Gov. Mark Dayton will travel to Croatia next week to help commemorate a 20-year partnership between the Minnesota National Guard and the European nation’s military.
Last January, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović visited the Twin Cities at the invitation of the Minnesota National Guard. That, too, was to celebrate the collaboration that, according to a guard spokesman, has fostered both military and civilian engagement between Minnesota and Croatia.
Grabar-Kitarović met privately with Dayton during that trip, and he said on Wednesday that Minnesota Adjutant General Rick Nash subsequently asked Dayton to lead Minnesota’s delegation to a similar ceremony in Zagreb, the Croatian capital. The DFL governor and Nash leave next Tuesday with a small group of current and former Guard leaders, along with about 20 Minnesotans associated with a Twin Cities-based volunteer group called Supporting our Troops.
“It’s mostly ceremonial, but it’s an important relationship, and an important part of the U.S.-NATO alliance,” Dayton told the Star Tribune. He said Croatian officials told him the Minnesota partnership benefited the country’s successful effort to join NATO, which it officially entered in 2009.
“They received a benefit from it, and it benefits our guard as well,” Dayton said.
Dayton’s group will attend a party on June 30 at the U.S. Embassy, then a military ceremony the following day celebrating the Minnesota-Croatia partnership. On July 2, they will visit the presidential palace for a reception, where Dayton will receive a Croatian award on behalf of Minnesota, exchange gifts with Grabar-Kitarović and participate in a bilateral meeting. They return to Minnesota the following day.
The Minnesota Guard and Croatian military are teamed under the auspices of the State Partnership Program, a Department of Defense initiative that links up state National Guards with an allied nation’s military and security forces.
Every U.S. state guard has at least one international partner, and some states have more than one. Under the program, state guards help their partner forces with military training and readiness.
Col. Kevin Olson, spokesman for the Minnesota Guard, said the relationship with the Croatian military has indeed proved useful for both participants. Minnesotan and Croatian forces teamed up to train the Afghan National Army during the long-running war in that country, he said.
“It’s an important military relationship that has led to civilian relationships,” Olson said.
An example of the latter, Olson said, is when officials from St. Paul lended help to Croatian officials as they responded to severe flooding there in 2014. The University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute has conducted a cyber security seminar in Croatia.
Croatia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, in the midst of military tensions with several other nation-states that then made up that now-defunct south-central European republic. Ethnic strife and violence continued to rack the region for a decade after that. The country officially entered the European Union in 2013.
Grabar-Kitarović took office at the beginning of 2015, Croatia’s first woman president and its youngest ever at 46. Croatia’s president shares power with its prime minister, who leads the country’s executive branch.
Croatia was central to the life story of former Gov. Rudy Perpich, one of Dayton’s primary political mentors. Perpich’s father was a Croatian immigrant, his mother was also of Croatian heritage, and the younger Perpich grew up on the Iron Range speaking Croatian before he learned English.
After Perpich was voted out of office for a second time in 1990, he continued to generate headlines in Minnesota by moving to Croatia for a short time. He served as an adviser to its then-president, and even revealed in a Star Tribune interview that he had turned down an offer to be the country’s foreign minister for fear of losing his U.S. citizenship.
Dayton was an adviser and later a Cabinet chief under fellow DFLer Perpich in the late ‘70s, and has frequently cited Perpich’s governing style as a guiding light for his own turn as chief executive.
Perpich died in 1995. Dayton said it will be his own first time in Croatia.
The governor will be accompanied by two senior aides from his office, with travel and lodging expenses covered by the state. Costs for Nash and seven other current Guard officers and employees will come from federal military funds.