Special Report

Into the European Fold

Croatia's EU referendum was to be its ticket from the miserable Balkans. Instead, it's just joined a Balkanized Europe.

By 2.9.12

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In the spring of 1991, as the reborn Croatian state emerged from the rubble of the collapsed edifice of post-Tito Yugoslavia, it was only natural that unbridled optimism should attend the rampant nationalistic fervor of a newly liberated people. With the ancient unicameral Sabor firmly reconstituted, with 94 percent of voters supporting independence in a May 19 referendum, and with the "Proclamation of the Sovereign and Independent Republic of Croatia" proudly issued to the world around a month later, it seemed to be time for the Republika Hrvatska to leave behind the "palanka," or parochialism, of the Balkan Peninsula. As the first Speaker of the Sabor, Žarko Domljan, boldly proclaimed, it was "with the victory of democracy and the transition to a parliamentary system [that] the final step was taken in the return of the Croatian nation to the political, cultural, and economic area of Europe."

It would not be long before Domljan and his fellow Croats discovered that independence was the first, not the last, step towards European integration. Over the next two decades, Croatia would experience the horrors of internecine conflict, the vicissitudes of the falangist domestic politics of strongman Franjo Tuđman, and the challenges inherent in making the reforms necessary to satisfy the 35 policy chapters of the European Union's acquis communautaire. Only on January 22, 2012 -- after nearly two million Croatians had made their way to 6,750 polling booths to cast their ballots in a referendum on European Union membership, voting roughly two-to-one in favor of the proposition -- would that final step seemingly be taken. With European Union accession scheduled for July 1, 2013, the Croat populace could at last be confident of an official return to the European fold.

The morning after the referendum, Austria's Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister, Michael Spindelegger, became the first foreign official to congratulate the Croats on their collective decision. "The Croatian nation demonstrated the maturity and foresight to recognize the historic opportunity presented by the European unification process," Spindelegger said, adding somewhat patronizingly that the "for" vote was "the most beautiful gift the men and women of Croatia could give themselves." For those Croats inclined towards ever-closer ties with the West, the Austrian minister's official "welcome to the European family" could hardly have been more felicitous. It has, after all, been a centuries-old preoccupation on the part of the Croat people to exit what the novelist Miroslav Krleža dubbed "the Balkan pot-house." Membership in the "European family" is therefore of considerable symbolic, as well as practical, importance for the Croatian body politic.

Perilously suspended between West and East, between Rome and Byzantium, between the Habsburgs and Ottomans, and between Vienna and Budapest, the western Balkans was long viewed by outsiders with incomprehension at best, and with derision at worst. In 1776, Edward Gibbon famously described Dalmatia as an "obscure" land "infested by tribes of barbarians, whose savage independence irregularly marks the doubtful limit of the Christian and Mahometan power." Thirty years later, Madame de Staël wrote of a "land formerly inhabited by a very warlike people, [which] still retains something wild about it," where residents "know so little of what has happened for fifteen centuries that they still call the Romans the all-powerful." Of the centers of humanistic activity in cities like Zagreb, Šibenik, Trogir, Split and Dubrovnik, little mention was made. Of the cultural contributions of artists like Juraj Julije Klović and Andrija Medulić, or the political contributions of statesmen like Fran Krsto Frankopan and Nikola Jurišić, even less was made. Croats could insist that they had, over the centuries, "acquired the honest title antemurale christianitatis -- the outer battlements of Western European Christian culture" (as one Croatian editorialist argued in late 1991, at the height of the 87- day siege of Vukovar), but this sanguinary past did not necessarily confer "European" status in the eyes of policymakers to the north and west.

The course of the Balkan 20th century, with its exploding powder kegs, fratricidal partisan campaigns, and genocidal civil wars, would do little to erase any preconceived notions about the peninsula and its inhabitants. Franjo Tuđman, in a 1991 televised address, may have described his country's struggles as part of "the fight for normal conditions when Croatia can join Europe, where she historically belongs," but Croat-perpetrated massacres taking place that very year, for instance in Sisak and Gospić, tended to undermine the notion that Croatia was destined for an immediate future in a liberal, irenic post-Cold War Europe. Given that the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia would find that Tuđman "was a key member of the joint criminal enterprise…to repopulate the Krajina with Croats" through "force or threat of force, which amounted to and involved deportation, forcible transfer, and persecution through the imposition of restrictive and discriminatory measures, unlawful attacks against civilians and civilian objects, deportation, and forcible transfer," the 1997 electoral motto of "Tuđman, not the Balkans" rang altogether hollow.

