Croatia’s first female president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic pledged to help kickstart the country’s ailing economy as she was sworn into office.
The 46-year-old conservative former foreign minister and NATO official narrowly defeated her left-wing predecessor Ivo Josipovic in an election run-off in January.
“I will be a top economic diplomat of our country,” she said in her inaugural speech, vowing to do her utmost “to make Croatia a wealthy nation”.
“Almost two years of (EU) membership, I would like us all to eventually start to live the life of a European Union member,” Grabar-Kitarovic said at the open-air ceremony in the old quarter of Zagreb.
Hopes that EU membership would boost the economy of the small Adriatic nation of 4.2 million have faded.
The Croatian economy, hit by a six-year recession, remains among the weakest in the 28-nation bloc. Unemployment is almost 20 per cent and the government forecasts a meagre 0.5 per cent growth this year.
Today’s ceremony was attended by hundreds of Croatians and top local officials as well as presidents of several regional nations and, notably, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.
His presence hinted at an easing of tensions between the former foes. Relations between Belgrade and Zagreb have gradually improved since Croatia’s 1990s independence war, during which it fought against Belgrade-backed rebel Serbs.
“We talked about all our issues... we will resolve them,” Vucic told reporters after meeting the new president.
In her inaugural speech, Grabar-Kitarovic, a leading member of the main opposition HDZ party until becoming president, called for national unity to overcome the economic crisis.
“We are facing a moment that requires a broad national consensus over key issues. There is neither space nor time for divisions,” she said.
Grabar-Kitarovic added that Croatia would continue to support bids by other Balkan countries to join the EU and NATO as that was in the country’s “strategic interest”.
“I want countries of southeastern Europe to become members of the European family and for us to offer them a hand of cooperation.”
Grabar-Kitarovic is the fourth to hold the largely ceremonial role in the former Yugoslav republic since its independence in 1991.
She was European affairs and foreign minister from 2003 to 2008 and then served as Croatia’s ambassador to the US until 2011 when she was named NATO’s assistant secretary general.
Her election was seen as a major boost for HDZ ahead of parliamentary elections due late this year, and in which the party is likely to make significant gains.
The current centre-left rulers face major public discontent largely over their failure to revive the economy.