Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović is a Croatian politician and diplomat serving as the 4th and current President of Croatia since 2015. She is the first woman to be elected to the office since the first multi-party elections in 1990. At 46 years of age, she also became the youngest person to assume the presidency.
Before her election as President of Croatia, Grabar-Kitarović held a number of governmental and diplomatic positions. She was Minister of European Affairs from 2003 to 2005, the first female Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration from 2005 to 2008 in both the first and second cabinets of Ivo Sanader, Croatian Ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2011 and Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy at NATO under Secretaries General; Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Jens Stoltenberg from 2011 to 2014.
She contested the presidential election held in December 2014 and January 2015 as the only female candidate (out of four in total), finishing as the runner-up in the first round and thereafter proceeding to narrowly defeat incumbent President Ivo Josipović in the second round. Her strong performance in the first round was widely viewed as unexpected, as most opinion polls had given incumbent President Josipović a strong lead and some even showed it was possible that he would win outright by acquiring more than 50% of the vote.
In the second round, she defeated Josipović by the closest percentage margin of any presidential election to date (1.48%) and received the smallest number of votes of any elected president in Croatia (1.114 million votes). Furthermore, as the country had previously also had a female Prime Minister, Jadranka Kosor, from 2009 until 2011, Grabar-Kitarović’s election as President of Croatia also included it into a small group of parliamentary republics which have had both a female head of state and head of government.
She was a member of the conservative Croatian Democratic Union party from 1993 to 2015 and was also one of three Croatian members of the Trilateral Commission, but she was required to resign both positions upon taking office as president in 2015, as Croatian Presidents are not permitted to hold other political positions or party membership while in office. In 2017, Forbes magazine listed her as the world’s 39th most powerful woman.
She was born on 29 April, 1968 in Rijeka, Croatia, then part of Yugoslavia to Dubravka and Branko Grabar. She was raised mainly in her parents’ village of Lopača, just north of Rijeka, where the family owned a butcher shop and a ranch. As a high school student, she entered a student exchange program and at 17 moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, subsequently graduating from Los Alamos High School in 1986.
Upon her return to Yugoslavia, she enrolled at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, graduating in 1993 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Spanish languages and literature. From 1995 to 1996, she attended the Diploma Course at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. In 2000 she obtained a Master’s Degree in International Relations from the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Zagreb.
In 2002–2003 she attended George Washington University as a Fulbright scholar. She also received a Luksic Fellowship for the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and was a visiting scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. In December 2015, she began her doctoral studies in International Relations at the Zagreb Faculty of Political Science.
In 1992, she became an advisor to the international cooperation department of the Ministry of Science and Technology. In 1993 she joined the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). In the same year she was transferred to the Foreign Ministry, becoming an advisor. She became the head of the North American department of the Foreign Ministry in 1995 and held that post until 1997. That year she began to work at the Croatian embassy in Canada as a diplomatic councilor until October 1998, and then as a minister-councilor.
When Social Democratic Party of Croatia (SDP) came to power after 2000 elections, Tonino Picula became Minister of Foreign Affairs. After taking office he immediately started to remove politically appointed staff that was appointed by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) to high-ranking diplomatic positions. Grabar-Kitarović was ordered to return to Croatia from Canada within next six weeks, which she at first refused to do because she was pregnant and had already made plans to give birth in Canada, however, she eventually decided to return after being strongly pressured by the ministry to do so.
During her stay in the hospital, she applied for Fulbright scholarship for studying International Relations and Security Policy. She eventually moved to the United States and enrolled at the George Washington University. After graduating, she returned to Croatia and continued to live in Rijeka.
Two years later, she was elected to the Croatian Parliament from the seventh electoral district as a member of the Croatian Democratic Union in the 2003 parliamentary elections. With the formation of the new government led by HDZ chairman, Ivo Sanader, she became Minister of European Integration, which entailed the commencement of negotiations regarding Croatia’s ascension to the European Union.
After the separate Ministries of Foreign Affairs and European Integration were merged in 2005, she was nominated to become the head of the new ministry as Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration. She was confirmed by the Parliament and sworn in on 17 February 2005. Her main task as foreign minister was to guide Croatia into the European Union and NATO.
On 18 January 2005, she became Head of the State Delegation for Negotiations on the Croatian accession to the European Union. Furthermore, on 28 November 2005 she was elected by the international community to preside over the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention’s Sixth Meeting of the States Parties, or Ottawa Treaty, held that year in Zagreb. She was the first woman to be named President of the Ottawa Treaty.
Following the HDZ’s victory in the 2007 parliamentary election and the subsequent formation of the Second Sanader Cabinet, she was reappointed as Foreign Minister, but was suddenly removed from the position on 12 January 2008. The exact reason for her removal is not known. Gordan Jandroković succeeded her.
On 8 March 2008, with President Stjepan Mesić’s help, she became the Croatian Ambassador to the United States, where she replaced Neven Jurica. She served as Ambassador until July 4, 2011. In 2010 a scandal broke out at the Croatian Embassy in Washington, DC when it was revealed that her husband, Jakov, had been using an official embassy car for private purposes. Namely, a member of the embassy’s security staff had followed and filmed Mr. Kitarović for days and footage of the events was posted on YouTube, but were later removed.
As a result, Foreign minister Gordan Jandroković launched an internal investigation because of Jakov Kitarović’s unauthorized usage of the official car, as the unauthorized filming of members of the diplomatic staff and their families by a member of the embassy’s security staff. The investigation concluded that Grabar-Kitarović herself was, despite having an embassy-owned Cadillac DTS with a driver available to her 24 hours a day, using another embassy car, a Toyota Sienna, for private purposes.
Grabar-Kitarović claimed that her duties continue for 24 hours a day and that she cannot separate her working life from her private life. She later paid for all expenses that were occurred due to her husband’s unauthorized using of the car, while the member of embassy’s security staff who had filmed her family was fired.
In 2011 she submitted her resignation as ambassador and on June 4, 2011 she became Assistant Secretary General of NATO for Public Diplomacy. She was criticized because of the way she left her position in Washington, DC. Namely, Grabar-Kitarović had failed to inform Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor in advance of her plans to resign as ambassador, so Kosor was not prepared to appoint a replacement on time. As a result, the position of Croatian Ambassador to the United States was vacant for almost nine months after her departure.
She, however, said that she did in fact inform the newly elected President of Croatia, Social Democrat Ivo Josipović, of her plans and Josipović subsequently confirmed these claims in December 2014, stating that he even gave his personal contribution to her appointment to NATO by writing Grabar-Kitarović a written opinion that she needed from someone reputable. She also said that she had on two occasions offered herself to Prime Minister Kosor and also to return to Croatia, so as to make herself available to the HDZ for the 2011 parliamentary elections. Furthermore, stating that Kosorhad just ignored her offers and that it is for this reason that she decided not to communicate with the Prime Minister any further.
When Grabar-Kitarović saw an ad for a job at NATO in The Economist magazine, she thought that the job was well-suited for her, but in the end decided not to apply for it. It was only when NATO failed to choose a candidate for the job in two rounds that she finally applied, and in the third round she received the position. During her term at NATO she often visited Afghanistan and the Croatian soldiers that are deployed there as part of a peacekeeping mission.
Her task was to take care of the “communication strategy” and to “bring NATO closer to the common people”. Her colleagues at NATO often referred to her as SWAMBO (She Who Must Be Obeyed). She was the first woman ever to be appointed to the position. She served as Assistant Secretary General in NATO until October 2, 2014. She was invited to join the Trilateral Commission and became an official member in April 2013.