Croatia is one of the biggest success stories of South Eastern Europe. On 9 December 2011 the country, home to 4.3 million people, signed an accession treaty with the European Union – twenty years after it fought a bloody war for independence from Yugoslavia and a decade after the death of its wartime leader Franjo Tudjman, a man of nationalist stands and dubious democratic credentials. On 1 July 2013 Croatia became the EU's 28th member.
Croatia's recent history shows that South East European states – despite a history of conflict and initially mismanaged transitions – can change dramatically in a relatively short time.
For Croatia, the change began in 2000 with the election of a pro-Western government. Within three years, a national consensus had emerged: the mainstream political parties supported EU membership and were ready to do everything to achieve it.
In order to qualify for EU membership, Croatia had to transform radically, shedding off layers of past identity, abandoning some of its most important national icons and – during the six-year-long accession negotiations – swallowing a healthy dose of bitter EU medicine. Read more …
The legacy of Franjo Tudjman – venerated as Croatia's founding father despite having made common cause with Slobodan Milosevic to carve up Bosnia and Herzegovina – was neatly shelved following his death in late 1999. Tudjman's photos were removed from the Croatian Democratic Union's (HDZ) party headquarters. References to him largely disappeared from public discourse. Although the HDZ tried to capitalize on Tudjman's legacy in a desperate effort to avoid defeat in the most recent elections, the strategy clearly failed. The party lost in a landslide.
The transfer of war crimes suspects to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague was a prerequisite for the formal start of the EU negotiations. Though they included Croats considered national heroes, all indicted suspects were extradited. In April 2011, the court convicted two generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, to prison sentences of 24 and 18 years respectively. There was a public outcry in Croatia, but no mass protests. In November 2012, the ICTY overturned the verdict and set both men free. The appeals chamber found – with 3 to 2 votes – that Gotovina and Markac had not been part of a joint criminal enterprise to expel Serbs from Croatia's Krajina region during and after "Operation Storm".
As regional cooperation was one of the EU's requirements, Croatia also had to reconcile with its wartime enemies. Croatian and Serbian presidents apologized for atrocities committed during the war in Croatia. In Bosnia and Herzegovina's parliament in April 2010, Croatia's president Ivo Josipovic talked about the war in Bosnia, citing the destruction, killing and suffering which accompanied it. He added:
"I deeply regret that the Republic of Croatia with its policies of the 1990s contributed to that as well. I deeply regret that such a Croatian policy contributed to the suffering of people and to divisions that trouble us still today."
Even though it blamed the rebellion of Serb separatists in 1991 for the destruction, displacement and enormous human suffering endured by its people during the war, Croatia also had to remove obstacles to the return of Serb refugees.
In December 2008, Croatia ran into turbulence when neighbouring Slovenia blocked its accession negotiations with the EU due to a bilateral dispute over the demarcation of the two countries' maritime border and a few scraps of land. After a year of squabbling, in September 2009 the two finally agreed to a compromise formula brokered by Sweden, then holding the EU presidency: international arbitrators would make a binding decision, but the process would start only once Croatia's EU accession treaty was signed. (In October 2011, the Croatian parliament adopted a Declaration on European Values which states that Croatia would not use bilateral issues to block other Balkan countries' accession negotiations.)
One of the last hurdles in the accession process was corruption. The EU insisted that the low-profile cases launched during the premiership of Ivo Sanader – who had made great strides towards EU membership before resigning abruptly in mid-2009 – were not enough. With a green light from Sanader's successor Jadranka Kosor (also from the HDZ), the chief state prosecutor aimed higher, indicting former ministers and state officials. In November 2012 Sanader himself was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment (later reduced to 8½ years) for taking bribes from the Austrian Hypo Alpe Adria Bank and the Hungarian oil company MOL. In another major corruption trial Sanader, along with other former party officials and the HDZ party itself, was sentenced in March 2014 in a first instance verdict to another 9 years of imprisonment for siphoning off funds from state-run companies.
Growing scepticism towards EU enlargement in countries like Germany and France increased the pressure on the candidate states. EU members began to impose specific conditions for the opening and closing of negotiation chapters (so-called opening and closing benchmarks). Furthermore, more emphasis than in earlier enlargements was placed on the implementation of new legislation.
On 22 January 2012 Croatian citizens voted in a referendum on Croatia's accession to the EU. Two-thirds supported Croatia's EU membership.
A country still isolated in 1999 due to the views and policies of its late president Franjo Tudjman is now a model for other EU hopefuls in the Balkans.
1 November 2014