Thursday, December 22, 2011

Croatia’s Hard-Fought European Moment

by Richelle Bernazzoli

Ne hvala (No thanks).” Photo taken by Maximilian Geise October 15, 2011 at Zagreb’s “Occupy” protest on Ban Josip Jelačić Square

2011 has been a big year for Croatia—the small, Adriatic country that has, in the course of twenty years, transitioned from a constituent socialist republic in the former Yugoslavia to a free market democracy, NATO member, and candidate for the European Union. Along the way, the country was devastated by the wars of Yugoslav succession, which occurred from 1991 to 1995 and were followed by a lengthy and difficult process of reconstruction, reconciliation, and prosecution of crimes committed during the hostilities. On December 9th, 2011, however, the Republic of Croatia took a decisive step in a new direction by signing a treaty to become the 28th member of the European Union in 2013. This was only five days after dramatic parliamentary elections decisively ousted the center-right Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ (which has been dogged by corruption investigations), in favor of the progressive coalition Kukuriku (“cock-a-doodle-doo”) led by the Social Democratic Party.

But if it sounds like twenty years is a relatively short amount of time for these processes of transition, conflict, recovery, and accession to bring Croatia to the EU’s doorstep, try telling that to someone here. You would likely be informed in no uncertain terms that this moment should actually have arrived several years ago—perhaps in 2004, when Slovenia entered the Union, and surely by 2007, when Romania and Bulgaria officially became members. A common theme that arises in my interviews with Croatian citizens is that of “deserving.” Croatia, many of my interlocutors tell me, “deserves” EU membership after decades of struggle and suffering. In this narrative, the Homeland War (as the Croatian war of the 1990s is commonly called amongst Croats) is the latest in a succession of perils faced by the Croatian nation in defense of European civilization—dating all the way back to when Croatia’s Vojna Krajina or ‘military frontier’ was the buffer between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.

But it is not only a rightist or nationalist contingent invoking the idea of Croatia as the ‘ramparts of Western Christianity’ that views recent history in this way. One of the progressive NGOs whom I have engaged in my project—a peace studies center focusing on non-discrimination and non-violence education—recently produced a volume of human security recommendations for the European Union based on Croatia’s war and post-war recovery experience. In other words, the same difficult aspects of Croatia’s history have been spun and deployed in various ways and by various interests in the European integration process.

While all of this points to broad support for EU membership across the political spectrum and among various contingents within Croatian society, this does not mean that the entry date is approaching uncontested. The recent elections and “Occupy” movement have brought significant anti-EU demonstration to the fore, as the photograph above demonstrates. The continuing news from Brussels, of course, is not comforting in an economy which has been extremely slow to pull out of the recession and which has posted double-digit unemployment numbers for several years. A number of outspoken critics of European integration assert that entry into the EU will exacerbate Croatia’s economic and financial woes. Yet most of my study participants seem resigned: for Croatia, they say, “nema alternativa (there is no alternative)” to a European future. To join the club may bring trouble—but the consequences would be far worse if we remain out in the cold.

As the January 22 referendum on EU membership approaches, the dialogue in Croatian society is sharpening. Many television channels continue to broadcast pro-EU commercials, and politicians continue to impress upon the public the imperative of a positive referendum. In more nuanced tones, the prominent NGO GONG is calling for Croatian society to view the referendum not as a “necessary evil,” as they claim the political elite has presented it, but rather a crucial opportunity for open and honest dialogue about society’s needs and interests. We will soon hear the public’s verdict on EU membership. Regardless of the result, my colleagues and friends here in Zagreb are sure of one thing: Croatia’s multi-faceted transition will continue well beyond any concrete date of entry into “the club.”


Richelle Bernazzoli is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a 2011- 2012 Fulbright fellow with the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Zagreb, Croatia. Her research investigates the links between security, identity, the state, and civil society in Croatia’s Euro-Atlantic integration process. She has previously held Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships for Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian from the European Union Center (EUC) and has worked as a graduate assistant for the EUC as well as for the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security.

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