Croatia: Great Ambition and Many Missed Opportunities |

Croatia: Great Ambition and Many Missed Opportunities

Article from "Liberal" Magazine
Opinion03.02.2020Thomas Roser
Ursula von der Leyen praises Croatia
AFP Getty

Croatia has just taken over the EU Council Presidency this year. The government has a lot on its plate. In view of the ongoing dispute with its neighbors and the shift to the right in society, not much is to be expected.

The new President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, praises Croatia as a "true European success story". The country, which joined the European Union in July 2013, took over the EU Council Presidency on 1 January 2020. Croatia's conservative head of government, Andrej Plenković (HDZ),  claims to be an advocate of an EU that is "not fragile, but agile, united and not divided". However, the Croatian Council Presidency is overshadowed by the fact that since accession the horizons of many citizens have expanded less in European terms than more narrowed in nationalistic terms.

Croatia has been independent since 1991. Ivo Sanader, Prime Minister from 2003 to 2009, steered Croatia towards NATO and the EU before countless corruption scandals put him behind bars. The crisis state joined Europe's prosperity alliance in 2013 under gloomy omens and stumbled badly prepared into the new era under Prime Minister Zoran Milanović. In order to prevent the extradition to Germany of the former secret service general Josip Perković, who is suspected of murder, the government in Zagreb, shortly before joining the EU, had whipped through parliament a special law to restrict the European arrest warrant. The European partners were not edified - and obtained the annulment.

“In 2015, Croatia had experienced a shift to the right. The trivialization of the Ustascha's atrocities was accompanied by growing intolerance towards homosexuals, minorities and the opposition.”

Emigration with Consequences

Since then there can hardly be any talk of a success story. Since Germany granted the Croats full freedom of movement for workers in 2015, the once high youth unemployment rate has fallen noticeably because of emigration. However, this exodus of young workers is now becoming a development problem for structurally weak regions. Skilled workers are hard to find in Croatia's former "granary". Although the country, which has long been plagued by economic contraction, has also returned to a modest growth path, the growth in the gross domestic product is too low for a transition country. After Bulgaria, Croatia is the second poorest EU member state. Croatia's economy and society would be in even worse shape without EU accession, says economist Žarko Primorać. Only the government in Zagreb did not use the opportunity to modernize. Whether it was the pension insurance system, the education system or the health system, almost all reforms initiated during the accession negotiations have been broken off again.

Even the words that Croatia would act as a "lawyer" for the EU candidates in the Western Balkans, as promised by the then Foreign Minister, Vesna Pusić,  when joining the EU, have been followed by few deeds. Especially in the Serbian capital of Belgrade and in Bosnian Sarajevo, the government in Zagreb is perceived more as a brake than as a promoter of its own accession ambitions. In the Croatian presidential election campaign, the tone towards the neighbors has intensified, even though Prime Minister Plenković vowed to use the EU Presidency to relaunch the enlargement process.

The fact that the enlargement process has been put on hold has to do with France and the Netherlands, where the opposition has grown under the influence of populist currents. At the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, the Balkan partners were already promised membership. Today, 16 years later, they are stuck in an endless waiting loop and are still far from accession and European standards. At present, no candidate country is pushing for early accession, particularly because of deficiencies in the rule of law and economic weakness.

Andrej Plenković is a politician of the national conservative HDZ and since 2016 its Chairman and Prime Minister of the Republic of Croatia. Under his leadership, the influence of the right wing of the HDZ has diminished noticeably. Plenković advocates a pro-European course and was thus able to prevent Croatia's isolation in foreign policy. However, he has not yet clearly distanced himself from the nationalist forces.

Dysfunctional Diplomacy

Contrary to all assertions, little help for EU candidates can be expected from Croatia in this situation. Brussels has already had to call Croatia back twice for unacceptable trade sanctions against Serbia. Nationalistic sensibilities are making it difficult for the government in Zagreb to find a compromise with its former brother republics. Whether in the squabbling over the war past with Serbia, in the dispute with Slovenia over the sea border, in the ongoing wrangling with Hungary over the oil company Ina or in the disputes with Bosnia over the construction of a sea bridge near the Pelješac peninsula - the Croatian government is unable to create a cooperative atmosphere.

This does not fit in with the intention of using the Presidency to launch a new debate on EU enlargement. Zagreb has ambitious plans in other respects too. For example, the government wants to round off the negotiations on long-term EU financial planning and press ahead with talks on its own accession to the Schengen area. In doing so, however, the weaknesses of its own diplomacy will give it a hard time. Damir Grubiša, Croatia's former ambassador to Italy, calls the foreign missions "dysfunctional". Only recently, a top diplomat from the embassy in Berlin was suspended for nationalist Facebook posts.

The Serbian minority accounts for 4.4% of the total population of Croatia. According to the last census (2011), 186,633 Serbs live in Croatia. Recently, the number of violent attacks against the Serbian minority has risen sharply.

Nationalism Determines Debates

Almost at the same time as the surprising victory of Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović in the presidential elections at the beginning of 2015, a noticeable social shift to the right occurred in Croatia. The HDZ, which had been put on a tight national course by former secret service chief Tomislav Karamarko, won the parliamentary elections at the end of 2015 and, together with the conservative protest party "Most", replaced the left-liberal "Rainbow" coalition at the end of 2015. From then on, the right wing of HDZ, veterans' associations and right wing clerical church districts determined the debates. The trivialization or even glorification of the atrocities committed by the Ustascha, the extreme right wing terrorist secret society founded in 1929, which developed into a fascist movement, was now joined by growing intolerance towards homosexuals, feminists and other minorities and dissenters.

Under the aegis of Plenkovićs, who took over the chairmanship of HDZ 2016, the influence of the right wing party has shrunk. He has prevented the foreign policy "orbanisation" of his country; Croatia is officially pursuing a clear pro-EU course. However, the Prime Minister is reluctant to distance himself clearly from nationalist forces - his room for maneuver is limited by a majority of only two votes in parliament.

Just how much nationalism has become part of everyday life is demonstrated by President Grabar-Kitarović, who has announced that she is a fan of the Ustascha-Barden Marko Perković "Thompson". The Ustascha greeting "za dom spremni - ready for home", which the right wing rocker likes to give to his fans, she had already described in 2017 as an "old Croatian greeting", which had "unfortunately been compromised" during the Second World War. Further nationalistic tones are to be expected in the election campaign, as the head of state has to fight off the strengthened competitors in the right wing camp. These include the independent singer Miroslav Škoro.

Meanwhile, the number of violent attacks against the Serbian minority is increasing. The government speaks of individual cases that are not an expression of the social climate. Representatives of the opposition and minorities see things differently. Milorad Pupovac, Chairman of the co-ruling party of the Serbian minority SDSS, therefore now sees Croatia as a "factor of instability and deepening mistrust" in the region.