ON 1 July, Croatia will become the first of the protagonists in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s to become an EU member.
It has not been an easy journey. Concerns about Croatia’s co-operation with the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague, the independence of the country’s judiciary and high levels of corruption made it a gruelling, stop-start 10-year effort.
Croatia’s path was also temporarily blocked by a border dispute with its northerly neighbour Slovenia, an EU member since 2004, having slipped out of Yugoslavia in 1991 almost unopposed.
Inside the country there is little sense of popular celebration surrounding accession. At the same time there is little discontent. A referendum in January last year came down in favour of joining with a two-thirds majority. Austerity measures have made the Social Democrat-led coalition unpopular, but the opposition conservative party, HDZ, has long shared its pro-EU stance.
When given the choice between “European standards” and “Croatian values”, Croatians have always opted for the former since the death of the founding nationalist president Franjo Tudjman in 1999. At the same time, many on the right picture Croatia as a Christian bulwark against the Ottoman empire, which is a kind of frontier mentality common in the region.
“This country is just too open,” said Zarko Puhovski, politics professor at Zagreb University.
Croatians have the largest number of relatives living abroad in Europe, host a huge number of foreign tourists and commonly speak English. Croatia also does not have an imperial past on which politicians can found an ideology of being gloriously exceptional. Even the Croatian fascism of the 1940s was an Italian-German import.
The extreme right, which blossomed during the war, is now a marginal phenomenon. So clear is this that former-general Ante Gotovina, a military pin-up of the right unexpectedly acquitted by the war crimes tribunal in the The Hague in November, has since surprised his acolytes by adopting the rhetoric of reconciliation. A campaign by war veterans and the “Vokovar Mothers” to restrict the use of the Cyrillic script used by the Serb minority is rejected by the majority as well as the government.
“Bon voyage,” said Tudjman to the 200,000 Serb refugees who in summer 1995 fled to safety in Serbia through Bosnia aboard tractors after the Croatian army marched in. They “didn’t even have time to collect their rotten money and dirty underwear”, Tudjman added for good measure. This – and the discrimination and the impoverishment of Serb areas since – has seen the Serb minority fall from 12 per cent before the war to perhaps 4 per cent now.
“Does being in the EU mean we will return to an interpersonal peace [between Croats and Serbs]? I do not think so,” says the 57-year-old Croatian Serb minority representative Milorad Pupovac. “We need to create a European model in education, education policy, language policy, cultural policy along the lines of the German-Polish and German-French relations.”
The Catholic church, a key part of Croatian identity, has uncharacteristically stepped into the breach, campaigning to end sex education in schools and attempting to launch a referendum to outlaw gay marriage. It scored a partial victory in gaining a constitutional ruling temporarily suspending sex education and it collected 710,000 signatures supporting a referendum in a fortnight. But its activity could, if it continues, see it lose support.
“Some Croats draw their identity from the Catholic church, as non-Serb,” says Zarko Puhovski, politics professor at Zagreb University.
For these people being Catholic is a mark of being western, unlike the eastern orthodox Serbs, rather than a commitment to church teachings. Previously, the church recognised this and avoided sensitive issues so to avoid alienating itself from its more free-thinking adherents. Even in the conservative 90s the church did not campaign against abortion.
Unlike Poland, piety is largely absent from much of public life. The Social Democrat president Ivo Josipovic calls himself an agnostic and prime minister Zoran Milanovic an atheist. A large part of the population also see themselves in the tradition of partisans, rather than Christian soldiers. It raises few eyebrows if a young person declares themselves a Marxist.
In May, Zagreb hosted the sixth “Subversive” festival, a gathering of leftists. Many Croatians take their lead from Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek or 35-year-old Croatian novelist Igor Stiks, currently a research fellow at Edinburgh University.
Croatia will be yet another economically-troubled EU country, albeit one with a population of only 4.4 million. Its economy has not grown in five years and its external debt is more than 100 per cent of GDP. A fifth of the workforce is unemployed, as are half of all young people. The government sold off its once-proud shipyards, which may yet mean they close for good. There is little relief in sight. This year, GDP is expected to shrink another 0.3 per cent and 15,000 public sector workers are set to lose their jobs.
The upside of EU entry is the extra potential to attract investment, particularly in its key tourist industry. The funds are badly needed. Foreign investment, which reached ¤4 billion in 2008, slumped to just over ¤600 million last year. Croatia’s coastline is spectacular, but nobody locally has the money to develop its resorts. In addition, the EU has earmarked ¤11bn of structural funds for the country over the next ten years.
The chance of attracting foreign investment can only be helped by efforts to improve a reputation tarnished by corruption. Ivo Sanadar, prime minister from 2003 to 2009, is languishing in a Zagreb prison having been handed a ten-year sentence in November 2012, giving him the dubious distinction of being the most senior figure convicted on corruption charges. But 90 per cent of business people still think corruption is widespread, and 40 per cent say it is necessary to win contracts, according to a report by Ernst & Young.
EU entry might also cause difficulties for the only successful post-war manufacturing industry: food. At midnight on 30 June, Croatia has to leave Central European Free Trade Area, a free trade zone for South East Europe in favour of the EU.
This switch may mean Croatian food becomes too expensive in key markets of Serbia and Bosnia.
The EU trajectory of the region is more certain than ever, even if it is unclear how long it might take.