Andrej Plenkovic (Zagreb, 51 years old) wants the strange and alarming event that occurred on March 10 in the Croatian capital to be clarified as soon as possible. Two weeks after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine – a moment that the Croatian prime minister describes as “a tectonic alteration of the world order” – a Soviet-made drone, weighing more than 6,000 kilos and loaded with an explosive, fell into Zagreb, very close to a residence with thousands of students. The conservative politician received EL PAÍS on Wednesday after a day in which he met with the Spanish president, Pedro Sánchez, and visited the NATO Combined Air Operations Center in Torrejón de Ardoz to obtain new information on how an unmanned aircraft coming from Ukraine was able to pass undetected through the airspace of Romania, Hungary and Croatia, three members of the Alliance.
Ask. How worrying is last week’s incident in Zagreb?
Answer. Unfortunately, it is a very serious matter. We know that the aircraft was of Soviet manufacture, a TU-141; six tons of weight and 14 meters in length. He fell 50 meters from a residence where there were 4,500 students, next to a restaurant, near a bridge and a nightclub. We were incredibly lucky that there were no deaths or injuries. And the most disturbing thing is that we discovered that there was an explosive in the drone. If it had hit any of the nearby buildings, it would have caused a tragedy, unimaginable damage. We hope that the investigation will shed light on all the circumstances.
P. Have you found out anything else during your visit to the NATO center in Torrejón?
R. Yes, that the drone was heading in a straight line at high speed, at a low altitude and was not seen as a potential risk on the Romanian and Hungarian radars. At that time there were many more things appearing on those radars and it was considered to be a false alarm. Later, he entered Croatia and a few minutes passed until he fell in the capital. What we need to clarify is if it is an accident, if the aircraft arrived in Zagreb by mistake, if it is related to some kind of sabotage, or if it was an intentional act. At the moment, we do not have any confirmation on who launched the drone.
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P. Do you think that the conflict in Ukraine could worsen even more in the coming weeks?
R. More than three million people have already fled the country, many others are internally displaced; the destruction of cities is tremendous, there have been civilian deaths, and countless places where Ukrainians lived in peace have been transformed into a nightmare. Unfortunately, diplomatic efforts to try to stop Russia’s brutal aggression have not been successful. We strongly support the search for a political solution to achieve peace and a ceasefire.
P.Ehe president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, calls on the allies to impose a no-fly zone, something that, if it materializes, could be considered by Russia a beautiful case. Can Europe and its allies do more than they are already doing to help Ukraine?
R. The EU’s reaction to Russia’s aggression was united, firm and very quick. The condemnation of these brutal acts that violate all the basic principles of international law has been unanimous. The Twenty-seven have shown our support for Ukraine in every possible way: with humanitarian, financial, military, diplomatic aid and through the sanctions imposed on Russia. We will continue to do our part to ease the pressure on the Ukrainians and increase the pressure on Moscow.
P. Even the adoption of a new package of sanctions against Russia that affects energy as Washington has done?
R. They are very different situations. Most European countries are much more dependent than the United States on Russian gas. This is not the case in Croatia, as during my first term (2016-2020) a regasification plant was built on the island of Krk. But I think that the EU has to create an alternative network while trying to increase its production and increase imports from other countries.
P. Would you be in favor of a structural reform of the European energy market, as advocated by various countries of the South, including Spain?
R. We are discussing the matter ahead of next week’s European Council meeting in Brussels. I believe that it is necessary to do everything possible to eliminate speculation, which makes oil and gas more expensive, and this affects the price of electricity. Any initiative that helps curb the rise in prices is welcome. But I think that if we were able to reach an agreement between all the member countries during the pandemic, we must also do it now. After all, all European governments have been interventionist during these last two years.
P. Would you support the creation of a new economic recovery fund that could include joint debt issuance?
R. If the situation continues to worsen, I think we have to consider that option. Next Generation EU (the fund agreed in July endowed with 750,000 million euros) was a strong response to a major problem. Probably, now we are going to face a similar situation, but we have to see how energy prices evolve.
P. Throughout Europe there have been many gestures of solidarity with Ukraine, but Croatian society has been one of those that has reacted most intensely. How much have memories of the war influenced you?
R. Croatia is a country that was a victim of Slobodan Milosevic’s Greater Serbian policies. The war was only 30 years ago, so we can better understand the suffering of the Ukrainian population. I was in kyiv in December and signed a declaration of support for the European path for Ukraine together with President Zelensky. We are firmly with the Ukrainian people.
P. Do you think that Ukraine should join the EU through an express route?
R. At the recent informal EU summit in Versailles, I was very clear that we must send a signal of strong political support to kyiv. A few years ago, when I was a member of the European Parliament, I headed the delegation in charge of relations with Ukraine. It is a country that I know well and I have been very aware of all the difficulties it has been going through since 2014 and how transcendental rapprochement with Europe is for the Ukrainian people. It is very positive that the Council has instructed the Commission to draw up an opinion on the possible accession of Ukraine, but a demanding process awaits us. Until then, we must intensify relations between the EU and Ukraine in all areas, with the ambition to create a special status.
P. Some Croats have voluntarily traveled to Ukraine to fight Russian troops. Will they be held accountable in court upon their return?
R. I think there have only been a few and we have already said publicly that all those who decide to travel will do so by their own decision and under their responsibility.
P. Eastern governments have shown a clear commitment to civilians fleeing from Ukraine. A very different attitude from the one seen in the 2015 crisis. Are there first and second class refugees?
R. I do not believe it. What we are seeing is an exodus unprecedented since World War II. Millions of people have already fled from Ukraine to EU countries to save their lives. This deserves the highest expression of solidarity. At the community level, an emergency mechanism has been introduced to grant temporary protection to those fleeing the war. And in Croatia we have approved some urgent measures so that those who are welcomed not only have a home, but also health care and social assistance. We are also going to facilitate their access to the labor market and to education.
P. Serbia has refused to join the sanctions imposed on Russia and continues to buy Russian weapons. How should Brussels act?
R. After the invasion, countries can no longer play both sides. Either they are on one side, or the other. It is time for Serbia’s position to be clear, and if it has European ambitions it begins to adopt political positions aligned with the EU countries and the Western world.
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