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Croatia: Prime Minister Calls For EU Entry In 2007

Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, in Brussels yesterday, strongly suggested Croatia hopes to join the EU together with Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. However, time is short and Croatia's ambition is undermined by a number of serious obstacles.

Brussels, 13 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Croatia's new government under Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, sworn in only last December, is not afraid of challenges.

Sanader's Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) starts off with the difficult task of proving that the hard-line nationalism associated with its late founder and Croatia's former President Franjo Tudjman are now firmly a thing of the past.

Meanwhile, the government faces an uphill struggle trying to convince the international community it is doing everything to apprehend fugitive General Ante Gotovina, indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.

Croatia's relations with neighboring Serbia and Slovenia leave a lot to be desired and there remain question marks over the country's efforts to accommodate the Serbian minority and allow refugees to return.

Yet Sanader yesterday told reporters in Brussels he is confident that Croatia will join the EU in just three years. "Our goal is to join the EU by 2007 if possible, which means [joining] the group of enlargement along with Romania and Bulgaria -- the second wave of enlargement," he said. "If we consider this [current] 'big bang' [of 10 countries acceding this year] the first wave of enlargement, [then] the second wave [is] Romania and Bulgaria. We would like to join them."

Sanader says he is aware of the magnitude of Croatia's ambition, but nevertheless lays out a very brisk timetable. He says Croatia expects the European Commission to take no more than two to three months to rule favorably on Croatia's application for candidate status, submitted a year ago. Formal approval by EU member states should follow in June so that accession negotiations could start by early 2005.

Sanader yesterday said Croatia would need just two years for the talks, but dodged questions on where the standard 12-18-month ratification period would fit in.

European Commission President Romano Prodi said yesterday after meeting Sanader that the Croatian prime minister had asked him for a date for the ruling on his country's candidacy.

Prodi said he is unable to give a date as long as some member states continue blocking the Stabilization and Association Agreement with Croatia, querying whether Zagreb has indeed done its utmost to cooperate with the ICTY.

Prodi said he couldn't set a date "because we have this problem still open -- but there is a common engagement to do it as soon as possible, as soon as we have the ratification of the stabilization agreement by [the] U.K. and [the Netherlands]."

Sanader yesterday forcefully rejected suggestions that Croatia's cooperation with the war crimes tribunal is anything short of full. "As regards our cooperation with The Hague tribunal, we're fully committed to [it] -- there is no alternative to cooperation, and I'm quite confident and quite optimistic that we will cooperate very well with The Hague tribunal," he said.

He said his three-week-old government is already in contact with the tribunal and its chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte. Sanader also noted there have been no new indictments of suspected Croatian war criminals.

The Croatian prime minister was unwilling to discuss the case of General Gotovina, the No. 1 Croatian suspect on the ICTY list of those indicted.

Sanader said he did not see the delay in the ratification of the stabilization agreement as an insurmountable problem. He said Croatia would be "very happy" to clarify the issue with Britain and the Netherlands, adding that he expects the two to be satisfied with his government's progress on that front within "two months" of commission approval of Croatia's candidacy -- that is, just in time for the June Brussels summit to endorse it formally.

Sanader yesterday also cited the success of his government in tackling other outstanding issues. He mentioned steps taken to ease the return of Serbian refugees, judicial reforms, evolving cooperation with Croatia's neighbors and, above all, the recently signed agreement of cooperation with national minorities. Under the agreement, he said, the Croatian government now has its first Serbian deputy minister.

Sanader did not have a clear response to questions about the lingering sea-border dispute with neighboring Slovenia, whose access to the Adriatic Sea is threatened by Croatia's plans to extend its territorial waters. Slovenia will become a full EU member state in May and the issue could seriously complicate Croatia's efforts to follow suit.

Prodi yesterday made light of the problem, seeming to suggest the prospect of EU membership for both countries is enough to overcome it. "I told Prime Minister Sanader the same [thing that] I told the Slovenian prime minister: 'Behave.' We cannot be mediators, we don't want to interfere [in] an internal problem, but we're very much interested [in] that you have a friendly solution," Prodi said. "Because being some day, I hope very soon, members of the same union we don't want to have these problems -- clearly, these are problems of the past."