Since Croatia's January parliamentary elections that brought an end to the decade-long rule of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), the country has quickly emerged from international isolation. A burst of activity in recent months, marked by a series of high-level international visits and words of praise for the new Croatian government, has caused considerable excitement in Zagreb.
Despite the West's apparent appreciation of the country's new leadership, the question remains open as to when Croatia will see real results of its political changes in terms of Euro-Atlantic integration, particularly regarding the European Union (EU). Some Croats expect that their recent election results will lead the EU to rush Croatia through the EU integration process, allowing it to catch up with other Central and East European states. Stipe Mesić, who was elected Croatian president in February, has said that he hopes Croatia will become a full EU member before his current term ends in early 2005, while representatives of Zagreb's newly-established Ministry for European Integration are counting on Croatia's accession in the year 2006.
For many Croats, their country's membership in the EU would be the natural result of Croatia's level of development and historical connection to Central Europe. Ten years ago, the Croatian population was considerably richer and more Westernized than any other in Central and Eastern Europe, with the exception of the Slovenes.
Despite the optimism coming from inside Croatia, it appears that much of the EU's enthusiasm for the country's new leadership is based not on the opportunity to speed up the country's integration process but rather on the belief that Croatia can serve as a positive example for other countries in the region, demonstrating to the people of countries like Bosnia-Herzegovina and Yugoslavia how overturning nationalist leadership can bring positive results. Before Croatia can progress in its integration efforts, it is expected to demonstrate a willingness to enhance cooperation with its Balkan neighbors.
EU integration is a long process, and many other Central and East European countries are now far ahead of Croatia, with Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia having already started accession talks. Although it can be argued that Croatia should eventually jump ahead of countries like Bulgaria and Romania since it is more economically advanced and its integration would ostensibly be easier, it might also be considered unfair if Croatia were to pass those countries based on the results of one set of elections when they have been struggling for years to meet recommendations in such areas as human rights and minorities and to harmonize their legal systems with that of the EU.
While political changes can be implemented relatively quickly, the Croatian government now faces the daunting task of approximating its legislation with that of EU member states and of ensuring political and economic stability. The war in the early 1990s as well as the ten-year rule of the HDZ caused considerable damage to the Croatian economy, and the country is not expected to reach its 1990 level of GDP until the year 2004. Considering the mounting frustration with the high level of unemployment and low standard of living, there is a real danger of popular unrest, as ordinary citizens are currently much more focused on their personal economic and social well-being than they are on the idea of European integration.
Although EU officials have publicly been vague about perspective dates for Croatia's EU accession, the years 2012 or 2015 have been mentioned by Western representatives in Brussels. Some critics have therefore wondered how convincing the "Croatian model" can be for the rest of the region when Croatia's prospects for EU accession now appear to be so distant.
Under HDZ rule, Croatia was prevented from joining NATO's Partnership for Peace program, from gaining an Association Agreement with the EU, from receiving assistance under the PHARE program, and even from becoming a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA). In the short term, Croatian membership in groups such as the WTO and Partnership for Peace can help to appease the population. Nonetheless, EU membership is clearly seen as the most important because of the economic benefits it brings, and as other countries from Central and Eastern Europe start to join that organization, Croats' frustration will only grow stronger. Some Croatian representatives have expressed fear that Euro-skepticism and renewed nationalism can arise if Croats believe that they have been treated unjustly.The Stabilization and Association process
During the last decade, Croatia's international position was affected by the country's involvement in the Yugoslav wars and by the HDZ's reluctance to meet certain demands of international organizations. The main reasons for Croatia's pariah status in the second half of the 1990s were the previous government's slow progress in the return of ethnic Serbian refugees who were expelled from Croatia during 1995 police and military operations, the HDZ's tendency to treat Bosnia-Herzegovina as an extension of the Croatian state rather than as an independent entity, and the country's lack of cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Because of these and other HDZ policies, Croatia fell into a different regional category than those countries in Central and Eastern Europe that started the EU integration process during the early 1990s. This fact continues to influence Croatia's standing today, and as a result, the country's EU integration process will likely be more complicated than that of many other states in the region. Instead of an EU Association Agreement, Croatia will be eligible for a newly-designed Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), and instead of PHARE, the country will get assistance from an alternative program that has yet to officially be launched.
