Croatia plans to apply next month for European Union membership and expects to begin accession negotiations next year. Zagreb says it eventually wants to join Romania and Bulgaria in a second wave of expansion that is likely to take place in 2007. Analysts say the country's economic progress is notable but warn that Croatia must improve cooperation with The Hague war crimes tribunal and proceed with key reforms before it can become a full-fledged EU member.
Prague, 31 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan, in Brussels this week for talks with European Commission President Romano Prodi, said Zagreb will likely apply for European Union membership by mid-February. Prodi in turn said that Croatia, in addition to fulfilling EU political and economic criteria for membership, must improve its cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
Boris Hajos, a spokesman for Croatia's European Integration Ministry, told RFE/RL that over the past year Zagreb has made steady progress toward meeting the economic, institutional, and political conditions for membership.
Hajos also said that cooperation with the international war crimes tribunal continues. "The constitutional law on the rights of minorities has been adopted, the reform of the judiciary has begun, and then the law on public television is being passed through the Croatian parliament. And, of course, we have continued our cooperation with the international [war] crimes tribunal in The Hague. The return of refugees is also slowly improving, and we have also made efforts in terms of improving the regional cooperation," Hajos said.
Despite such optimistic statements, a key sticking point remains in Croatia's relations with the EU and the rest of the international community. That is its reluctance to hand over former army commander Janko Bobetko to the court in The Hague.
Zagreb has triggered widespread international criticism because of its continued refusal to extradite Bobetko to The Hague. Bobetko was indicted last September for alleged war crimes against ethnic Serbs during the 1991-95 war.
The indictment sparked public outrage in Croatia, where many regard Bobetko as a hero in the country's war for independence. Racan's government, despite its pro-Western stance, has so far refused to extradite Bobetko for fear of losing popularity among voters.
Analyst Gergana Noutcheva of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies told RFE/RL that the Socialist-led coalition government faces a difficult task in convincing Croats that cooperation with the international community is the right thing for the country's future. "That's the trick. You have to take political courage and invest your political capital if you want to be part of an international [body], an international community, and I don't think there's any other way of avoiding that or evading that. I don't think the EU will loosen these requirements. So, the sooner the Croatian political leadership, the political elite, starts dealing with this domestically -- changing the domestic discourse, explaining and trying to convince people that's the right thing to do -- [the better]," Noutcheva said.
Another Croatian-affairs analyst, Matthew Shinkman of the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, told RFE/RL that Zagreb must also act because of mounting international pressure. "You're seeing increasing pressure, statements coming from the U.S. ambassador in Croatia and from the tribunal itself that patience is starting to wear fairly thin. So I think we'll see improved cooperation over time. But again, the government will have to sort of portray it to the people as something that is required of the country in order to maintain good relations with the West," Shinkman said.
Croatia's prospects for EU integration began to improve after the January 2000 landslide victory of a coalition of moderate parties led by the formerly communist Social Democrats (SDP), which removed the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) from power after a decade.
The HDZ was founded by authoritarian President Franjo Tudjman, who led the former Yugoslav republic with an iron hand throughout the conflicts of the early 1990s. Tudjman, who died in 1999, was replaced in 2000 by moderate Stipe Mesic.
Prime Minister Racan, the SDP leader, initiated wide-ranging democratic reforms while bringing the country closer to the West. Croatia in 2000 became a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace program and in 2001 signed a landmark association-and-stabilization agreement with the European Union.
The war-torn economy has been recovering, with tourism -- one of the country's main industries -- growing steadily after years of near-total stagnation because of the war. In 2001, tourism brought in more than $3 billion in revenue, equal to one-third of the total exports.
A new standby arrangement with the International Monetary Fund this year is regarded as another positive sign that is likely to encourage further development and attract more foreign investment.
Furthermore, Croatia, a country of some 4.4 million inhabitants, has a monthly per capita income of almost $400, compared to the other two EU candidates, Romania and Bulgaria, where the monthly wages are under $150.
However, Shinkman believes that despite the better economic situation, it is improbable that Croatia will overtake Romania and Bulgaria in the race toward EU membership. "I would say it's unlikely, procedurally, that Croatia would somehow overtake Romania and Bulgaria given that those two countries are more advanced [in negotiations] than Croatia is. [Given] the road map that's been laid out for Romania and Bulgaria, I just don't think that there's probably time for Croatia to somehow overtake those two countries," Shinkman said.
But Hajos said that Croatia is already working toward improving internal coordination among government bodies, a measure meant to clear one of the main administrative obstacles in the way of EU integration.
Hajos added that, although Croatia is not an official candidate, the country has already harmonized its legislation with the acquis communautaire body of EU law.
Hajos told RFE/RL that Croatia is optimistic it will make it into the second wave of EU enlargement. He said the process of meeting the bloc's requirements is ultimately as important as EU membership itself. "We are hoping to get in the second wave of enlargement regardless of when it will happen. But in our case, what is much more important for us to achieve is the status of preparedness for EU membership, which in itself would be fruitful and good for Croatia and the people of Croatia, and, of course, for economic subjects. And the living system will be much better," Hajos said.
Hajos said Zagreb hopes to conclude all formalities with the EU this year and be able to begin membership talks next year.