history major I was very energized to study and truly learn Croatian history.  Also, I spent two weeks in Croatia as a 17 year old and that trip galvanized my interest and pride in anything and everything Croatian. I attended the George Washington University  School of Public and International Affairs for one year and wrote a few papers about Croatian topics. I was so fortunate to travel to Croatia eight times with my father and I am still keep in contact with over forty Rukavina, Golic and Ugarkovic relatives in Croatia, from Zagreb to Dugo Selo, from Spisic Bukovica to Gospic. I am serving my 8th term as the President of the NFCA and have been the only officer to serve all 24 years on our organization’s Executive Committee.

 5. Lastly, with this year projected to be the largest tourism year in Croatia’s history, what is your favorite spot to visit in Croatia?’
I have visited Croatia 18 times and must admit if I visit another 18 times I will still not see all the attractions and the breath-taking beauty on the Adriatic Coast and all the unspoiled nature scattered around the countryside.  It’s amazing any tourist can experience the historical showpieces and gifts from the Roman Empire and the Venetian Empire found on the Croatian coast.

I must admit that most of my trips to Croatian are a “50-50” type trip with five days in the Zagreb area where most my relatives live and then five days on the Adriatic Coast within Southern Dalmatia from Trogir and Split to Peljesac wine country to Korcula and Dubrovnik.  I still have to visit the islands of Hvar, Vis and Brac to further experience the beautiful blue Adriatic Sea and the lovely unique landscape on each island.

Lastly, I love the beauty and scenery and the medieval charm found on the Istrian Peninsula adjacent to Slovenia.