As Nicole Lindstrom later observed, "the political agenda of division and exclusion pursued by Tuđman in the 1990s ultimately contributed to Croatia being (re)assigned to precisely the same Balkan category it had defined itself against." Instead, neighboring Slovenia managed to cast itself as Europe's nec plus ultra, playing its cards rather adroitly by emphasizing, in mid-1990s promotional literature, its historical predecessor Carantania's supposed "democratic institutions, strong legal system, popular elections of the ruling dukes, and progressive legal rights for women," as opposed to its martial prowess upon the bulwarks of European civilization. In 1997, with Tuđman's Croatia failing to make the sort of headway predicted by Žarko Domljan in the early days of the republic, and with European and American policymakers urging membership in the nebulous Southeast European Cooperative Initiative rather than the European Union, tempers flared. Dalibor Foretić, writing for Novi List in 1997, complained that "the world would like to push us into some kind of Balkan hole but we will not allow them. We want to be everything -- Central European, Mediterranean, Transcarpathian -- and not just a Balkan country. The West is constantly inventing some kind of initiative to push us where we do not belong. But we will not let them!" To Foretić's chagrin, the long-awaited return to Europe was indefinitely postponed.

In the European halls of power, historical Croatian opposition to the infamous "five Bs" -- Balkanism, Barbarism, Byzantinism, Bolshevism, and Balvanism (the last referring to the erection of street barricades, from the Croat word balvan, or "beam") -- counted for little. It was only after Tuđman's demise in 1999, a round of constitutional reforms two years later, and a gradual increase in cooperation between Croatia and the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague that European Union accession became a distinct possibility. Official European Union candidacy began only in early 2004, with Croatian authorities aiming for a dubious accession date of 2007. Lingering border disputes with Slovenia held up the overall process, as did Italian concerns about land ownership laws, while Brussels mandarins concentrated on obstacles involving fisheries, environmental policies, and endemic corruption. Widespread post facto skepticism regarding the appropriateness of Romanian and Bulgarian accession likewise slowed Croatia's elongated return to Europe.

Croatian popular support for European Union accession inevitably wavered as the lengthy process was drawn out further, ranging from as high as 80 percent to as low as 26 percent, depending on the survey. As the January 2012 referendum approached, the Croatian government spared no expense in convincing the populace of the value of European integration. State television and radio airwaves were suffused with tens of thousands of pro-European Union advertisements, Zagreb trams were bedecked with positive endorsements of the referendum, and the Croatian Post delivered -- gratis -- millions of government leaflets. Government tactics bordered on scaremongering, as campaigners warned of a loss of some €1.8 billion in funding from Brussels over the next three years, while Vesna Pusić, head of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, warned more than a million Croatian pensioners that their livelihoods would be at risk following a "no" vote. Too many years, and too many man-hours, had been spent in the quest for European integration for the referendum to be anything other than a fait accompli.

Those of a more Euroskeptic bent, like Marjan Bošnjak of the rather obscure Only Croatia party, were quick to bemoan the referendum's unequal playing field. For Bošnjak, the circumstances of the vote were "blatantly undemocratic," making it "impossible for the Croatian People to make an informed decision," and leading to "a swindle which did not meet even the most basic democratic criteria, and whose sole purpose was to elicit an affirmative vote." Yet the die was cast long ago, when both an official and a symbolic Croatian return to the European fold became a distinct possibility by dint of European Union accession. Under Tuđman, Croatia's foreign policy was preoccupied with the country's emancipation from the "the Balkan darkness of the so-called Yugoslavia," and his successors followed suit. No warnings of the dangers of becoming "meek and hopelessly networked subjects of the big Orwellian Europe," as one Croatian Party of Rights leader put it back in 2000, could dissuade Croatian elites from pursuing this deeply ingrained goal.

