Capital Zagreb
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 385
Mobile Codes 91,92,95,98,99
ccTLD .hr
Currency Kuna (1EUR = 7.26HRK)
Land Area 56,594 sq km
Population 4.5 million
Language Croatian
Major Religion Roman Catholicism

Croatia’s EU Accession and some Effects on Regional States

By Maria-Antoaneta Neag

Croatia is preparing to enter the EU in July 2013, but tensions exist; its neighbors will be both positively and negatively affected by this imminent event. At the same time, the EU is going through a difficult period of disunity and financial uncertainty, in which further Balkan EU enlargement seems to be less likely, despite recent optimism from leaders of incoming rotating president, Ireland.

The Euro-Storm

Europe is facing difficult times. Following the financial and economic crisis, many Member States adopted inconsistent strategies that led to, among other things, a subsequent European sovereign-debt crisis. Thus, the eurozone started shivering and the bail-out system suffered a certain backlash, though this system managed to keep all Euro countries together.

However, European citizens became frustrated at not understanding the EU’s twist and turns, while visibly being affected by austerity policies. This led to street protests, widespread lack of confidence and a certain rise of euroscepticism.

To overcome these challenges, the Union looked for solutions and moved forward proposing economic governance and reaching agreement on the fiscal compact (the Czech Republic and the UK opted out of the legally binding treaty, as they are doing more and more often). The EU is now trying to set-up a single supervisory mechanism for the banking sector, fighting to achieve a genuine economic and monetary union, while working on improving the democratic accountability and the legitimacy of this project. The future EU institutional architecture is also at stake with a view of possible future accessions.

The Nobel Peace Prize and the EU as a Global Player

It came as a surprise for both EU citizens and European decision-makers that the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 2012 for its “contribution to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe,” including reconciliation work undertaken in the Balkan countries.

Although high-level EU leaders expressed their commitment to further long-lasting peace, eurosceptics ridiculed the award of the Nobel Prize, arguing that the EU is not in its best shape and is facing serious troubles ahead, especially in the eurozone. Related to the economic and political crisis, Poland’s finance minister warned that this crisis could spark war within 10 years.

Several critics voiced their concerns regarding the EU strategy in the former Yugoslavia. “Rather than bring peace and harmony, the EU will cause insurgency and violence,” said Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party.

In addition to its not often so obvious political achievements, on a global scale, from an economic point of view, the EU is lagging behind as China, India and Brazil increase their power and influence. Moreover, in spite of the EU’s efforts to redress its economy, the US’ attention is shifting towards the Asia-Pacific region and more emerging countries, while Russia continues to keep its own agenda, mostly independently from the one promoted by the EU.

The EU’s Non-comprehensive Policy towards the Western Balkans

Under these circumstances, the Western Balkan countries’ European perspective seems rather blurry, in spite of the positive messages and incentives received from the European Commission (i.e. the Positive Agenda for Turkey, the High Level Accession Dialogue with Macedonia, trade incentives, visa facilitation etc.) and, sometimes, through positive assessments scattered in the reports of the European Parliament.

In the Council, things look slightly different as some vetoes have been already voiced. Merkel expressed her stand that the EU will accept Croatia but no one else; Greece continues to defend its position of veto against Macedonia, and Cyprus will not back down on its position against Turkey.

Restoring the European Union’s credibility and ensuring that the economy gets back on track remain the priorities. Even in this regard, problems continue to lie ahead, the first example being the failure to reach a Multi-Annual Financial Framework for the period 2014-2020 due to clashes of interests between Member States, which are growing more and more visible. Moreover, nationalism is on the rise and the actual free movement of people, envisaged from the very first treaties, is being affected by a trend of closing borders.

In this complex context, none of the remaining candidate and potential candidate countries is likely to join the EU soon. Besides the remaining challenges in complying with the Copenhagen criteria, the harsh standpoints of some Member States against some aspiring countries reinforce this hypothesis.

Croatia: the Western Balkans’ Frontrunner, and Next EU Member State

Out of all the Western Balkans countries, Croatia is the clear frontrunner, preparing for EU accession in mid-2013. Its membership bid was conditioned by the delivery of its indicted generals to the Hague, as has been the case for Serbia.

