Croatia, whose 1991 independence came at a heavy cost in human suffering, hopes its pending entry into NATO will be a prelude to an even more important achievement: eventual admission into the European Union.
On Oct. 24, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, Zagreb’s envoy in Washington since April, looked on proudly as President Bush — in an official White House ceremony — signed a protocol declaring U.S. support for NATO membership for Croatia and Albania.
“The citizens of Albania and Croatia have overcome war and hardship, built peaceful relations with their neighbors, and helped other young democracies build and strengthen free societies,” Bush said. “Once Albania and Croatia formally join NATO, their people can know that if any nation threatens their security, every member of our alliance will be at their side.”
Albania, once a Stalinist dictatorship and the poorest country in Europe, and Croatia, a war-torn former Yugoslav republic, will become the 27th and 28th signatories to NATO when the two Balkan countries are formally admitted next April, on the occasion of the alliance’s 60th anniversary.
“This sends a strong message that the United States supports all the reforms we’ve done,” Kitarovic told The Washington Diplomat in a lengthy interview at the Croatian Embassy. “Being a member of NATO means being part of the security umbrella. It also brings more political stability and with it, foreign direct investment, more tourism and better credit ratings.
“But it also brings obligations, which we have been fulfilling all along the way,” she continued. “Croatia was the victim of aggression in the early 1990s and we had to defend our own territory. The last U.N. mandate was completed in 1998, and already by 1999 we had become a security provider — undertaking our responsibilities for security in southeastern Europe and becoming part of the first U.N. mission in Sierra Leone.”
Today, according to Kitarovic, Croatia participates in 14 out of the 18 U.N.-led peacekeeping missions around the world — from Kosovo to the Golan Heights — not to mention Afghanistan, where it has 300 troops.
The admittance of Croatia and Albania into NATO will also anchor an important section of the Balkans to the transatlantic security alliance at a crucial time when Russia is flexing its military might. In fact, extending membership to Albania and Croatia was the main achievement of the NATO Summit in Bucharest earlier this spring, given that Ukraine and Georgia were denied so-called Membership Action Plans — which Russia opposed — and Macedonia’s bilateral name dispute with Greece thwarted its bid to join the bloc. (For complete coverage of that summit, see the April 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat.)
Croatia’s ultimate ambition, of course, is to become a full-fledged member of the European Union. How quickly that happens, however, is anyone’s guess — especially after a recent murder exposed Croatia’s thriving criminal underbelly, dimming its EU prospects.
On Oct. 23, Ivo Pukanic, owner and editor of the influential Nacional newspaper, was killed along with his marketing director in a brazen car bombing in central Zagreb. The murder took place just two weeks after the 26-year-old daughter of a prominent lawyer was shot dead also in the capital city in what authorities describe as a mafia-style hit. In the process, Croatia’s chances of EU membership are taking a hit as well, with the bloc weary of embracing another country prone to organized crime and corruption after accepting Bulgaria and Romania in 2007.
“Mr. Pukanic, a gifted journalist, operated in the Balkan twilight zone where criminals, politicians, intelligence officers, journalists and lawyers meet to do business,” according to the Economist magazine. “In terms of violence and corruption, Croatia compares well with other countries in the region, such as Bulgaria and Serbia. Yet the latest murders reveal a rottenness at the heart of a country better known nowadays for the beauty of its coast.”
However, Croatian President Stjepan Mesic, who attended Pukanic’s funeral, vowed to fight crime and keep EU negotiations on track, arresting several people in connection to the murder and announcing reforms such as special courts and witness-protection programs to combat organized crime.
Kitarovic points out that Croatia has so much in a relatively short span of time, and that the country is taking the necessary steps to join the club of 27 EU member states, hopefully in the not-so-distant future.
“Our ambition was to conclude negotiations and become an EU member by the end of this decade. However, that doesn’t depend only on Croatia but on the EU as well,” she said. “I do believe we will be an EU member by 2010. Just like NATO membership, this will mean a lot of opportunities, especially in the free movement of goods, people and capital, so that will open up educational and other opportunities for Croatian citizens. There will also be increased perception of Croatia as a stable country for tourism.”
Croatia, which borders the Adriatic Sea, is famous for its spectacular Dalmatian coastline and the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to one of the world’s oldest synagogues.
But as the government tries to boost the number of foreigners coming to visit the picturesque country, it faces an even bigger challenge of increasing the number of Croatians themselves. That’s because the population is declining — and fast. The West Virginia-size country now has only 4.4 million citizens, and like the Mountain State, it’s losing people at an annual rate of 0.2 percent. If present trends continue, Croatia will have fewer than 4 million inhabitants by 2020.
“In order to boost the population, the family has become part of our official policy,” explained the ambassador. “If you have a child, there’s a six-month, fully paid, obligatory leave so that no employer can force you to go back to work. And for the third and each child after, you can take three years off.”
Kitarovic, 40, herself has two children with her husband Jacov: 7-year-old Katarina and 5-year-old Luka. She’s also one of the few ambassadors in Washington to have visited all 50 U.S. states with her family.
“I’ve really been to all of them,” said the diplomat. “We’ve crossed the continent from east to west six times, and driven south to Key West, Fla. One of our most memorable experiences was driving to Alaska.”
In fact, Kitarovic speaks fluent, unaccented English, thanks to the one year she spent as a high school exchange student in Los Alamos, New Mexico, another year in Washington as a Fulbright scholar, and her three and a half years posted to the Croatian Embassy in Ottawa. She is also fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and her native Croatian, and understands Italian, French and German.