In a proclaimed effort to contribute to the resolution of the problems of South-Eastern Europe, the EU launched its Stabilization and Association (SA) process in 1999. Calling for "a new approach to peace and stability in the wider region," the program aimed to put an end to the instability in the area and promote its long-term stabilization and development. While the Stability Pact represents a multilateral effort to bring peace and development to South-Eastern Europe, the SA process is an element of the Stability Pact in which only the EU is involved. The SA process applies to just five countries: Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Macedonia, and Albania.
In certain ways, the SA process was not a new idea but rather an outgrowth of the EU's Regional Approach, which began in 1996 and included the same five countries. None of the five had succeeded in forging Association Agreements with the EU by that time, and the Regional Approach provided them the prospect of gaining a Cooperation Agreement.
In contrast with the Regional Approach, the SA process was developed with the intention of offering higher incentives and more demanding political and economic conditions, together with more emphasis on the need for regional cooperation. EU representatives have said that the idea of regional cooperation was not included in the Stability Pact simply by chance. No country in South-Eastern Europe can expect to get money from the West if it does not choose to cooperate on economic and other levels with other states in the region.
An important aspect of the SA process is the SAA, which replaced the Cooperation Agreement as a new form of contractual relations. The SAAs are intended to be tailor-made, based on the specific situation in the given country, and they are said to include "a perspective of EU membership on the basis of the Amsterdam Treaty and once the Copenhagen criteria have been met." The SAAs also provide for the establishment of a "formalized framework for political dialogue," whenever possible at the regional or sub-regional level to allow for increased communication and the exchange of views.Croatia's integration prospects
Probably the most controversial aspect of the SA process, not only for Croatia, but also for Macedonia, has been the portion that relates to regional cooperation. Prior to Croatia's parliamentary elections, both the HDZ and the pre-election opposition parties made it clear that they were uncomfortable with that fate, believing that Croatia's past and future lies in democratic Central Europe, and eventually in the EU. The West's efforts to push Croatia to increase cooperation with other Balkan countries is also unpopular among ordinary Croats, most of whom see themselves not as Balkan but rather as Central European and Mediterranean.
Some Croats have argued that there is little opportunity for increased trade between Croatia and the other four countries involved in the SA process. One study pointed out that although Croatia already has a free trade agreement with Macedonia, the increase in bilateral trade after the agreement took effect was relatively insignificant, partly because the level of protection from third country exports is considerably lower than when the two were part of the same state but also because of the structural changes that have taken place in both countries' economies over the past decade.
One Croatian diplomat privately expressed fear that once placed into a special Balkan group and branded as part of the Balkans, Croatia may never escape. This is especially true if Milošević launches a new war in Montenegro, which would not only harm Croatian tourism but could also add to a general perception that Croatia is part of the unstable Balkans.
Politicians in the current ruling parties now seem to accept the fact that they must cooperate with their Balkan neighbors in order to gain the favor of the EU; however, they have repeatedly expressed reluctance to accept the region as their "destiny." Unwilling to be held back by countries like Yugoslavia and Albania, Croatian politicians have insisted that the SA countries be viewed on an individual basis.
Although EU representatives have said that an individual approach will be taken to the SA countries, the possibility for Croatia to catch up with Central European countries still remains extremely slim. It is expected that Brussels will finish its Feasibility Study on Croatia during the next month so that SAA negotiations can be opened during the summer and be completed during the first half of 2001. However, because no SAAs have been enacted yet, it is difficult to say how Croatia's integration prospects will be affected by being part of a different approach than other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Some have estimated that the SAA process will take at least four to five years if all goes well, which means that Croatia would not be able to apply for EU membership before the year 2006 and could expect to join the organization sometime during the next decade.
While in many ways the current EU approach to Croatia may be justified, it will be important for the organization to find a balance in its mutual relations. If Croats have the feeling that they are being held back and pushed into an unfavorable alliance with Balkan states, a popular backlash against the EU could ensue. At the same time, the situation in the region can be expected to change significantly once Milošević leaves politics, and Croatia might find increased trade and cooperation with the region a more attractive and lucrative prospect.
Sharon Fisher, 10 May 2000