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Letter from Zagreb: Croatia is seen but not heard

Before Croatia joined the EU in 2013, the common if not propagandistic view among the country’s politicians was this: we’ll finally sit around the table with the big guys and take part in the EU decisionmaking process, instead of being the object of decisions made by others writes Žarko Puhovski.

Now that Croatia’s EU dream has come true, Zagreb takes its seat around the table, of course, but there is not much to be heard from Croatia’s representatives—especially when the direct interests of the country are not involved. Even when there are Croatian interests at stake, such as when the EU imposed sanctions against Syria in 2012—measures that Croatia quickly and unconditionally accepted but that led to a €2 billion ($2.2 billion) loss for the Croatian state oil company—Zagreb’s voice wasn’t audible.

In terms of its foreign policy ambitions, Croatia scores 2.5 out of 5.

There are three reasons for such a ranking. First, Croatia suffers from a small-country complex and believes that the important countries have to make the important decisions.

Second, Croatia’s politicians and diplomats are mostly unprepared. Even the competent foreign minister, Vesna Pusić, can’t make up for the lack of professional and social support she receives.

And third, Croatia failed to begin a discussion even among think tanks about the country’s international strategy and events at the EU level—not to mention the world outside Europe, with the exceptions of relations with the United States and some global catastrophes. In Croatia, strategy is neither the subject of media reporting and analysis nor the interest of the vast majority of intellectuals and public activists.

However, Croatia’s biggest problem—typically for a post-Communist state—is of an ideological nature. EU leaders and Eurocrats expect (with good reason) Croatia to act as a kind of bridge to the EU candidate countries from the Western Balkan region. But the very notion of such a region is unacceptable for the majority of Croatian public opinion and for the main opposition party.

In fact, for all the candidates and political parties that were involved in the 2014–2015 presidential election, the term “region” suggests a return to Yugoslavia. Attacks against Croatia’s alleged policy of orientation toward the Western Balkans were therefore an important part of Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović’s winning strategy in the election.

The newly elected president, right at the beginning of her international activities, had to swallow rather unpleasant instructions precisely on the subject of the Western Balkans. Those instructions came from an unexpected origin: during Grabar-Kitarović’s visit to Berlin in March 2015, German President Joachim Gauck mentioned Croatia in his official greeting address as being a part of the Western Balkans.

Therefore, with just a few months to go before Croatia’s next parliamentary election, due by February 20, 2016, the government will most probably not be prepared to act openly and directly against such a massive antiregional feeling.

The opposition has no alternative EU agenda, except for stressing the fact that the government has failed to make greater use of the EU’s structural funds, which aim to reduce wealth disparities across the union.

The opposition even missed the opportunity to exploit the fact that Croatian diplomats rushed into supporting Spain’s refusal of Catalan aspirations for independence—as if everyone had forgotten how desperately Croatia sought any sign of support for its own independence a quarter century ago.

The whole gloomy picture of Croatia’s role in EU foreign policy is even more worrying in the context of Russia’s March 2014 invasion of Crimea and the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine.

Old patterns of propaganda are vivid again—although such rhetoric is imported, since Croatia, as a part of nonaligned Yugoslavia, didn’t have any experience in propagandistic conflict between the blocs of East and West during the Cold War. So the Croatian media claims that the international community has strongly condemned Russian policies in the Ukraine crisis, even though this international community does not include China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, two-thirds of Latin America, and three-quarters of Africa.

From a nationalistic point of view, the essential problem for Croatia within the EU is the erosion of the country’s sovereignty. In one form or another, this concern is shared by all the relevant political players in Croatia.

The question remains how Croatia can protect its sovereignty, either on a permanent basis by working with the EU institutions or in a more ad hoc way through direct side channels with the countries of special interest for Croatia: the United States, primarily, and possibly Russia or China.

More broadly, Croatia has not been able to establish any kind of privileged relationship with any major states. That is partly because Croatian politicians are incapable of receiving the support of the European Commission, given Zagreb’s failure to win any major battles with Brussels, and partly because of Croatia’s general lack of foreign policy strategy.

In its relations with neighboring states, especially with Serbia, Croatia uses its EU membership to establish the upper hand in dealing with certain daily political problems or conflicts. The question is whether Croatian leaders will live up to their repeated promises not to use this advantage in a nasty way, as seen in the attitudes of Italy in the early 2000s toward then candidate Slovenia and, later, of Slovenia toward an aspiring Croatia.

As for Croatia’s relations with Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Croatian foreign minister did help reformulate the framework of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s path to EU membership. That new framework is now known as the UK-German joint initiative, after the two countries that spearheaded the plan.

This approach of providing input into the initiatives of bigger member states might be the model for Croatia’s fruitful contribution to EU foreign policy. If not, it looks like the Croatian political elite was too ready to accept too little as Zagreb’s goal within EU foreign policy.

Žarko Puhovski is a retired professor of political philosophy at the University of Zagreb and a former chairperson of the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. This article was first published by Carnegie Europe.

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