In addition to her language skills, Kitarovic is a shrewd negotiator, having served as an elected member of Croatia’s Parliament and later as the country’s foreign minister from 2005 to 2008, during which time she headed Croatia’s EU accession talks.
Kitarovic was 23 when Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, sparking an ethnic war between the majority Croats and minority Serbs who were opposed to independence. An estimated 11,000 people died in the fighting; another 2,000 are still considered missing. During the 87-day siege of Vukovar, nearly the entire town was destroyed by the Yugoslav People’s Army, and virtually all the local Croats were murdered or expelled by the Serbs. Croatia didn’t regain full control over Vukovar until 1998.
“A lot of people went through terrible things. They lost their families and their belongings. Vukovar was razed to the ground,” said Kitarovic, whose family is from Rijeka, which was relatively untouched by the fighting.
“You have to go through a catharsis, and heal physical as well as psychological wounds. You have to work on reconciliation at the local level to establish trust between neighbors who used to fight and now must live together. And if incidents do happen, you have to sanction them right away.”
Iceland was the first country to recognize Croatian independence, followed by international recognition in January 1992. Several ceasefires between Croatia and Yugoslavia ensued, although both sides perpetually broke them. Eventually though, Croatia established diplomatic relations with all other European countries and breakaway Yugoslav republics, including Serbia. Fighting tapered off in 1993 and stopped altogether in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton peace accords.
“The Serbian minority is now even part of the ruling coalition,” said Kitarovic, estimating that ethnic Serbs make up about 4.5 percent of the population, or about 200,000. “They have all the rights that pertain to minorities and have a guaranteed number of seats in Parliament,” she added, noting that one of the country’s deputy prime ministers is an ethnic Serb.
Kitarovic said this political inclusion is all part of the tremendous transformation that Croatia has undergone in the past decade and a half. The country’s gross domestic product last year was about billion euro, with a growth rate of 5.6 percent and an average inflation rate that was cut to 2.9 percent. Although expected to slow down this year, Croatia still posted 3.8 percent GDP growth in the first half of 2008.
“We really have become an example of a country that’s worked toward full reconciliation. We’re determined to accept back every single refugee who has returned. We’ve restored and rebuilt properties, and all the citizens whose homes were destroyed or damaged have the right to special loans from the government,” she explained. “Croatia learned a lot from other countries, and we’re more than willing to share our own experiences with others.”
One of those lessons is punishing war criminals, and to that end Kitarovic said Croatia moved quickly to set up its own war crimes tribunals to punish those guilty of atrocities during the 1991-95 War of Independence.
“There were prominent cases of highly ranking Croatian army officers tried for their crimes,” she pointed out. “That’s really a big test for any judiciary to conduct these trials, and it’s important for the future so that it never happens again.”
Yet hatred between Serbs and Croats still simmers, especially in the inland towns and villages away from the Dalmatian coastal resorts so popular with foreign tourists.
Of the former 350,000 Serbs in the area, about 143,000 came back as of 2008, according to the Croatian Embassy — but those are mostly older people. The younger Serbs tend to stay away because they don’t see a future there.
Earlier this year for example, unknown attackers set fire to a Serbian orthodox church in Koprivnica, north of Zagreb. Serb cemeteries are routinely desecrated and Serbs are often insulted or spat upon in public by Croats who remember the pain inflicted on them by Serb paramilitary forces during the war.
“The West regards the return of Serb refugees as an important indicator of democratic progress in the ambitious Balkan country. [Croatian] Prime Minister Ivo Sanader wants to lead his nation into NATO and the EU as quickly as possible,” said a recent article in Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine. “The European Commission isn’t in so much of a hurry. Croatia must prove its reliability as a stable democratic country before it can join the bloc, says Brussels, and attacks on national minorities aren’t helping its cause.”
Relations between Serbia and Croatia suffered a further setback last year when Croatia recognized the newly independent state of Kosovo.
“Serbia pulled ambassadors out of all the countries that recognized Kosovo. However, there is still an embassy in Zagreb, and we have an embassy in Belgrade, and we continue to work at a decreased level, to our regret,” Kitarovic said, noting that the Croatian Embassy in Belgrade — like the U.S. Embassy — was attacked by angry Serbs in the wake of Kosovo’s declaration of independence.
Since then however, the Croatian ambassador was recently reinstated, and relations appear to be thawing. Kitarovic insisted that Zagreb’s recognition of Kosovo, which is 90 percent Albanian Muslim, should not be seen as an endorsement of fragmentation and has little bearing on the current ethnic tensions between Russia and Georgia. “We always claimed Kosovo was a case in itself, that it should not set a precedent for anywhere else,” she said.
Kosovo aside, Bush said the door to NATO membership remains open for Serbia. At the recent NATO protocol signing, he also reiterated his support for membership for Macedonia, Ukraine and Georgia, as well as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro — declaring that “America looks forward to the day when the ranks of NATO include all the nations in the Balkans.”
In the meantime, Kitarovic — noting that the United States has up to 1 million citizens of Croatian lineage — says “there are no issues, just cooperation” when asked to describe the current state of ties between Washington and Zagreb.
“Our relations are currently the best since Croatia’s independence,” she said. “We very much appreciate this early ratification of the NATO protocol. One of our next ambitions is to get into the visa waiver program. Croatia’s refusal rate is below 10 percent, so I believe we have a pretty good chance.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.