WASHINGTON - Croatia is known to most Americans for its picturesque walled city of Dubrovnik, the setting for many of the scenes in the immensely popular television series Game of Thrones.
That is a source of satisfaction for Croatia's ambassador in Washington, Pjer Šimunović. But he also wants Americans to recognize his country as a security partner contributing to the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as an increasingly notable economic and trade partner, including as a major importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG), a rising field in American business.
American tourists have flocked to Croatia in recent years to walk through the settings of fictional warfare and intrigue in the fantasy drama, which boasts millions of viewers worldwide.
But Šimunović noted in an interview with VOA that Croatian soldiers have participated in very real battles in Afghanistan alongside their counterparts from the United States, which he describes as "by far the most important" ally of his country.
"Everything else pales by comparison," he says. "Our soldiers have been fighting shoulder to shoulder with our American friends, in all theaters," including the Middle East, Africa and southeast Europe, and have been providing maritime security in the Mediterranean Sea. A Croatian soldier died in a suicide attack outside Kabul just last week.
Šimunović says the two countries are looking to match their security relationship with increased trade and economic cooperation, and that liquefied natural gas, delivered by ship from the United States, will play a major role in that effort.
"We're building in the northern Adriatic an LNG import terminal, which is a major part of the European effort to diversify energy routes in Europe, to get rid of the unhealthy reliance on Russian gas," Šimunović says.
The terminal is under construction on the island of Krk, which Šimunović describes as "a beautiful tourist spot" at the north end of the Adriatic Sea, which lies between Croatia and Italy. It also happens to be home to some of his family.
Once the terminal is completed "in a couple of years' time," the liquefied gas will be offloaded from ships and converted back into its natural gaseous form to be pumped through pipelines to customers in Croatia and elsewhere in Europe.
The State Department, the U.S. Department of Energy, the White House and various U.S. companies have all been involved in discussions on the project, the ambassador says. European authorities are also enthusiastic, seeing the enterprise as a way of reducing the region's dependence on natural gas from Russia.
In giving a green light to the project this week, European Union antitrust regulators in Brussels said the project will "further key strategic objectives of the EU, including diversifying gas supply sources and increasing the EU's security of gas supply, notably in the central and southeastern regions, without unduly distorting competition."
The European Commission says more than half of the EU's gas needs are currently met through imports, with 39% coming from Russia.
Being able to contribute to EU security is important to Croatia, the bloc's newest member, having gained admission in 2013. The EU already "has become part of our identity," Šimunović says.
"We have our state, which is Croatia," he said. "At the same time, we're part of a wider community of trans-Atlantic democracies, so we're a member of the EU and NATO." Beginning in January, Croatia will begin its first six-month term at the helm of the EU's rotating presidency.