With the Nice summit looming over Europe, and echoes of the Balkan summit in Zagreb still fresh, most Croatian news media have been devoting even more than the usual effort to measuring the country's readiness for future membership in Europe's most prestigious clubs—the EU and NATO. Croatian state television carried a report on the apparently vigorous relationship with the military wing of European integration—250 Croat officers have taken part in joint exercises and training with NATO units since the country joined the Partnership for Peace (PfP).
One such mission, a joint US-Croatian air force exercise named Safe Sky, started on Monday over the northern Adriatic and the Istrian peninsula. The Croatian mission to NATO—in other words, an office in Brussels with a diplomatic and military staff—will be established at the beginning of next year. In "about half a year," said the report, an application for full membership will be accepted. Of course, as those countries waiting for EU membership know, getting the paperwork in order is only part of the process. You have to have the right neighbours, too; so your troubled borders do not become too bothersome to the club.
Foreign Minister Tonino Pičula said as much in the report—"some of our neighbours do not share the same enthusiasm when it comes to NATO"—but claimed he would not allow that to become a problem. And when the newly democratic neighbour in question is suddenly demanding more robust NATO intervention on the borders of Kosovo, who is to say they will not be trying to get their application ready one day, anyway.
What odds do would one be likely to get on Serbia joining NATO at the same time as Croatia? Might be worth punting a few kuna.
The other club
Joining the other club (the one that pays: namely, the EU) could be an even longer process. Croatia has proven it can organise an army, but it apparently has a lot to learn about running the economy, according to Yugoslav President Vojislav Koštunica, as quoted on Croatian radio.
Reporters put his comments, that Yugoslavia would join the EU before Croatia, to Croatian President Stipe Mesić at a live press conference. "He's entitled to his opinion" was the reply; but one knew that what he really meant was "Pigs might fly!"
Nevertheless, Croatia has been less than successful in attracting the kind of investment that would back Mr Mesić's optimism that membership will come within his period in office. This has much do with the type of privatisation that took place under the previous government. In those memorable times, it was not how much you paid or even who you knew, but whose dad was signing the papers.
A list was published this week of the extent of privatisation in some of the country's biggest concerns. It makes for sobering reading. The previous government complicated things by issuing millions of vouchers in a mass privatisation measure in 1998 which was intended to buy it popularity.
This means that companies such as Janaf, the operator of the Adriatic pipeline, have been forced to indefinitely shelve their plans for a full privatisation that would actually bring in some money. Some companies, such as the shipping company Croatialine, are technically bankrupt. 20 percent of Croatialine stock is held by the public through voucher privatisation; so any potential investor will have to wait until lawmakers sort out the mess.
Potentially attractive privatisation targets, such as Croatia Airlines, are still not marked for sale. However, next year has been set as the target date for the electricity monopoly HEP and INA, the oil and gas group, even though so far no financial advisers have been appointed to help with those sales. Jutarnji list reported that the government will offer to sell some 90 firms in the tourist sector in which it has more than a 25 per cent stake in the first wave of sell-offs in that industry, by 2002. But without substantial sales of large state concerns and huge investment, the prospects for the economy look bleak.
To rub it in, Večernji list reported that Croatia's foreign debt will climb to USD 11.5 billion next year, which will constitute 57 percent of the national product. In the same issue, the newspaper informed its readers that members of parliament had spent over HRK 2.2 million (USD 0.25 million) on per diem allowances and petrol in six months of active duty.
Luckily, the President promised that quality of life would start improving from next spring. Flowers in the parks, longer days, things can only get better... There will, in any event, be more work for some. Translation of some 70,000 pages of European laws and regulations will begin next year. Some 1000 economists, lawyers and translators will be needed for that, says the paper.
Embezzlement and national security
Anyone looking for someone on whom to vent their anger might have been heartened to read that Vesna Skare Ozbolt, leader of the Democratic Centre party and a media darling under the former administration, and Zoran Pičuljan, Croatian ambassador to the Czech Republic, have been charged by the financial police with embezzling HRK 163,000.
However, not everyone has lost their pull. Despite a series of requests from the ICTY in The Hague, the government refused to send the late president Franjo Tuđman's son Miroslav, who was once chief of the secret services, to testify. Reasons of national security were rumoured. It is not who you know; it is what you know about them...
Dan Damon, 2 December 2000
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