In the unstable geopolitical patchwork of Central Europe, Stanisław Vincenz once posited, "each one of its parts will of necessity become the dependency of a greater unit." For Croatia, this has meant membership in multinational polities based in Rome, Constantinople, Venice, Vienna, Budapest, and Belgrade. More often than not this membership has been imposed rather than chosen. One exception was in the aftermath of the First World War, when the Croats, despite having a newly formed national government of their own, opted for membership in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The peasant leader Stjepan Radić objected that the Yugoslav "kingdom was proclaimed other than by the Croatian Sabor and without any mandate of the Croatian People," and that his fellow delegates were rushing into a supranational arrangement "like drunken geese in the fog," but he was ignored (and later arrested). "The tragedy and irony of the whole thing," August Košutić later wrote about this brief flicker of independence, "lie in the fact that the Croats, after having preserved for centuries their own national and State rights, should have these wrested from them just after the proclamation by the Allies of the principle of self-determination." In 2012, only two decades after independence was once again regained, history again repeats itself, and Croatia once again finds itself on the way to becoming a "dependency of a greater unit," this time one headquartered in distant Belgium, all due to the pursuit of that unchanging European goal.

The 2012 referendum, according to Croatian President Ivo Josipović, was "a turning point in our history," as the "European family" opened its arms and the Croatian people accepted the continental embrace. Perceived economic self-interest, and the power of symbolic politics, ultimately won out. But it had only won out with 28 percent of the electorate actually casting an affirmative vote. In a country so enamored of Europeanness, there is little room for outright Euroskepticism, except at the nationalist fringe, but there is undoubtedly a nagging sense in Croatia that the European Union is anything but a political and economic panacea. As Viseslav Raos, an analyst at Zagreb's Political Science Research Center, noted in the run-up to the referendum: "Croatian citizens see what's happening in Greece and Ireland" and "know that the European Union is not a remedy to all economic and social problems. So the EU itself is in a sort of crisis, and that reflects on Croatia's accession." Hence the lukewarm results of the referendum, notwithstanding careful engineering by the country's elites.

Miroslav Krleža, in his 1938 masterpiece On the Edge of Reason, responded to "overheated and arbitrary" Croatian discussions of Europe with a series of exasperated questions: "What 'Europe'? I would like just once to hear what Europe is in reality. Where is that Europe situated? What does that Europe want? And in what special relationship with that Europe are you?" Thanks to the transformational nature of the European Union, a Croatian could now provide a series of answers: "the European Union, headquartered in the Leopold Quarter of Brussels," "an ever closer union," "the privileges and obligations of member status," and so on. Nevertheless, the coming years may cause many in the Croatian body politic to renew Krleža's line of questioning, as the European Union is wracked with economic uncertainties and neutered by an ineffective common foreign and security policy. In another irony of history, one so familiar to the Balkans, the European Union is taking on something of a Yugoslavian aspect just as the nations of the peninsula shed their palanka and begin the process of integration. In the words of the Serbian journalist Momčilo Pantelić, "at a time when the EU is attempting to reinforce centralized control of its periphery, its foundations are being threatened by excessive nationalism and accumulated incompatibilities between member states. This is a situation that is strongly reminiscent of the golden age of Yugoslavia (1981-1986), a period when it came close to joining the European Economic Community (EEC)."

As the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s raged on, Croatian correspondents expressed dismay at complacent Western European politicians "for whom the butter and cheese surplus are a more serious problem than destroyed Croatian cities and villages." Surprisingly, this did not sour Croatians on official membership in Europe; rather, it reinforced the need for the Republika Hrvatska to be recognized as a valued member of the European community, just as it was officially recognized as the antemurale christianitatis by Pope Leo X in 1519. That long-pursued recognition will soon be given, and has even been provided a date certain: July 1, 2013. From that point on, Croatia can no longer be dismissed as the "doubtful limit" of Europe. But if Pantelić is right, and the balkanization of Europe continues apace, then even the recent referendum and resulting accession will not be the "final step" Croatian authorities envisioned two decades ago. In fact, it may be that extrication from the "Balkan hole" is simply not a matter of referenda or fiat.

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About the Author

Matthew Omolesky specialized in European affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy's graduate program, and received his juris doctor from The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. Formerly a researcher-in-residence at the Institut za Civilizacijo in Kulturo (Ljubljana), he is presently a researcher for the Laboratoire Europeen d'Anticipation Politique (Paris) and a specialist in international human rights law.