Croatia: Forging the Road Ahead for the Rest of the Balkans?

Croatia EU
By Sara Sudetic

On 25 June 1991, the parliament of Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Twenty years later, almost to the day, Croatia successfully completed its accession talks with the EU, closing the four outstanding chapters of their negotiations. July 2013 has been set a as a provisional adhesion date. 

Since attaining candidate status, Croatia has demonstrated serious work and thorough efforts by implementing a wide range of reforms in a number of sectors, including the environment, the judiciary, and its social and regional policies. Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, insists that such an important step for Croatia also sends a very positive message to the rest of the Balkans: “that enlargement works, that the EU is serious about its commitment and that structural reforms in these countries pay off”. 

The issues of state cooperation with the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and of the human rights of displaced communities of Croatian Serbs, as well as a series of border disputes with Slovenia have firmly anchored Croatia in the difficult political context of the former Yugoslavia. However, Croatia has above all proved its endurance by rebuilding its economic and political foundations from the bottom up after its war for independence. The efforts it has shown in the hope of becoming the EU’s 28th member truly serves as an example to the rest of the Balkan states.

The war in Croatia bitterly tore the country in two self-governing territories: the Republic of Croatia, governed by Zagreb, and the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina, which attempted to unify the Serbian population of Croatia, representing more than a third of Croatian territory at its height. After a bitter stalemate lasting four years, the Croatian army ended the war by launching Operation Storm, which effectively overran Serbian Krajina, resulting in widespread violations of human rights and the forcible deportation of more than 20,000 Serb civilians. Leading to more than 200,000 dead and 500,000 displaced, the war was so divisive on a national level that it introduced the term “ethnic cleansing” in the English lexicon.

The consequences of the war remain deeply imbedded in the political fabric of Croatia. The question of state cooperation with the ICTY, responsible for investigating the most serious war crimes and crimes against humanity, has haunted Croatia from its establishment. Indeed, Croatia’s membership bid has been contingent on cooperation with the ICTY. Certain countries such as the Netherlands and the UK have based their support on the detailed assessments of Croatia’s cooperation with  the Prosecutor of the ICTY. For this reason, Croatia has been more willing to engage the ICTY than many of its neighbours, who have been less keen on the prospect of EU membership. Indeed, state cooperation did not come to an end with the arrest of the last Croatian indictee, Ante Gotovina, in 2005. Since then, Croatia has had to assist in the prosecution of many cases related to its "homeland war" by providing a range of military and political state documents in order to receive more favorable assessments and complete its accession talks with the EU.

The ICTY, however, only prosecutes cases relating to the political and military leadership of the  Yugoslav wars: all other cases of war crimes are effectively under Croatian jurisdiction. For many years, organizations  such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and Amnesty International deplored the biased way in which many local cases were handled, as well as the continuing impunity many members of the Croatian Army and police forces continued to enjoy. The basic human rights of tens of thousands of Croatian Serbs, who were forcibly removed from their homes and stripped of their occupation rights was also a cause for concern for the international community. In its bid to join the EU, Croatia was under pressure to ensure the respect of fundamental human rights and the rule of law: as of 2004, the Croatian authorities pledged to return illegally occupied property to Croatian Serbs displaced in the conflict. Repossession is proceeding very slowly, and many Croatian Serbs continue to face discrimination in employment and access to other economic and social rights. However, the situation is slowly improving for the Croatian Serbs, with the EU monitoring their treatment of in respect of Croatia’s obligations under the European Social Charter.

The Croatian "homeland war" not only devastated its social structure, it also caused USD$37 billion in damaged infrastructure, disrupting all regional and international economic ties, and launching a messy, mishandled process of privatisation, encouraged by the former President Franjo Tuđman’s decision to  put all of the wealth of Croatia in the hands of 200 families. The war also completely paralysed one of the main sectors of the budding Croatian economy, tourism, well into the mid 2000s. Croatia successfully rebuilt its economy by carrying out a vast number of economic reforms, gearing its economy towards tourism. Today, Croatia welcomes more than 10 million tourists annually, tripling its population every summer. Most economic indicators remain positive, despite a high public debt stemming from a series of investments in its transport network and worsened by the fall of the American dollar.

However, another feature of the Yugoslav wars deeply impacted Croatia’s membership bid: the resurgence of a number of border disputes between Croatia and Slovenia that have existed since the Second World War, mainly surrounding the maritime borders of the two countries in the Bay of Piran. With Slovenia far ahead of Croatia diplomatically, it was in a position of power to taunt the Croatian government. This dispute further escalated with the Slovenian government’s blockade of Croatia’s negotiations with the EU between December 2008 and October 2009. Although an arbitration agreement between Croatia and Slovenia was signed in November 2009, to settle the dispute before a UN ad hoc tribunal, tensions between Croats and Slovenes in contested areas can still be felt. Indeed, pressure from the Slovene Nationalist Party and its supporters  almost derailed Croatia’s application to NATO.

Throughout its negotiations, the EU has been responsible for putting justice and basic human rights on top of the agenda of the Croatian government, as well as being a force for positive reforms of the Croatian economy and judiciary.  Although Croatian accession will, indeed, be a positive message to the region, the current crisis of three "Club Med" countries, Greece, Italy and Spain, is severely straining many Europeans’ views on the further enlargement of the EU. The bids of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro will, most probably, be impeded or slowed down. The diplomatic pressure put on Serbia by many European leaders - "Kosovo recognition or the EU?"- is likely to alienate Serbian public opinion, especially in regard to the recent groundbreaking arrests of Ratko Mladićand Goran Hađžić, which effectively fulfilled European demands of cooperation with the ICTY.


Sara Sudetic is currently studying War Studies and History at King's College London. She has a passion for international justice and journalism and has interned for the Internationational Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and Le Monde. She is particularly interested in the Balkans and the Middle East.


9 September 2011


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