At the EU level, the general attitude towards this imminent accession is rather positive, as Croatia has successfully managed to deliver on EU conditionality, though concerns remain regarding the judicial reform, corruption, immigration potential and economic sustainability (competitiveness, employment and accessing EU funds).

Within the Western Balkans, the public attitude is uncertain, as besides EU membership’s potential benefits, neighbouring countries might suffer from disruptions to their economic, trade and political relations.

Difficulties for Croatia’s Neighbors

In view of Croatia’s accession, the most affected Balkan country will be Bosnia and Herzegovina. With two-thirds of its borders hugging Croatia, the business transactions, trade, agriculture production, employment options and diploma recognition will be altered as Croatia will only be able to accept goods and services complying with European standards.  This will have a definite impact on Bosnia’s agriculture, mainly based on exports in favour of Croatia.

Furthermore, the ethnic mixture of Bosnia and Herzegovina includes 48% Bosniaks, 37% Serbs and 14% Croats. In the Balkans, due to war and border changes, many citizens have dual passports or citizenship. In a rather delicate political framework, the reinforced role of the Croats might soon become visible in terms of economic and political influence as well as in citizen position abuse (i.e., Bosnian Croats might take advantage of their Croatian passport to try out the EU labour market opportunities).

Croatia will have to abandon the multilateral agreement on free regional trade due to its EU commitments. Therefore, regional trade with the rest of the non-EU Balkan countries will have to solely rely on the bilateral trade agreements between these countries and the EU. The Brussels community argues that this might provide an impetus for a speedier reform and harmonization process, beneficial for the remaining candidates and potential candidates. However, it will take time until the Western Balkans states will arrive at the required European standards.

Can Justice Harm Reconciliation?

Serbia recently started to voice its concerns regarding its relations with Croatia. During a European Policy summit (entitled Balkans progress: Battling to overcome the impact of the crisis) organised by the Friends of Europe on December 5,  2012 Prime Minister Ivica Dačić criticized the UN Hague Tribunal’s controversial decision to acquit Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač (both aged 57).

As mentioned in the Judgement Summary for Gotovina et al., issued in the Hague on April 15th, 2011, “The Chamber found that members of the Croatian military forces and the Special Police committed a number of murders charged as war crimes and crimes against humanity.” Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač defended themselves by arguing that they did not deliberately attack civilians.

In 2011, these Croatian generals were sentenced to 24 years and 18 years respectively over the expulsion and killing of ethnic Serbs during an offensive aiming to retake Croatia’s Krajina region – a Serb-majority Dalmatian municipality – in 1995 during Operation Storm. At the time, it was believed that they were part of the Joint Criminal Enterprise (JCE), whose purpose was to eliminate the Serb population in the region by undertaking unlawful attacks on Knin, Benkovac and Obrovac.

Gotovina was a commander in the Croatian National Guard (ZNG). Indicted in 2001 by the Hague Tribunal on a number of war crimes and crimes against humanity charges for crimes committed in 1995 (during and in the aftermath of Operation Storm), he was later on found guilty on eight of the nine counts of the indictment and sentenced to 24 years of imprisonment.

Markač too played an important role during the Croatian War of Independence, serving as Commander of Croatian Special Police during Operation Storm. After it he received the rank of Colonel General. Indicted by the ICTY for charges of operating the JCE enterprise and of crimes against humanity, he was found guilty and subsequently sentenced to 18 years in jail for war crimes (including murder, persecution and plunder).

Gotovina submitted his appeal on four grounds, and Markač eight, challenging the unlawfulness of the artillery attacks and the very existence of a Joint Criminal Enterprise. In order to support the claim that their attacks were not unlawful, they made use of the 200 metre standard of error for artillery projectiles.

In November 2012, with new data such as wind speed, air temperature, the concept of targets of opportunity (such as moving police or military vehicles) brought into the picture, the Appeals Chamber under Judge Meron ruled that there is insufficient evidence to support a finding that the artillery attacks on the four towns were unlawful, reversing also the Trial Chamber’s previous finding that a JCE conspiracy existed with the aim to remove the Serb civilians from Krajina. Furthermore, the Appeals Chamber found (.PDF) that the “departure of civilians concurrent with lawful artillery attacks cannot be qualified as deportation.”

Serbia is often regarded as the scapegoat or the “bad guy” of the 1990’s Balkan wars. Professor and political analyst Aleksandar Pavic stated for RT in November that all Serbs were “regarded as criminals and all the non-Serbs were pretty much innocent.”  He criticized the Tribunal’s rulings, explaining that the “non-Serbian sides of conflict of the 90’s got acquitted to low sentences, when Serbian political figures were always getting ‘maximum sentences.'”

The Balkan Wars still remain within living memory for many ex-Yugoslav citizens. Many atrocities were committed. Many aspects still hinder the bilateral relations between Serbia and Croatia: the disappeared or displaced people, the division of property, and so on.

In 1999 Croatia filed a lawsuit for genocide against Serbia at the International Court of Justice. Confronted with the possibility of dropping charges in favor of advancements in bilateral relations, Croatia demanded that the issue of missing persons be solved. Official data published in July 2012 showed that Croatia has still 1,736 missing citizens following the 1991-1995 war.

On January 4, 2010, Serbia also filed a genocide lawsuit at the ICJ with emphasis on the aftermath of the Operation Storm when an estimated 20,000 Serbs fled their homes and some 150-600 (numbers differ between sources) were killed, sometimes in summary executions. Interestingly enough, the Serbian lawsuit also contains charges against Croatia for genocide against Serbs during WWII. Regarding the most recent wars, according to data from the Serbian Association for Families of Missing Persons on the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia, Serbia is still looking for approximately 4,000 missing citizens (1,958 people missing in Croatia, 1,698 in Republic of Srpska and 526 in Kosovo and Metohija).

In spite of what seems to be an effort toward enhancing regional cooperation, many delicate problems related to wars remain in the ethnically-mixed Western Balkans. To tackle these challenges, a debate on the Hague war crimes tribunal before the United Nations, might be conveyed in April 2013.

Divisions Inside and Outside the Hague Tribunal

Apparently, the verdict in favor of the two Croatian generals, considered final, underlined the acute divisions inside the tribunal. The majority was barely reached, with a 3-2 final verdict. The two judges opposing the release of the generals were very critical of the final decision, one of them even calling it “simply grotesque” and contradictory to “any sense of justice” in comments for The Guardian.

The Serbian prime minister has underlined that the Tribunal’s ruling is not helping the reconciliation process in the Balkans. To his mind, the relations with Croatia are deteriorating due to these developments, and because of Croatia’s lack of interest for regional cooperation initiatives (e.g. facilitation of border crossings).

Although the Croats cheerfully celebrated this ruling, considering it just and predictable, as the generals were always considered national heroes and thus innocent, the appeal verdict outraged Serbia. On this occasion, President Tomislav Nikolić took a stand to condemn the verdict as “political” and with the potential to “open old wounds.”

Russia adopted a similar position and forcefully criticized this decision via U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin: “In its work, the ICTY demonstrates neither fairness nor effectiveness,” Churkin said for RT. “We are surprised at how blithely, even carelessly, a 3-to-2 vote quashed a unanimous verdict (in) a trial, one justified by many years of investigation.” “As a result, the question of who is guilty for hundreds killed and for the exile of over a quarter million of Serbs from their place of residence remains open,” he said. “Justice was not done.”

Serbia’s EU Talks

As had happened in Croatia with its top wartime generals, in order to make progress on EU accession talks, Serbia was obliged to deliver its own war crimes suspects to the ITCY. The long-deferred arrest of the top military general, former Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladić in May 2011 was a major development in this regard. The last remaining war crimes fugitive, Croatian Serb wartime leader Goran Hadžić, was arrested two months later and also sent to the Hague to face war crimes charges.

The EU also insisted in the facilitation of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, as cooperation between the two was the only key priority identified in the 2011  European Commission “Enlargement Strategy and Main Challenges 2011-2012.” Agreements were reached and subsequently, after an initial postponement, in March 2012, the European Council confirmed Serbia as a candidate country.

In December 2012 the Integrated Border Management Agreement laid its first fruits with the Serbia-Kosovo joint control of two border crossings (two other will follow until the end of 2013). EU pushed for the implementation of this agreement hoping it would ease tensions and enhance movement within the area.

Although Serbian politicians seem to be committed to the EU conditionality, the public does not support this endeavour to the same extent, expressing its deep attachment to Kosovo as a Serbian land and their reluctance to accept the current status quo.

In order to prove its good intentions, in mid-June 2012 Kosovo launched a ‘truth and reconciliation’ initiative with the aim to address wartime atrocities and achieve reconciliation between Albanians and Serbs. Bosnia and Herzegovina attempted to have a similar initiative, though it failed to materialize due to the lack of support from the dissenting political class.

In spite of Belgrade’s advancements in the dialogue with Pristina, during the foreign ministers’ meeting of 11 December 2012, the EU failed to provide a date for opening accession talks, demanding from Serbia more effort for the normalization of relations in daily life. Macedonia was given until spring to “promote good neighbourly relations and to reach a negotiated and mutually accepted solution to the name issue” with Greece.

Nationalism, the Perception Gap and Reconciliation Efforts

As has been seen, the legacies of the 1990s wars remain complex, controversial and divisive. In this context, what is the best way towards real reconciliation? How can justice be done?

The Council of Europe’s report (.PDF) on ‘Reconciliation and political dialogues between the countries of the Former Yugoslavia’ mentions the role of minority protection, the adoption of anti-discrimination laws, property restitution settlements, advances in the negotiations over territorial borders, the identification of individual responsibilities and prosecution of war crimes.

A special report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (Netherlands) draws attention to a very important aspect: perception. Each ethnic group sees itself as the victim and the other as evil. Even though Serbia bears the main responsibility for the atrocities in the 1990s wars, it argues, because of this perception wall, Bosnia, Croatia or Kosovo are not willing to accept any responsibility for their own war actions. In the Balkans, Serbia thus remains saddled with the image of the transgressor.

Beside the state-run or international-led initiatives for reconciliation, an important issue remains the overcoming of nationalist discourses. History teaching in schools, for example, plays an essential role in this sense. The public needs to be involved in the reconciliation wheel for the sake of the future and an EU perspective. Achieving this goal remains difficult as there are still very many living persons who recall – and disagree about – the wars’ dramas.

All the generals under ICTY trial are considered national heroes in their own countries. Some have been acquitted while others still face trials and detention. Clear, transparent rules should apply and any possible double standards should be avoided in order to provide the necessary conditions for a long lasting reconciliation. Rulings such as the latest pertaining to Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač might have an effect on the Serbo-Croatian relations, as the memories of the war are still painful.

Just a few weeks after the decision to free the Croatian generals, the former Kosovo Albanian commander Ramush Haradinaj was also acquitted. As a former guerrilla commander who later served as prime minister for a brief period, Haradinaj has been accused of crimes against humanity. These developments reopen the debate about the wars, and the nationalistic sentiment visibly present in the Western Balkans will not be of any help for ensuring their stability.

Future Implications

Hopes of an EU perspective also influence the relations within the region as, after Croatia, no other Western Balkan country has received from the EU a comprehensive timeline for accession. In this context, what will happen next? The remaining candidate and potential candidate countries can either prove to have as much patience as Turkey has, and continue down the reform path while enjoying EU incentives, or they can re-orientate their policies towards different forms of collaboration with other powers.  Russia and Turkey remain the chief alternative key players in this sense.

In the end, while the EU and its supporters have hailed Croatia’s impending membership as a sign that the union is getting closer – one country at a time – to the region’s total inclusion in the bloc, the reality is less certain. From the level of technical, economic and logistic effects (as discussed in the context of Croatia and Bosnia) to perceptions of favoritism (regarding ICTY verdicts), the Croatian membership will have knock-on effects for the rest of the region, not all of them positive.

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